Peter McCauley’s love of show business began in the guest bar of Wellington’s Alhambra Hotel on Cuba Street, which was run by his parents. Young Peter would be lifted up onto the upstairs counter to lead sing-a-longs for such Irish favourites as Patrick O’Hagan’s ‘Little Old Mud Cabin on the Hill’.
McCauley grew to enjoy the warm applause from this “enthusiastic if somewhat inebriated audience. It was encouraging, and perhaps inspired me to later pursue the itinerant path of a jobbing actor”.
McCauley’s adolescence was moulded by the 1960s, as he revelled in radio dramas and rock music, and the arrival of local television. Unable to master a musical instrument, he became disc jockey ‘Swinging Pete’, introducing live acts and spinning platters at a Manners Street night club, and at out of town gigs.
McCauley never thought of performing as a serious or viable career choice, until he attended Teachers Training College. He majored in literature, which also included drama studies. Students got to spend a couple of weeks at the Mercury Theatre as part of their training. The theatre’s director must have seen a bright spark in McCauley’s eyes. It was suggested he apply for a scholarship to attend a one-year acting course under the “piercing gaze” of Nola Miller.
Now known as Toi Whakaari, the nascent institution founded by Miller was then called, The Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council NZ Drama School. McCauley remembers a “brilliant and beautiful year of exploration”.
In this period an acting workshop with the NZBC’s TV drama department also made a strong impression. He still loved the theatre, but McCauley was energised by the idealism of the people he met who were making films and television. It was the chance “to tell our own tales to a wider audience” that enticed him most.
A few years after his earliest screen job, acting in oddball workplace guide Men and Super Men (1975), McCauley scored a role that set a benchmark, both for his ideals and expectations.
The film was A State of Siege (1978), based on a short story by Janet Frame. It was directed by a young and unknown film student, Vincent Ward. In an environment where film jobs were few and far between, this little picture was crewed by some of the best in the business. A State of Siege was right at the pointy end of the NZ film renaissance, as one of the first films to receive NZ Film Commission investment. Everyone, including tyro screen actor Peter McCauley, felt they were at the beginning of something momentous.
“I was as keen as mustard on a green curry sandwich. I had theories on screen acting wrapped in wads of self-important integrity”, says McCauley.
The realities of making a freelance living in a notoriously unstable occupation would soon temper such idealism with the pragmatism of a working professional. Today he cites the old adage “remember your lines and don’t bump into the furniture” as a good motto.
Reliability is an asset that gets you hired. McCauley became a dependable fixture in a string of supporting roles on NZ television in the 1980s and beyond, including recurring roles in Children of Fire Mountain, Shark in the Park and on the medical staff of Shortland Street. In mini-series The Chosen he played a detective, not for the last time. McCauley's big screen roles began with little-seen Ronald Hugh Morrieson adaptation Pallet On The Floor (1984), in which he starred as a small-town freezing worker caught up in dark dealings.
Since the 1990s, McCauley has worked on both sides of the Tasman. Australian film and TV credits include appearances in acclaimed Hugo Weaving feature The Interview (as a detective), hit series The Secret Life of Us and award-winning cop show Phoenix (1993). In Aussie-shot TV Western The Outsiders, he played father to an Amish-like Naomi Watts.
McCauley’s weather-beaten face and rugged physique have marked him out for his fair share of action/ adventure on-screen. He has mastered whips, spears, swords, and guns in such TV fare as Michael Caine mini-series 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Legend of the Seeker, Spartacus and two versions of Hercules.
From 1999 to 2002, McCauley front footed three seasons of fantasy adventure show The Lost World, based loosely on the Arthur Conan Doyle classic. Firmly at the helm in a rare leading role as Professor Challenger, he kept an admirably straight face through 66 episodes while taking his team through wild and uncharted parts of the Amazon.
Equally nuanced performances followed in drama After the Waterfall (as father of Antony Starr’s character), and back country thriller Netherwood (as a nasty land baron). McCauley also made an impression in Existence (2012), as gruff, domineering Dad to a woman trapped in a post-apocalyptic, back to nature world.
Guest turns in the local comedy drama Nothing Trivial showed McCauley was equally comfortable in more sedate settings.
In 2016 he co-starred in David White's short film The Couple, playing a man who withdraws from his wife after being diagnosed with cancer. He is also set to appear in White's comedy feature This Town, and TV series One Land Bridge.
McCauley’s self-effacing modesty belies his talent and perseverance. His credits across a wide range of genres demonstrate a consistent attention to the craft.
Profile written and researched by Costa Botes; updated on 15 March 2020
'Peter McCauley' Johnson & Laird website. Accessed 28 May 2015
Beatrice Ashton, 'Story: Miller, Nola Leigh' Te Ara website. Updated 20 November 2013. Accessed 28 May 2015
'The Locals' (broken link) Ngā Taonga website. Accessed 28 May 2015
Existence press kit