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Robert Bruce

Actor's Agent, Stuntman

The life of stuntman turned agent Robert Bruce sounds like the back-story from a knockabout adventure movie. Described by Listener writer Finlay MacDonald as "an ex-pupil of the School of Hard Knocks", Bruce began learning about negotiation as a teenager, while working as a bouncer. After a spell as a wrestler, he reinvented himself as a talent agent, a job where negotiation skills can make or break the deal.

Bruce grew up in the industrial town of Musselburgh, nine kilometres from the Scottish capital of Edinburgh. His father was a truck driver turned animal breeder, his mother a nurse.

Bruce later describe himself as a "pathetic little strip of a kid" who was constantly getting sick. Having had his adenoids removed, "boom! That was it. By the time I was 12, I was about 178 or 180 centimetres."

At the age of 15 he began learning judo, becoming a black belt within two years. Soon he was dressing up in the 50s teddy boy uniform of frock coats and brothel-creeper shoes. A fight at a music hall led to a job offer to work there as a bouncer. 

Aged 19 Bruce set off for London, keen for adventure. Told that he was too big to box, Bruce decided to join the wrestling circuit. His stage name - which well and truly stuck - was inspired by 14th century Scottish king Robert the Bruce.

By the late 60s he was touring internationally with fighter Ian Campbell, under the joint moniker The Scottish Giants. With six or seven fights a week, the job took its toll on a wrestler's body; Bruce reset his own nose at least 10 times.

Bruce had met his future wife, a New Zealander, while in London, and in the early 70s he moved permanently down under. On popular Kiwi wrestling show On the Mat, which sold well overseas, he played up as a villainous Scot, doing the job so convincingly that he was the occasional butt of attacks from spectators. Bruce won the Commonwealth Heavyweight Wrestling title, and was also a contender for the World Heavyweight Wrestling title.

Bruce had long been keen to work in film and television, having play-acted movie scenes as a child. In London he had begun doing stunt work, including a two-week contract playing one of the milk-bar heavies in Stanley Kubrick's controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971).

In 1978 he launched The Robert Bruce Ugly Agency as "a bureau for the industry - actors, stuntpeople, and stunts choreographed". The ‘ugly' (later removed from the title) was partly intended to distinguish the company from other talent agencies, who mainly dealt with models. For a time he also provided a bodyguard service through a second company, Avant Guard.

By the late 80s, many of the country's best-known actors were on Bruce's books. Among others, the company has represented Temuera Morrison, Cliff Curtis, the late Kevin Smith, George Henare and Joel Tobeck. A number of Bruce's clients were Māori; some of his friends have argued that his affinity for Māoridom derived partly from his Scottish upbringing.

Bruce's film and TV credits ran to more than 100 productions. His large size limited opportunities to work as a stunt double for actors. Instead Bruce did stunts, acted (often in roles that involved getting beaten up), and worked as a stunt co-ordinator and occasional safety officer.

He created fight and action scenes for a wide range of productions, including early Kiwi horror movie Death Warmed Up, the Lawless tele-movies and both Once Were Warriors films. On the first film he worked on bulking up lead actor Temuera Morrison over three months of gym work.

Bruce died suddenly on March 2 2009, after a short illness. He was a vice-patron of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and at his funeral in Auckland, a group of SPCA dogs could be heard howling to the sound of the bagpipes. His ashes were taken to the town of Tobermory in the Isle of Mull, where his grandfather once worked as a lighthouse keeper.