From Close to Home to The Gulf by way of Shark in the Park, Marlin Bay, Mercy Peak and Shortland Street, Jeffrey Thomas has appeared in many of New Zealand’s leading television dramas. But at times he has been a reluctant actor, trying to find a balance between acting roles and his writing for stage and screen.
Thomas was born in the Welsh mining town of Llanelli in 1945; he spoke Welsh until he started school. He credits his grandmother with giving him an interest in drama. She took him to amateur productions and to the movies (paid for with sixpences his grandfather earned for cutting hair at the local steelworks). His first attempt at writing a play was at age 11, but it was a long time before he wrote another.
After leaving school at 17, he trained as a quantity surveyor but quit after four years. He vowed never to work in an office again. Instead, Thomas did his A levels through a community college, then attended Liverpool University where he completed a Bachelor of Arts in Celtic Studies and English Literature. During this time he became interested in drama (particularly Tom Stoppard). The university's drama society turned him down, but he started writing for and acting in university revues. He continued writing and acting at Oxford, where he graduated with a Master of Literature.
Thomas had married a New Zealander he met at Oxford — and in the early 1970s the couple relocated to Melbourne, where he lectured at Latrobe University. He also started acting again to assist his writing (which he worried was too academic). In 1976 they moved again — to Victoria University in Wellington, where he taught romantic and Victorian poetry for a year, before leaving in 1977 to concentrate on acting and writing. The combination meant that he "somehow managed to make a living".
After acting in productions at Unity, Circa and Downstage, he came to the attention of the producers of pioneering TV soap Close to Home. For the next 18 months, he played the genial cockney barman Gerry. Although the show provided "valuable experience" of screen acting, by late 1979, the life of a full-time TV actor had begun to pall. He had no interest in being a public figure and confessed to running away the first time he was recognised in a shop. He was also missing the intellectual satisfaction he got from writing, telling The Auckland Star, “I am not being critical of others in the cast — I really admire people who can stay with it — but it wasn’t enough for me”.
Meanwhile, after a shaky start, his writing for the theatre was becoming more successful. His first play had been “a disaster”. Grant Tilly directed his second to workshop level, before telling him it was unworkable. But his next work Playing the Game — set in a rugby club pre-Foreskin’s Lament — premiered at Circa. It toured through Wales, was staged in London’s West End, and was adapted for BBC Radio.
Thomas’ other early TV roles included appearances in two Loose Enz one-off dramas: Michael Noonan’s Eros and Psyche, and WW2 drama Coming and Going. He also playing a vengeful sheep station manager in High Country. In 1980 he combined writing and acting in Stroke, a TV drama about a rower making one last attempt to compete at the Olympics. As well as writing the screenplay, Thomas took the lead role and drew on his rowing experiences at Oxford. Stroke was timed to coincide with the Moscow Olympics. But the United States-led boycott, and withdrawal of New Zealand’s official team, caused some last minute rewriting and reshooting.
In 1981, Thomas was co-winner of the Welsh Academy’s Play for Wales contest. His entry Men of Steel involved a young man returning to his hometown from New Zealand, to find despair with the closing of the steelworks. Life didn’t imitate art for Thomas. Throughout the 80s he had a profitable relationship with his homeland, after being cast as a policeman turned private eye in Bowen A'i Bartner — a Welsh language series for BBC Wales, which ran for three years. Dividing his time between New Zealand and Wales, he also appeared in several Welsh TV dramas, and wrote episodes of Mwy Na Phapur Newydd (More than a Newspaper), comedy series Dan Rhufain (Under Rome), and Kiwi show Seekers.
Thomas continued to act on New Zealand screens during this time and his credits included Inside Straight, Pioneer Women, Hanlon, Erebus: the Aftermath and Gloss (which he also wrote for). In 1989 he was cast in the title role of police drama Shark in the Park, which ran for three years. In this video interview, he talks about his surprise at being asked to play the leader: newly arrived inspector Brian “Sharkey” Finn”— and being mistaken for a real cop, while filming in Wellington.
International audiences saw Thomas in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, where he enjoyed the chance to swing a sword as Greek hero Jason. In 1994 he was nominated for his work in miniseries The Sound and the Silence, which was shot in Canada and New Zealand. Thomas played father in law to Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. In the same period his classy narration helped persuade many viewers that Forgotten Silver might be true.
Always on the lookout for new outlets for his talents, Thomas wrote two children’s books in the late 1980s. In 1994 he wrote and directed his first short film Making Money. William Kircher starred as an unemployed man who discovers a way of creating cash. The comedy was invited to a number of international festivals.
In 2001 Thomas began an ongoing role in successful series Mercy Peak, as small-town doctor William Kingsley. “He’s a very unambiguous character," Thomas told The Dominion Post. "He really seems to care about people and I like that because I think I’m far too uncaring, too selfish”, The show won him Best Actor at the 2003 NZ Film and TV Awards.
His acting career came full circle in 2004 with another soap opera role. Initially he joined Shortland Street for just a few weeks, "to play a disease". Ultimately his role as multiple sclerosis sufferer Ian Jeffries stretched on and off over two years. Thomas also guested on other high profile shows. He was the lecherous Vern Gardiner on Outrageous Fortune, and Titus Batiatus, one of the more honourable characters on Spartacus: Gods of the Arena.
Thomas went on to play a key role in TV murder mystery The Gulf — as the ex boss of Kate Elliott's detective — and starred in three short films. In comedy Space Trash Men he's an astronaut; in the award-winning Cold Fish he plays an old man planning to drown himself; in Walk a Mile he is a neighbour who may not be as heartless as he seems.
On the feature film front, Thomas co-starred as one of the paranormal investigators in Jason Stutter horror movie The Dead Room (2015). He cameoed as dwarf king Thrór in the first two Hobbit movies, appeared in the adaptation of bestselling novel The Light Between Oceans, and tested out his American accent in yachting adventure Adrift.
Profile written by Michael Higgins; updated on 9 December 2019
'Jeffrey Thomas: Close to Home, Shortland St and everything inbetween...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 24 April 2012. Accessed 9 December 2019
'Jeffrey Thomas' Johnson & Laird website. Accessed 9 December 2019
‘Shark’s Finn a Welsh Writer’ (Interview) - The Dominion, 20 July 1990, page 20
Jane Bowron, ‘Doctors’ Script for Healthy Drama’ (interview) - The Dominion Post (TV Week pullout), 11 February 2003, page 3
Diana Dekker, 'In the spotlight' (Interview) - The Dominion Post, 3 May 2014
Karl du Fresne, ‘One Man Went to Row’ - The Listener, 19 July 1980, page 18
Marion McLeod, 'Acting Too' (Interview) - The Listener, 6 May 1989
Barry Shaw, ‘Real Talent Created Jerry’ (Interview) - The Auckland Star, 3 December 1979, page 14
Robert Weisbrot, Hercules The Legendary Journeys - The Official Companion (New York: Doubleday, 1998)