Michael Hurst's resume as a screen actor ranges from pimps and politicians, to Cockney tattooists and the best friend of Hercules. On the small screen, he has popped up on Maddigan's Quest, Shortland Street, Hanlon, Country GP, Mataku and Shark in the Park, and starred in one-off TV drama Highwater.
Michael Hurst was raised in Lancashire, the eldest of four brothers. At the age of eight his parents emigrated to Christchurch. Hurst began acting and directing in school productions. As a teen he sought escape from his parents' troubled home life by going to the cinema, where he sometimes practiced stunt fights on the steps of the theatre foyer.
At 19, the talented student debater and fencer began training at Christchurch's Court Theatre. After two years he began a seven year stint at Theatre Corporate in Auckland, often in comic roles, where he won a reputation for the energy and physicality of his acting.
On the television front, Hurst can be found somewhere in the background of period sheepstealing drama The McKenzie Affair, and in 1976 appeared in Tinkling Brass, one of a series of plays for television. His first lead role on TV came in 1982: one-off drama Casualties of Peace saw him playing a Vietnam-era College student, battling his war veteran father. He followed it with a big role as a man involved with an older woman, in Bruce Mason tele-play Daphne and Chloe.
Hurst's big-screen debut has never been seen commercially. Prisoners was made in New Zealand in 1982, as a star vehicle for American actor Tatum O'Neal, then hidden in a vault. A small role in period piece Constance was also left on the cutting room floor.
In 1984 Hurst won the lead role of David Blyth's Death Warmed Up, New Zealand's first horror movie. The plot saw Hurst's character weathering institutionalisation, sundry wackos, and a motorcycle chase in the tunnels below Waiheke Island. The film won the grand prize at a fantasy film festival in Paris. The same year Hurst began playing bespectacled musician Dave Nelson over two TV series of Heroes, about a band searching for fame. His co-stars included Jay Laga'aia and Death Warmed Up's Margaret Umbers.
Crime thriller Dangerous Orphans (1986) marked the first screen project in which Hurst co-starred with real life partner Jennifer Ward-Lealand (they'd already acted together on stage). Hurst played one of three grown orphans caught up in a revenge mission against varied criminals; Ward-Lealand was romantic interest to one of the other orphans.
Hurst would act with Ward-Lealand again on his next three features: 1992's The Footstep Man, 1993's Desperate Remedies, and I'll Make You Happy in 1999. He also appeared on television in Margaret Mahy thriller Typhon's People, playing a European mystery man uncovering the truth behind corporate genetic meddling.
The Footstep Man saw Hurst in double roles, one minor, and the main one inside Footstep's film-within-a-film: as bearded French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, with Ward-Lealand as his prostitute muse. The director was highly-regarded cinematographer Leon Narbey.
Ward-Lealand was the undoubted star of the exuberant melodrama that was Desperate Remedies, with the camera and rest of the cast swirling around her. Hurst played William Poyser, the scheming politician who offers Ward-Lealand's character a marriage of convenience. The "intense" experience of acting in a film where "everything encouraged you to go to the limits" helped the actor fall in love with film again. Wrote The Listener of the results: "Michael Hurst finally gets a big screen role large enough for his ability." I'll Make You Happy saw him revelling in the part of a dodgy but smooth-talking pimp, who starts to obsess about one of his prostitutes.
Between Desperate and Happy, Hurst starred as an advertising man reassessing his options in TV play Highwater, just as a new phase of the actor's own career began. Looking to fill the sidekick role on an American TV movie based on the legendary Hercules, Kiwi casting legend Di Rowan thought immediately of Hurst. After persuading the producers that he could channel an American accent, Hurst found himself playing Hercules' companion Iolaus over six seasons of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, plus varied spin-offs — losing his life at least three times along the way.
He also gained a new life: as a screen director. Hurst had already directed I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, an offbeat short film involving country legend Hank Williams, which was selected for a special season of Kiwi shorts to play at Cannes; Hurst went on to helm ‘Mercenary', the first episode of Hercules' third season in 1996. Hurst would direct 12 episodes for both Hercules and companion show Xena: Warrior Princess; in the process he won NZ Film and Television Awards for both acting and directing.
Hurst made his feature debut as a director with Jubilee (2000), based on a book published by a writer who wished to remain anonymous. The film stars Cliff Curtis as a kind-hearted procrastinator who gets the chance to prove himself by organising a 75th jubilee. Herald critic Peter Calder enjoyed the film's genial self-confidence and "terrific performances", while Dominion writer Matthew Grainger praised it for "remaining fresh, funny and unpredictable" to the end, and for "the warmth and tenderness with which Hurst treats his characters".
Hurst followed Jubilee by directing Love Mussel, an acclaimed one off satire for television. Written by Braindead's Stephen Sinclair and featuring the late Kevin Smith, Love Mussel is a mockumentary about a fictional township which erects a monument to a shellfish with Viagra-like properties. Hurst enjoyed the fact that the script poured "the borax on everyone", including television itself.
Hurst went on to direct two movies from the Treasure Island Kids' franchise back to back, working with producers Dale and Grant Bradley. He has also produced and directed for the Auckland-shot Spartacus: Vengeance, and helmed episodes of Westside, 800 Words, The Almighty Johnsons and My Life is Murder.
He also continued to act, appearing in Maurice Gee adaptation Fracture, and taking cameos in horror movie The Tattooist (as Cockney friend of the anti-hero), based-on-a-true-tax-story We're Here to Help (as politician Rodney Hide), and The Map Reader (as a troubled father). He had a recurring villain role in Margaret Mahy fantasy series Maddigan's Quest. In 2022 he co-starred as former Auckland Mayor Len Brown in TV movie Princess of Chaos.
Hurst received a Laureate Award from the Arts Foundation in 2003. Two years later he was designated an Officer of the NZ Order of Merit, "for services to film and the theatre".
Michael Hurst website. Accessed 27 June 2023
Peter Calder, 'Jubilee' (Review) - The NZ Herald, 8 April 2000
Matthew Grainger, Review of Jubilee - The Dominion, 20 April 2000
Jo McCarroll, 'Money makes pictures go round' - The Sunday Star-Times, 15 July 2001, page F7
Bede Scott, 'The man of many faces (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times, 14 June 1998, page F5
Keith Sharp, 'Michael cuts his link with Hercules' (Interview) - TV Guide, 13 August 1999, page 118
Desperate Remedies Press Kit
The Footstep Man Press Kit