Michael Haigh grew up in Wellington. His parents separated when he was 10 and he didn’t really know his actor father, describing him to The Listener in 1983 as "a wonderful, entertaining, vastly amusing alcoholic, who later became a very respectable boring Mormon with all these millions of kids I didn’t know."
Instead, he was brought up by his mother, Dorothy Haigh, a radio broadcaster who had once been put off air by Prime Minister Peter Fraser for being too critical of government housing policy. At Rongotai College he was introduced to the world of theatre. "It was a case of let’s put the naughty boy in a play, it might do him some good ... yeah, I liked it, I wasn’t stage struck but I enjoyed it."
On leaving school Haigh was faced with two alternatives: journalism or teaching. He chose the latter, reasoning that it was a place where “you could still fool around and be as slack as hell — to me it was just an extension of school”. Training College in the 1950s allowed Haigh to explore the world of theatre, and he was active in Wellington with The Thespians and The Unity Theatre.
He taught for 15 years — seven of them spent in the far north, running a two person school with his first wife and raising two sons. By the late 60s he was tired of teaching and, with a "wonderful sense of release", he resigned. He returned to Wellington and set about becoming a professional actor — appearing at Downstage and working for the NZ Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio Drama Department.
Television drama was still in its infancy, but Haigh’s small screen acting debut followed in 1972 as a rather prim and unsympathetic personnel officer in Gone up North for a While, the NFU’s drama about an unmarried mother.
In 1976 he was one of the founders of Circa Theatre in Wellington — formed in reaction to a perceived staidness and bureaucracy at Downstage. The meeting that set up Circa as one of the country’s first theatre co-operatives was held at Haigh’s house, and he was an active member of its council for the rest of his life.
More television drama followed with appearances in Landfall: A Film About Ourselves (where he played the first of many roles as a policeman), Moynihan, Close to Home (as ex-husband of Ginette McDonald’s Shirley Paget), Country GP (storekeeper Bert Pratley) and short-lived comedy series The Les Deverett Variety Hour.
Haigh established a niche for himself playing authority figures — more often than not policeman — but maintained he had little in common with them. "I haven’t got that wonderful conviction and belief. I mean I’m a trendy bleeding heart liberal not one of those get the bastards, hang ‘em, flog ‘em, cut their balls off, not one of those at all", he said.
Another of these men — Jim in Roger Hall’s television series Gliding On — assured him a place in New Zealand’s comedy history and won him a Feltex Award; but Michael Haigh’s Jim very nearly didn’t come to pass. "When I first read the script, I thought Jim was the most unsympathetic bloody-minded character I’d ever met, and I didn’t want a bar of it".
He made Jim his own — with his unrepentant smoking, dubious timekeeping, gruff manner and, just occasionally, something resembling a heart of gold — but ultimately the actor was under few illusions about the role. "Jim is broken and bitter, his marriage isn’t much chop, nor his kids, and he has that wry New Zealand way of not saying much — Oh, I’ve met dozens like him", he told The Listener.
Jim was Haigh’s last major television role, but live theatre remained his first love and he had memorable roles that included the transvestite in The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin ("this big gentle, fat, middle aged poofter") and a four-year-old girl in Cloud Nine.
There were also occasional film roles — including appearances in Among the Cinders, Mr Wrong, Send a Gorilla and Absent Without Leave. Haig preferred working in film to television. "It’s controllable, just you and the director and the cameraman, and you can talk about the scene and do it 16 times. Television is tougher — it tends to get it technically right and stuff the performance. It’s ‘Sure you’re fine, darling, you’re fine’, and the floor manager’s talking through cans to someone miles away."
Off-screen, he was a man of many parts: a collector of clocks, widely read, a keen photographer, a musician (playing the flute) and an amateur astronomer. For fellow Gliding On cast member Ross Jolly, he was "an amazingly sensitive, liberal person, very warm, very generous, with a great sense of humour. And sort of a magpie of knowledge, a self-taught savant on various things from astronomy to hi-fi".
Michael Haigh died suddenly in Wellington on 31 October 1993. A moving tribute to him at Old St Paul's ended with a standing ovation.
Profile written by Michael Higgins; updated on 5 May 2020
‘Michael Haigh’ (Obituary) - Onfilm, December 1993, page 12
Susan Budd, ‘Michael Haigh, a great loss to drama in NZ’ (Obituary) - The Dominion, 2 November 1993, page 3
Virginia Myers, ‘A Character of an Actor’ (Interview) - The Listener, 3 September 1983 page 39