Temuera Morrison won New Zealand television immortality thanks to the first episode of long-running soap Shortland Street, after a nurse told his character he was no longer in Guatemala. Morrison's role as Jake the Muss in Once Were Warriors proved the actor was no joke. Critics called him "extraordinary" and "engagingly terrifying".
Morrison grew up in Rotorua, in a family of two boys and six girls. Performance was in his blood: his father Laurie "never stopping singing", including time in the quartet of brother Howard Morrison. Temuera's mother came from a King Country farming family. At family get-togethers, the Morrison kids knew they might be called up at any moment to do a song, a haka, or a speech. Tem's kapa haka skills would win him a national award and see him performing overseas, including when landmark exhibition Te Māori went to the United States.
At the age of 11, he was cast as Rangi in Rangi's Catch, after director Michael Forlong spotted him performing to tourists in Rotorua. Originally made for British television in 1972, Rangi's Catch also played on Kiwi cinema screens in a shortened version. Morrison played one of four children chasing a pair of escaped convicts. Dominion reviewer Catherine de la Roche excitedly labelled it "one of the best children's films ever made".
In the 80s, after a number of years of clerical jobs, Morrison got a place on a training scheme in performing arts launched by his uncle Howard, after pretending he wasn't related. During the 20-week course, a dance performance in Aotea Square while clad in tights helped teach him that performers should not let embarrassment enter the picture.
In 1984 he won a small role as a Rastafarian street kid in this episode of Mortimer's Patch, after being recommended by castmember (and mentor) Don Selwyn, His only line: "Honky. Smooth honky. Nasty." Bigger roles followed in offbeat drama Seekers (as a brash real estate agent) and period co-production Adventurer (as a Māori chief). On the big screen, he was nominated for a GOFTA award for his smooth-talking street kid in interracial romance Other Halves.
Three years passed before Morrison's career jumped into second gear. 1987/88 saw him interviewing elders while reporting for Koha and Waka Huia; playing a sleazy cop in Merata Mita's Mauri, alongside Don Selwyn; talking te reo in pioneering Māori drama series E Tipu e Rea, and joining the second season of Gloss as Kerry Smith's love interest, a journalist who seemingly dies and then returns. Morrison was running himself ragged; in-between Gloss episodes he was also doing a breakfast show on Aotearoa Radio with Jay Laga-aia, and flying to Dunedin for TV's The Grasscutter.
Amidst of it all came Morrison's first starring role in a movie: as a sceptical journalist on the run, in lighthearted 1988 thriller Never Say Die. Director Geoff Murphy overruled opposition from some of his producers to cast Morrison, after noting the self-deprecating quality of his screen test. The Listener's Helen Martin felt his acting showed "a lot of style".
In 1992 he began a three year stint on new soap Shortland Street, playing ladies' man Dr Ropata. He got the role while helping out behind the scenes on Jane Campion's The Piano. The soap bought Morrison enduring fame thanks to a line of dialogue he didn't actually say: in the first episode he was delivering a baby using an unorthodox method when nurse Carrie Burton (Lisa Crittenden) told him "you're not in Guatemala now, Dr Ropata". Years later the character returned to the show for six weeks to mark the show's 4000th episode; Ropata was briefly named Shortland's CEO.
During Morrison's time on the street, it was announced he'd play the part of the tough, violent Jake Heke in a movie based on Alan Duff novel Once Were Warriors. The filmmakers had considered prisoners and gangmembers, before deciding only an actor could handle the part. After three months bulking up with help from his agent Robert Bruce, and friend Kevin Smith, Morrison added nine kilograms to his frame. But many still considered Morrison too lightweight to play Jake. "Everyone thought I'd screwed up when I cast him," director Lee Tamahori later admitted. During rehearsals, Morrison worried they were right. "I was the big gamble". Morrison talks about the role in this video interview.
When Once Were Warriors began a highly successful global release, critics rushed to praise Morrison (and co-star Rena Owen). "You don't often see acting like this in the movies" (Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times); "Extraordinary ... I can't recall when I last saw a performance boiling with such psychological and physical menace." (Neil Jillett in The Melbourne Age). The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Journal both compared Morrison's performance to that of Marlon Brando, but Morrison was more modest. "It's Beth's story. My role in it was to provide the misery."
When he reprised his Warriors role in 1999 sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, Morrison snared his second NZ Film best actor award. With the character of Jake attempting to break out of the cycle of violence, Broken Hearted saw Morrison moving far beyond the easy charm of earlier roles.The successful sequel reunited him with Grasscutter director Ian Mune; 26 years before, the two had acted together in Rangi's Catch.
