Actor Marshall Napier became a familiar face in 1980s New Zealand, usually playing men on different sides of the law who knew how to intimidate when needed. He'd always been drawn to character parts.
“When I was about 15, a black and white film called Hatter's Castle screened on TV," said Napier. "It ends with Robert Newton ranting insanely inside a burning house. My mother pointed at him and said: 'He was a very famous character actor.' I'd never heard that expression before, and I remember thinking: 'That's the kind of actor I'd like to be.'’
Napier was born in 1951 in the Hutt Valley. He grew up "in the suburbs among men with a deep reserve about anything emotional". His businessman dad wasn't that interested in films, but his mother was. But she didn’t see how a living could be made from it. Napier endured school, saving his love for films, comics and drawing.
After high school Napier paid the rent in a range of manual jobs — like truck driving and labouring — while getting rejected from professional theatre auditions because he was "untrained". Instead he turned to community theatre. In his early twenties he did a year at Wellington Polytechnic, studying graphic design (a talented cartoonist, he would be published in The Listener under the name James Edward Cream). At 23 he won his first professional role at Downstage Theatre.
His first screen gig was in the mid 1970s: an episode of odd couple comedy Joe and Koro. A number of small roles followed. In 1977 he was hired to play Prime Minister Richard Seddon in the last episode of colonial epic The Governor. In 1979 he popped up as Larry Lucas, the bodgie boyfriend of Lower Hutt wide boy Neville Purvis’s cousin, in Arthur Baysting’s soon to be notorious Neville Purvis Family Show. He would revisit this theme in 1981, playing a "milk bar cowboy" with Brian Sergent in Rock Around the Clock, a love letter to the music of the 1950s.
Napier won the first of many cop roles in 1980, playing a dodgy constable in John Laing’s slow-burning crime drama Beyond Reasonable Doubt. It was New Zealand’s biggest box office hit until Goodbye Pork Pie stole the crown a year later (Napier tells hair-raising stories of driving the police car in this interview). In the early 80s his face became a staple on-screen. He drove the truck in dystopian action flick Battletruck), played one of the neighbours of killer Stan Graham in Bad Blood, a security guard in Carry Me Back, a deer hunter in ill-fated Tongariro Western Wild Horses, and 'Anzac' in the first episode of urban TV drama Inside Straight (1984).
Napier looked older than he was, and his physicality opened up doors for him. "I was pretty young and inexperienced in those early films; it was very much a case of learning on the job...the film industry was just kicking off and seemed wide open to newcomers with a bit of energy and raw talent."
Came a Hot Friday (1984) won fans across the board, and became a homegrown hit. Napier played small-town criminal and hard man Sel Bishop. His scene with 'The Tainuia Kid' (a star turn by Billy T James) where Bishop finds himself staring down the barrel of his own gun is one of the most memorable of Napier’s Kiwi career.
In 1986 Napier voiced the dim Hunk Murphy in animated hit Footrot Flats. The same year he appeared in Pallet on the Floor, a second Ronald Hugh Morrieson film adaptation; it failed to reach the giddy heights of Came a Hot Friday. Better received by critics, Starlight Hotel (1987) provided another cop role. In 1989 Napier was nominated for Listener Awards for the film, and for Vincent Ward’s The Navigator (1988).
The Navigator provided a distinct departure from cops and crims. Napier played Searle, a medieval man from Cumbria who is on a mission to save his village. As Napier says in this interview, the film was "chaotic" to make, but the results were "extraordinary". Napier found himself acting in the snows of the Southern Alps, and sharing a boat with a horse. The idiosyncratic fantasy was lauded by critics and nominated for the Palme d’Or, the top award at the Cannes Film Festival.
Hot Friday director Ian Mune invited Napier back to play a gnarly detective in English/Kiwi TV movie The Grasscutter (1988). The long list of 'hard man' characters has never bothered him. "I think a degree of typecasting is not a bad thing for a working actor. It can guarantee a certain amount of bread-and-butter work while you're waiting for other roles...also, I had another life in the theatre where I was playing very different characters." This other life included writing and performing in Wellington fringe theatre group the Stiff Bix Kabaret.
"Within a couple of years I got cast in a TV series called Police Rescue. I've never been strategically clever, but it gave me a profile and led to a lot of the work." That work including ongoing roles roles in high rating, multi-season hits like City Homicide (as angry homicide boss Wilton Sparkes) and his longest gig: 81 episodes of McLeod’s Daughters (as farmer Harry Ryan). In the late 90s Napier appeared in five episodes of another long-running police hit, Water Rats (featuring fellow Kiwi Jay Laga’aia).
Napier's pick of highlights from his Australian film career included AFI award-winner The Big Steal (playing father to Ben Mendelsohn’s character), and 1993’s Shotgun Wedding, based on Australia's infamous Glenfield Siege from 1968. Napier played another detective. In 1995 he snagged a choice character role as the Chairman of Judges in global family hit Babe, an early example of the CGI ‘talking animal’ trend.
Around the same time, Napier crossed the Tasman for a rare starring role: as Jim Sadler, a jaded swimming coach in Steve La Hood's Swimming Lessons. Sadler starts teaching a troubled Samoan boy who may have the makings of a champion. The previous decade Napier had starred as an ex soldier working on a farm, in little seen Grahame McLean feature The Lie of the Land (1987).
Napier wrote many scripts over the years. In 2006 he first acted in his thriller Freak Winds, which was performed on stages in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and New York. In 2017 Napier made it to Broadway in Anton Chekov's The Present, performing alongside Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in the Sydney Theatre Company production.
Bellbird (2019) marked Napier's Kiwi comeback (although he had small roles in his nephew James Napier Robertson's 2009 thriller I'm Not Harry Jenson, and 2007 fantasy The Water Horse). Napier was front and centre as Ross, a dairy farmer struggling to communicate his pain, after the death of his wife (Annie Whittle).
"Bellbird came right out of the blue, the first real Kiwi film I'd done in decades. The fact that it was a lead role was a bonus. The shoot itself intrigued me — spread out over a year, so we could catch the different seasons. I credit Hamish Bennett with opening a new chapter in my life. New Zealand films are back on the agenda."
Sadly Napier only got to make one more New Zealand feature: dystopian drama Northspur. He died on 14 August 2022, two weeks before the film was due to hit Kiwi cinemas. Napier was 70.
Profile written by Gabe McDonnell; updated on 15 August 2022
'Marshall Napier: A Trans-Tasman success' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Loaded October 2012. Accessed 25 March 2020
'Marshall Napier' Showcast website. Accessed 25 March 2020
Claire McCall, 'Wellington actor Marshall Napier digs deep to play diary farmer in new film Bellbird' (Interview) This NZ Life website. Loaded July 2019. Accessed 25 March 2020
Unknown writer, 'Global sales tipped for Kiwi comedy-drama 'Bellbird'' Stuff website. Loaded 22 June 2019. Accessed 25 March 2020
Unknown writer, 'Actor Marshall Napier, famous for roles in Came a Hot Friday and McLeod's Daughters, has died' Stuff website. Loaded 15 August 2022. Accessed 15 August 2022