Peter Rowley puts his comedic skill down to the fact his parents divorced when he was just one. He blamed himself for their separation: "I felt that my parents had rejected me so I had to make people laugh." A sense of humour made it easier to make friends.
As a child Rowley was the class clown. He liked acting and his grandmother encouraged him to perform in front of her friends. Rowley lived for a time in Timaru with his mother Mary before being sent to boarding school in Christchurch at age 12. While at Christ's College, he earned the nickname Schultz (the name of a character in 60s comedy series Hogan's Heroes) after a teacher caned him for answering a question with the words "I know nothing".
Rowley left school at 15 wanting to be an actor. He worked a variety of jobs —labourer, farmhand — before approaching Christchurch's Court Theatre in 1974 asking to be an actor. The answer was no (he had no formal acting training). Instead Rowley was offered a stage manager position. He would watch the actors do their thing, and tell himself "I can do better that". Then actor/producer David McPhail asked Rowley to audition for a new TV sketch show called A Week of It. He'd heard Rowley could tell a good joke.
And so in his early 20s, Rowley was suddenly part of a legendary sketch show. "I joined this amazing team of guys — Jon Gadsby, David McPhail, Allan Grant (one of the writers) and Chris McVeigh — and it was just sensational and groundbreaking because it was telling the truth."
In a Kiwi first for a comedy, the cast filmed in front of a live audience, and the programme was broadcast just 20 minutes after recording finished. Kiwis loved the show, especially McPhail's impersonation of Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. Rowley spent three years on the series, and later joined sketch show McPhail and Gadsby. In the same period he played a reporter in feature film Savage Islands, a pirate flick starring Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black).
In the early 80s, Rowley moved to Auckland to be the "resident comedian" on The Ray Woolf Show. One night, Rowley visited Ponsonby's Open Late Cafe, which had a small stage and microphone in the corner. His first foray into stand-up began that night, after he asked the manager if he could get up on stage and make "an absolute fool of myself". Rowley was allowed to perform here again, and went on to do stand-up at other bars and cafes in Auckland.
In 1983 he headed to Australia to pursue stand-up, where he worked around the country. A year later he returned to New Zealand. An appearance at Kiwi music festival Sweetwaters that year so impressed the Scottish manager of headline act Simple Minds that he offered Rowley a gig at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The show Sixty Million Sheep Can't be Wrong proved to be a "great experience".
Rowley returned to Australia, only to get a call from Billy T James, who he'd met at TVNZ years before. Several Billy T James Show staff had been sacked; James wanted Rowley to become his new sidekick on the show. "He said, 'I've fired everybody and I want to work with you. Are you interested?' I was in a taxi and on my way to the airport with my hand still putting the phone down. I went because I like doing accents and mimicry. Billy was brilliant at it and we clicked," Rowley said, in Billy T: The Life and Times of Billy T James.
Rowley and James were keen to move on from vaudevillian sketches, and make more use of authentic costumes and props; to "just let the situation and the words do the humour." Rowley recalls organising authentic machine guns and helmets for some of the sketches (Rowley and James were both gun enthusiasts). "Well, TVNZ they went mad because that had never been heard of actors bringing in truckloads of guns and all the right props ... it made it look fantastic," he said in this extended Funny As interview. Rowley also joins in to talk about Billy T, 19 minutes into this interview with Billy T's minder Rick Harris.
One of the pair's most iconic sketches featured Captain Cook (Rowley) encountering a Māori chief (James). "Everyone is talking about the Treaty as a sacred document and we're poking the borax at it," recalls Rowley. The idea was to take the mickey out of Māori and Pakeha, in order "to have a release of white guilt about their relationship with Māori. So much of it was undercutting white racist attitudes, quite deliberately."
Rowley says James was "constantly battling within himself, I believe, to perfect things". That desire to nail things saw The Billy T James Show achieve huge ratings, but ratings inevitably started to drop. In 1989 Billy T had a heart transplant. He completed another TV show, then died on 7 August 1991. Rowley and James had been writing a new sketch TV series at the time.
Rowley was in a hotel room, about to give a speech at a rugby awards dinner, when James' death was announced on television. Rowley felt terrible. He managed to pull himself together and get through the speech, but remembers the "roar" of people sighing when the crowd learnt of Billy's passing. "I will never forget that room of people (500) crying." Rowley ranks working with James as a career high. "We collaborated so well in both the writing and the acting. The fun factor was huge."
In the 1990s, Rowley worked once again with McPhail and Gadsby on rural comedy Letters to Blanchy (1994-1997). The show "was the most fun a guy could ever have." It centred on a trio of bumbling small-town mates played by McPhail, Gadsby and Rowley "getting into trouble". He rejoined the duo yet again for 1998's McPhail Gadsby.
In 1994 Rowley finally got his name in the title, when he co-starred with Pio Terei in sketch show Pete and Pio. Each episode opened with a stand-up double act and closed with Terei doing a musical number. In 1995 the two shared a NZ Film and Television Award for Best Performance in an Entertainment Programme.
Drama work has also been part of Rowley's acting kete. Among his many screen roles, the father of two has acted on TV's Mercy Peak and Love Mussel. He also provided the voice of the iconic Dog in animated movie Footrot Flats (1986). It took a year for director Murray Ball to choose Rowley, as no other voice "felt truly like Dog", wrote author Lesley Stevens said in Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale - The Making of The Movie. The character was one of the stars of what was New Zealand's first animated feature film.
His movie work also includes smaller roles in Netherwood, Australian sci fi film I Am Evangeline and Mortal Engines. In the latter, he got to wear an $8,000 wig for his role as a slave trader. In 1999 TV series Behind the Wheel, he was one of three Kiwi talents who posed as a courtesy car driver, Candid Camera style.
In 2010 Rowley co-directed (with Ian Mune) and starred in documentary Billy T & Me, where he looked back on working with his friend.
Rowley continues to act, and make live appearances. In 2011, he performed a Billy T & Me tribute at the NZ International Comedy Festival. When he's not working, the Christchurch resident loves to fly planes.
Profile written by Natasha Harris; published on 9 October 2019
'Peter Rowley - Funny As Interview' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 9 October 2019. Accessed 9 October 2019
'Peter Rowley: Funnyman actor ...' (Video interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Andrew Whiteside. Loaded 24 August 2010. Accessed 9 October 2019
'Peter Rowley' Auckland Actors website. Accessed 9 October 2019
Matt Elliott, Billy T: The Life and Times of Billy T James (Auckland: HarperColliins Publishers, 2009)
Lesley Stevens, Footrot Flats: The Dog's (Tail) Tale - The Making of the Movie (Lower Hutt: Inprint Limited, 1986)