Frank Whitten, who passed away in February 2011, played the clever, fitfully senile ex safecracker on Outrageous Fortune. But his acting career began far earlier, and included key roles in 80s TV series Open House and landmark feature film Vigil. Whitten's distinctive voice featured in many commercials; he narrated Rose Noelle documentary Back from the Dead, and voiced the koala in forgotten Australian film Napoleon. For 12 years, Whitten appeared on the Speights ‘Southern Man' advertisements, and wryly delivered the iconic "good onya mate" line.
Growing up in the Waikato in the 50s, Whitten considered becoming a jockey or an artist, and spent time as a primary school teacher. But the elaborate stories told by his grandfather kick-started an interest in acting. Aged 21 — "with very little experience and even less money"— he left for England to become an actor.
Whitten studied at London's Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda). He became a tutor there, and later vice-principal, teaching improvisational drama to many future British theatre actors. After failing in his efforts to include students on Lamda's governing body, Whitten left and co-founded Common Stock, a theatre company dedicated to community theatre. The Guardian has argued that Whitten became "a prominent force in the radical theatre movement of the 1970s". His work during this period is chronicled in 1976 documentary Love is Like a Violin.
In 1982 Whitten returned to New Zealand and began acting in local theatre. There was much to adjust to: "my experience as a New Zealander stopped when I was 21 and started again when I was 40". But he found the standard of Kiwi theatre "at its best, as good as anywhere in the world".
Attracted to plays that contained an "element of danger", Whitten starred as Salieri in Amadeus, played Irish in Greg McGee's Foreskins's Lament and was "the oldest Puck in the history of theatre"(aged 59). He also wrote mystery play Trifecta, whose cast included Elizabeth McRae as an actress, Peter McCauley as a paraplegic ex-jockey, and Phillip Gordon as a sleazy hit man. The Listener called the result "one of our most mature, multi-layered plays: clever, funny, provocative and riveting".
In 1984 Whitten made his on-screen debut in Trespasses, the movie spin-off of popular police show Mortimer's Patch. Whitten played the dodgy leader of a commune, facing off against the fundamentalist father (Prisoner legend Patrick McGoohan) of one of his victims.
The same year, Whitten gained two stone to play Ethan Ruir, who is hired to work on an isolated farm in Vigil, the first feature from Vincent Ward. Reviews of Vigil tended to the rhapsodic, with mention of words like stunning (The Boston Herald), extraordinary (The Los Angeles Times) and astonishing (The Guardian). Critics tended to concentrate on the film's central child protagonist Toss (played by Fiona Kay); but Whitten also impressed in a near-wordless role, making a memorable, fog-shrouded appearance as the farm worker who is perceived by Toss as a threatening imposter.
The mid-80s proved an especially busy period for Whitten. He joined actors Michael Hurst and Jay Laga-aia on teen series Heroes, playing roadie to a group of young musicians, and followed it by playing the uncaring, uncommunicative husband in period drama Heart of the High Country, which was watched by millions when it screened in England.
June 1986 saw the premiere of ensemble drama Open House, in a prime time 7.30pm slot. Whitten had one of the central roles; as Tony Van Der Berg, co-ordinator of a community house (Whitten's stepdaughter was played by Emily Perkins, later to become much better known as an author). Open House set out to explore bicultural issues in an urban setting, and was pioneering in putting a Māori family among its central characters.
Whitten went on to act extensively in both New Zealand and Australia, "playing a lot of troubled priests, and a lot of rapists". The New Zealand work included acclaimed short film Accidents, alongside Marton Csokas and Rawiri Paratene; plus small movie roles in the romance Arriving Tuesday, thriller Zilch, ghost story The Returning, and two forgotten international thrillers shot down under: Chill Factor and Restless (also known as Hot Target).
Whitten won possibly his biggest following as Ted West, irascible grandfather to the West family on hit show Outrageous Fortune. The character's portrait of old age involved strong emotions, four letter words, and a continuing interest in robbery and romance (in the shape of partner in crime Elizabeth Hawthorne). In 2007, the part won Whitten the best supporting actor award at the Air New Zealand Screen Awards. After taking the award, he told the assembled audience "this is for the geriatrics", before bringing down the house with an off-colour joke. Later Whitten argued that Outrageous Fortune had been successful because it "reflects a kind of fantasy, blue-collar New Zealand."
Whitten's other TV roles included Erebus: The Aftermath, Gloss, City Life, The Shadow Trader, cult-themed mini-series The Chosen, and appearances in episodes of Kiwi-filmed co-productions Mysterious Island and Ray Bradbury Theatre.
His resume of Australian productions was also extensive: including hospital series All Saints, the live action remake of Peter Pan (2003) and award-winner The Leaving of Liverpool, which follows two English children transplanted to Australia after WWII.
One of Whitten's final roles was off screen; he supplied the voices of iconic cartoon characters Ches and Dale for this episode of animated show Staines Down Drains.
Frank Whitten passed away on 12 February 2011, after a battle with cancer. He was 68. Speaking on behalf of the Outrageous Fortune cast, actor Robyn Malcolm commented that the show's cast had known him as "a wicked, irreverent man of lethal wit, a heart of gold and one of the best actors we'll ever work with". Julie Hudspeth, a friend from his days in England, talked about all the young students whose lives he had affected. "They respected him. He took them seriously. They almost treated him as if he was one of them – bold, outrageous and anarchic."
Bill Lennox, 'Wit and Tension' (Review of Trifecta), Listener, 6 November 1989, page 118
Leslie Megahey, 'Frank Whitten obituary' - The Guardian, 28 March 2011, page 35
Matt Nippert, 'Perfectly Frank' (Interview) - The Listener, 27 October 2007 (Volume 211, No 3520) (broken link)
Barry Southam, 'Write for your time' (Interview) - The Listener, 6 November 1989, page 118
Amelia Wade, 'Outrageous Fortune star Frank Whitten dies' - The NZ Herald, 13 February 2011