Hori Ahipene grew up in the Waikato forestry town of Mangakino. The youngest of five, he soon developed a sense of humour: “in many ways humour was my way of diffusing situations”. As a teen, Ahipene scored a lead role at his older sister’s drama club, after the original actor broke his leg. "I knew that I’d just found my passion”.
Ahipene dodged plans to go to Hamilton Teachers’ College, after hearing about Toi Whakaari. He forged his mother's signature and began a "life-changing" course at the drama school on his 19th birthday.
After graduating, he got a small role in Gibson Group TV movie Undercover, alongside classmate Cliff Curtis (Ahipene's screen debut was two years earlier, in a safe sex video). The pair also worked at Taki Rua Depot, a cooperative theatre space, which today lives on as Māori theatre company Taki Rua.
Ahipene was working at Taki Rua when he was contacted by Gibson Group boss Dave Gibson. At the time he was appearing in Riwia Brown play Te Hokina, as a gang member "who was psychologically and physically abusing my partner Mouse, played by Carol Smith. Then we got asked to do an audition for this comedy."
Ahipene counts himself lucky that he and Smith found themselves auditioning with Danny Mulheron, who played an ingratiating priest named Phineas O'Diddle. “We had to do very little," says Ahipene. "Carol and I, we just really had to be ourselves… and react to his outrageousness”. The show was called Away Laughing; the sketches featuring Ahipene as the priest's hapless victim Hori would become a regular feature.
He also acted in later Gibson Group sketch shows Telly Laughs and Skitz. It was Danny Mulheron who suggested he direct, which Ahipene did on both shows. One of his best remembered screen roles emerged from Skitz.
The Semisis debuted as a sketch on Skitz, despite behind the scenes worries about whether the over the top Samoan family was a good idea. Ahipene calls the characters "heightened caricatures" which celebrated a "rich, wonderful culture". As he explains in this interview for 2019 series Funny As, he was originally set to play Lagi, one of the Semisi sons, but “it was not working”. A last minute switch saw him swap roles with Jackie Clarke, and don a dress to play domineering matriarch Mrs Semisi. When the Semisis won their own short-lived series, one of the four episodes was considered too daring to screen — Ahipene considers it the best episode, and also the most "politically savage". He was still getting recognised for Mrs Semisi in 2019.
He also featured in another pioneering Kiwi comedy show: bilingual sitcom Radio Wha Waho (1993). Set in a rural iwi radio station, it marked a rare venture into fiction by TVNZ's Māori Programmes Department. Ahipene played Hemana, a cocky DJ with playboy delusions. Lucky timing helped. Having just landed back at Auckland Airport, he was driving into the city when director Paora Maxwell spotted him from the side of the road, and rushed him into an audition.
On the big screen, Ahipene had small roles in The Piano, Te Rua and Easter Island epic Rapa Nui. But the movie role that has resonated most to date is Jubilee (2000). Ahipene plays Potu Williams, the brother of the main character (Cliff Curtis), who has taken on the responsibility of organising the town school’s 75th jubilee. Both the role, and the small town setting, reminded Ahipene of growing up in Mangakino. He took on the role just weeks after the death of his father; as he says in this video interview, "that one was for my Dad".
Ahipene appeared as a regular on Shortland Street from 1999 to 2000, playing Eddie Heka, the ex-husband of longtime paramedic Donna Heka (Stephanie Tauevihi). In 2005 he got to practice his acrobatic skills for Margaret Mahy fantasy Maddigan’s Quest, before joining Outrageous Fortune to play Angel, a transgender prostitute who had faked her own death for insurance purposes. His other roles include playing a villain on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and appearances on anthology show Mataku (as "a demon from the 12th dimension") and Find Me a Māori Bride.
Ahipene has continued to show his comedy chops. In 2006 he starred alongside Te Radar in Māori Television comedy series B&B. Over three seasons, the show blended fiction with reality as the pair hosted a chat show, while staying in character as a mixed race heterosexual couple. Te Radar commented on the show "I always wanted to marry a wahine Māori – I just never thought it would be Hori Ahipene."
In 2017 Ahipene joined new Māori Television comedy series The Ring Inz, showing his versatility by playing two roles — a male and a female. He played Teepz, the arrogant leader of a haphazard kapa haka group trying to make it to the national competition, and the kind-hearted Whaea Mavis, who is tasked with organising it. Reflecting on the progress of te reo programming since his career began, Ahipene had this to say: For a long time, I was the Māori in Pākehā productions. In Ring Inz, I'm a Māori in a Māori production that reflects a Māori world in the Māori language, that's accessible for all ... it's a joy to be part of."
Profile written by Simon Smith; published on 20 December 2019
'Hori Ahipene' Ecaster website. Accessed 20 December 2019
'Hori Ahipene - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 19 August 2019. Accessed 20 December 2019
Sarah Nealon. 'Why ex-Mercy Peak actress Katie Wolfe shunned TV acting roles for 15 years' - TV Guide, 14 March 2017
Elisabeth Easther. 'Kia ora: Mangakino'. NZ Herald website. Loaded 17 April 2015. Accessed 20 December 2019
'Bold New Comedy Launches On Māori Television' (Press release). Scoop website. Loaded 17 October 2017. Accessed 20 December 2019