Grant Tilly's acting career spanned performances in a run of acclaimed New Zealand plays, including Foreskin's Lament, The Daylight Atheist, and Joyful and Triumphant. His screen career also hardly lacked for variety: he played cow-cockies (Carry Me Back), missionaries (The Governor), husbands (Bert and Maisy), villainous German officers (Savage Islands) and legendary Kiwi artists (Erua). But often he played the imperfect but well-meaning Kiwi man.
Tilly was born in Sydney, though he was only there a month before his holidaying New Zealand parents returned to Wellington. Later he trained as a teacher in Wellington and Dunedin, then began working at the local education board, at a special unit based around training and teaching art and craft.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Tilly won a Government bursary to study Child Drama in England. On his return he began tutoring at an acting school run by Nola Millar, who later founded the New Zealand Drama School. Tilly would continue his association with various incarnations of the drama school until 1988, balancing work as an acting tutor with performances for stage, screen and radio.
Tilly first appeared on screen in one-off television plays, including well-reviewed comedy The Tired Man (1967), and the Feltex award-winning Green Gin Sunset (1969). In Sunset he starred as a newly wedded merchant seaman choosing between settling down, or heading back to sea.
He also worked with writer/actor Joe Musaphia on live children's show Joe's World, which saw him and Joe Musaphia in front of the cameras, mixing comic ad-libbing with educational content. In 1969, Tilly joined the cast of early sketch and music show In View of the Circumstances, written by Musaphia and Roger Hall. Tilly later recalled that the creative team were instructed to avoid mentions of "the Queen, religion, or the RSA". He would also work with Hall (and John Clarke) onstage, in the ill-fated Brian Edwards Travelling Road Show.
In the 1970s, Tilly's screen work began to sound a more serious tune, though his natural bent for understated comedy would resurface as the decade came to a close. Alongside work on a run of short films, he had a small role as a doctor in Paul Maunder's social realist drama Gone Up North for a While, and played unionists in both pioneering forestry town drama series Pukemanu and The Longest Winter.
The Longest Winter (1975), directed by Tony Isaac, dramatised the impact of the Great Depression over three episodes. Tilly appeared in scenes based on the Queen Street riot of 1932, as real-life unionist Jim Edwards.
Tilly suspected it was his work in The Longest Winter that won him a key role in historical epic The Governor. He donned a cassock to play reverend Henry Williams, as he tries to mediate between Governor George Grey and Hone Heke.
Tilly's name was often associated with the work of playwright Roger Hall; he appeared in many of Hall's plays. When Hall wrote his breakthrough hit Glide Time — a tale of public servants doing very little — Hall had Tilly in mind for the role of storeman Jim. But Tilly was busy on another play; he found time to design the Glide Time set, and the same year (1978) he got to play the part in a one-hour TV adaptation. By the time Gliding On began its long television run in 1981, actor Michael Haigh had made the role his own. Instead Tilly popped up from time to time playing Wally, "one of those awful little self-important bureaucrats".
Onstage, Tilly had co-starred in Hall's second adult play Middle Age Spread, the tale of a headmaster having an affair and a midlife crisis. In 1979 Tilly got to star in the big screen adaptation. The result won rave reviews; American showbusiness magazine Variety praised Tilly's performance, comparing him to "an antipodean Woody Allen".
Tilly also co-starred in the Hall-penned Bed Time, a sitcom about a woman who starts earning more than her husband. But the Bed Time pilot was never broadcast. Under the title Conjugal Rights, it later became a successful stage show and comedy on English Television, without Tilly.
Many of Tilly's Roger Hall performances occurred at Wellington's Circa Theatre, with which he had a close association. He was one of the group of actors who co-founded the company in 1976, on a wing and a prayer. Tilly designed the theatre space, inside an old building in Harris St, and did the same after a relocation to a spot near museum Te Papa. At Circa he appeared in everything from Middle Age Spread to Hall's one man tale C'mon Black.
By the late 70s, Tilly was popping up on screen all over the place. Aside from forgotten 1978 sketch show The Les Deverett Variety Hour, he appeared on the big screen as a repressed accountant in small town satire Skin Deep, a crown prosecutor in Beyond Reasonable Doubt, and a yankee assassin in Dangerous Orphans.
Three years after Middle Age Spread, he got his second starring role on the big-screen: yokels comedy Carry Me Back. Tilly and Kelly Johnson (Goodbye Pork Pie) played farmers who head into the city for a rugby game, then have to secretly transport their father back to the farm after he suddenly expires (Tilly's Middle Age Spread colleague Dorothy McKegg also shone, as the nasty Aunt on a mission to stop them). Tilly made the most of a classic scene where his character finally unloads his side of the story, to the dead father sitting next to him in the car.
Australian critic David Stratton praised the well-developed characters and Tilly's versatility, arguing that he was hardly recognizable from Middle Age Spread. The same year Tilly also played forgotten co-star to newsreader Angela D'Audney, in racey TV play The Venus Touch. In 1986 he joined the powerhouse cast of fantasy series Cuckoo Land, an early television show written by author Margaret Mahy. Tilly played a conservationist who lives in a tree; the show's fantastical settings meant he did most of his acting in front of a blue screen.
Two years later he starred in serio-comic television series Bert and Maisy, based on the play by Robert Lord. Tilly played Bert, with Alice Fraser as his on-screen wife. It was one of Tilly's less enjoyable experiences, as he felt pressures from on high to shave off eccentricities that made the characters interesting.
In 1989 Tilly won a Listener TV award for his portrayal of artist Toss Woollaston in Rawiri Paratene-penned tele-play Erua. He argued that it was "an awesome responsibility" to play someone who was still alive.
Tilly's work as an off-screen narrator dated back until at least 1971, and includes early current affairs show Survey, reality show Emergency Heroes and movie romance Flight of the Albatross.
Tilly continued to act occasionally on-screen — he co-starred in 2009 short Roof Rattling, and played disgraced hospital head Dennis Bonham in TV movie Clare, based on the cervical cancer experiments at National Women's Hospital. By now though, he was increasingly devoting time to other artistic pursuits. Tilly had begun illustrating scenes of Wellington for a local newspaper in the 70s; when his eye sight began to fail, he developed distinctive three-dimensional artworks, usually in wood, and pop-up-style portraits of buildings, plus prints of native birds and wildlife.
Grant Tilly passed away on 10 April 2012. He was 74. In a Stuff article published after his death, his second wife Ruth Jeffery said that Tilly was still thinking deeply and talking about art and creativity till the end. "Even in his last few weeks those are the extraordinary conversations he was having with me."
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Published on 21 April 2009. Updated on 20 December 2018
'Grant Tilly - a career on screen and stage' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor (Uploaded 29 March 2010) Accessed 20 December 2018
Grant Tilly, 'Tilly, Grant' (broken link). South Coast Gallery website. Accessed 11 April 2012
Robert Boyd-Bell, New Zealand Television - The First 25 Years (Auckland: Reed Methuen Publishers, 1985)
Hannah McKee, 'Wellington's Circa Theatre celebrates the "Big Four-O"' Stuff website. Loaded 20 May 2016. Accessed 20 December 2018
Mike Nicolaidi, 'Middle Age Spread' (Review) - Variety, 31 December 1978
'Kiwi acting icon Grant Tilly dies.' Stuff website. Loaded 11 April 2012. Accessed 11 April 2012
'Carry Me Back'. The Film Archive website. Accessed 11 April 2012
'Middle Age Spread'. The Film Archive website. Accessed 29 March 2010