In the period between the two Warriors movies, Morrison went places Kiwi actors have rarely gone. He played ex-partner to Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire, boarded a renegade ship for Speed, 2, was villain alongside Cliff Curtis in Six Days Seven Nights, and befriended Marlon Brando while playing his right-hand Dog Man in The Island of Dr Moreau. The latter encounter provides a memorable chapter in Morrison's 2009 autobiography From Haka to Hollywood.
Award-nominated tele-movie Ihaka: Blunt Instrument was a tongue in cheek tale in which Morrison starred as a bad boy Kiwi cop, hunting a killer in Sydney.
2001 feature Crooked Earth saw Morrison back in Aotearoa. He played a military man returning home to bury his father, who faces off against his drug-dealing brother (Lawrence Makoare) over stolen land. Sam Pillsbury (The Scarecrow) directed. Variety found the film's combination of political and thriller elements "handsomely mounted and compelling".
Since Crooked Earth, Morrison's career has alternated Kiwi roles — including hosting duties on Māori supernatural series Mataku, and variety show Happy Hour — with doses of the Star Wars myth. In 2002's Attack of the Clones he played bounty hunter Jango Fett, and a cavalcade of cloned warriors. Morrison went on to do voice work for a number of Star Wars video games, and joked it was "the only movie you can be in for two seconds and be famous."
In 2004 Morrison played a Native American Indian in offbeat western Blueberry, and joined Nick Nolte and Kiwi cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh in The Beautiful Country, in which a Vietnam war child searches for his GI Dad.
Soon after, he appeared in troubled period epic River Queen. Morrison played rebel chief Te Kai Po, in a role partly inspired by Titokowaru. Po was "one of the best characters I've ever had the chance to play". Director Vincent Ward said Morrison had helped rally the extras. "He leads with a sense of charisma". The same year (2005) saw the launch of talk show The Tem Show on Prime. The guest list included George Lucas and Sam Neill.
Anglo-NZ movie Tracker began filming In October 2009. Morrison co-starred with Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast), as a framed Māori seaman who Winstone's character tries to bring in to the authorities. Morrison also joined TV's Spartacus, as trainer of the gladiators, and donned purple make-up for the opening scene of Green Lantern.
In March 2012 he began work on locally-shot hit Mt Zion. Morrison was nominated for an NZ Film award for his role as conservative father to a wannabe musician (Stan Walker). October saw the release of splatter comedy Fresh Meat, with Morrison as the arrogant head of a modern-day Māori family with cannibalistic tendencies. The following year he featured in his own reality show, The Life and Times of Temuera Morrison.
Mahana (2016) marked Morrison's his first collaboration with director Lee Tamahori since Once Were Warriors. Based on Witi Ihimaera's novel Bulibasha, the film follows two families who are longtime adversaries in the world of competitive shearing. Morrison plays Tamihana, dominating head of the Mahana family. At the 2017 Rialto NZ Film Awards, he was nominated for Best Actor.
In the same period, Morrison was among the voice cast of Disney's animated hit Moana. He also turned to directing, shooting short film The Lost Pearl in Tahiti. Morrison described making the romance as a "bloody nightmare". As he told website Flicks, "sometimes I had no one to make the movie. “Okay, who’s on the crew today?” “Uh.” “Where’s my cameramen?" The result was still deemed worthy to screen at the 2016 NZ International Film Festival.
After playing a grandfather in Mahana, Morrison was happy to take on a more physical role in 2018 sci-fi action film Occupation. This time he was a former prisoner fighting an alien invasion in an Australian town. Morrison stayed on in Australia to work on Marvel hit Aquaman, playing the father of Jason Momoa's aquatic hero.
Profile written by Ian Pryor
Updated on 19 December 2018
Temuera Morrison and Paul Little, From Haka to Hollywood (Auckland: Penguin Books, 2009)
Roger Ebert, 'Once Were Warriors' (Review) - The Chicago Sun-Times, 3 March 1995
Simon Foster, 'The Warrior Way: Temuera Morrison Interview' Screen-Space website. Loaded 6 May 2014. Accessed 19 July 2018
Paul Holmes, 'The Trials of Doctor Who?' (Interview) - Herald on Sunday, 11 May 2008
Liam Maguren, 'Temuera Morrison on his new film Occupation and being NZ’s Liam Neeson' (Interview) Flicks website. Loaded 4 July 2018. Accessed 19 July 2018
Mark Walters, 'Temuera Morrison' (Interview) Bigfanboy.com website. Loaded 2005. Accessed 19 July 2018
Unknown writer, 'Warriors opens in New York, then throughout USA' - NZfilm 53, May 1995, page 10
Unknown writer, 'Warriors tops $A6m on Australian release' - NZfilm 53, May 1995, page 11
'New Lee Tamahori Film Shoot Complete' (Press release). Scoop website. Loaded 27 May 2015. Accessed 19 July 2018
Never Say Die press kit