A youth theatre veteran and NZ Drama School graduate, Mark Wright became a fixture on NZ television screens on skit shows and commercials in the 90s.
Wright grew up in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers. The youngest of three brothers, he regarded himself as “a shy child, but always a performer”. At age eight he made his stage debut in the school nativity play, and started Saturday morning acting classes at Remuera's Central Theatre (later Auckland Youth Theatre).
At Sacred Heart and Selwyn Colleges he was actively involved in stage productions. As he later told The Listener, “I got a bit of flak from other kids at school who were more into sport". Wright applied to NZ Drama School at age 17, but was told he was too young. He did further theatre acting and two years teaching drama before having another try, and winning a place from a field of 400 applicants.
Following graduation, he worked regularly on Wellington stages at Circa, Downstage and The Depot, and began a long-running association with Theatresports (including representing NZ internationally). His role as Les in the 1986 NZ premiere of Bouncers, at Centrepoint in Palmerston North, continued for a national tour. He turned down a second tour after being cast as bodgie Mick Ryan in TVNZ’s stylised retro 60s drama Peppermint Twist. A guest appearance as an inebriated yuppie followed on Wellington cop show Shark in the Park.
In 1987 Wright made his first foray into television sketch comedy, when he voiced a number of the puppet stars of sketch show Public Eye. Two years later he began appearing regularly on screen, after joining the core cast of LaughINZ with Alison Wall, Rima Te Wiata and Mark Hadlow. The production had been brought forward to fill a gap in schedules, when illness forced Billy T James to delay his family-based sitcom. Wright’s LaughINZ contributions included Dustin the arts show presenter and Elliot the Yuppie.
When The Billy T. James Show finally went into production, Wright had a recurring role as Nigel Whitchurch, boyfriend of Billy T’s daughter and painfully liberal president of Pākehās Awash with Guilt.
His biggest break came later in 1990 courtesy of a hastily created TV3 vehicle for David McPhail and Jon Gadsby, whose association with the new channel had made them persona non grata at TVNZ. Wright was at Heathrow, en route to the Edinburgh Festival, when he was invited to join the cast of McPhail and Gadsby: 1990 the Issues. The election year sketch comedy series also featured Willy de Witt, Rima Te Wiata, Alison Wall and Rawiri Paratene.
The Issues series marked the beginning of a dilemma which bedevilled Wright's subsequent acting career. He regarded himself as a serious actor and not a mimic, but was increasingly appearing in comedy sketches imitating other people. In 1994, he told Metro "I get typecast as a comedian or a funnyman but I don’t call myself that. I call myself an actor who just happens to be doing comedy”. As he told The Listener, “It’s a vicious circle. You can’t turn down work, because you’ve got to pay the bills, and that work tends only to be comedy, which just fuels the image, the typecasting problem”.
By the time the various incarnations of Issues had clocked up 100 episodes in 1993, Wright was the only cast member to have appeared in all of them. His impersonations of famous faces including Bill Ralston, Richard Long (forever tut-tutting Rima Te Wiata’s Judy Bailey) and Ruth Richardson had made him a celebrity in his own right. His work on Issues won him Best Performer in an Entertainment Programme at the 1994 TV Guide Television Awards.
Big screen comedy Cops and Robbers finally emerged the same year, which may not have been a good idea. Mark Wright co-starred as an idiotic would-be murderer. Other movie roles range from a cameo as a sports commentator (again opposite Te Wiata) in teen drama Alex, to providing voices for a depressed elephant and a guppy on cult Peter Jackson feature Meet the Feebles.
The mid-90s brought more comedy work. Wright formed an association with Oddfellows, appearing in a series of TV commercials for the peppermint candy as Tim Shadbolt, Rachel Hunter, Sean Fitzpatrick, Tim Finn, Mike Moore, Ruth Richardson and Annie Crummer.
Issues had run its course by 1994, but local TV still had an appetite for sketch comedy. Wright played a key part in a run of shows which included That Comedy Show (1994-95), Sportsnight (1995), Comedy Central (1995-96) and Newsflash (1998). He shared his second TV Guide Best Actor Award with Willy De Wit in 1996 for a Sportsnight Christmas special.
In a more serious vein, Wright drew on his own experiences as a collector of 1960s TV memorabilia to present Obsessions (1995) an Inside New Zealand documentary about people with all-consuming hobbies. He narrated 2015 Anzac Day documentary Sons of Gallipoli and has appeared on children's drama The Amazing Extraordinary Friends (three seasons playing father to the teen hero) and What Now? (in offbeat, part-doll insert 'Serial Stuff').
Other appearances away from sketch comedy included starring as the hapless “beach gear Bill” in Michael Hurst’s debut short film I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1994). He and Rachel House were latter day rural Robin Hoods in Queenie and Pete (1997) for TV1’s Kiwi Comedy Playhouse; he portrays a Serbian crime boss in an episode of remake Terry Teo.
As the television landscape changed and ensemble comedy shows largely disappeared from the small screen, Wright began working increasingly as a professional speaker, MC and coach for live presenters. He has also continued his work as an ambassador for Variety; in 2007 the children’s charity honoured him for 10 years of service.
Over a long stage career, he has appeared in Fane Flaws' The Underwater Melon Man, and done national tours of The Rocky Horror Show and generation-spanning Roger Hall drama A Way of Life (the latter for the NZ Actors Company). In 2015 he won rave reviews for Silo Theatre’s not quite naked staging of Australian play Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography.
Profile written and researched by Michael Higgins