Before they were famous: part two

By Paul Casserly

Paul Casserly takes a long media lunch with a party of precocious pre-fame Kiwis — from Helen Clark to Tana Umaga, Neill to Lawless, Hickey to Dale, Tem to Bic, Ko to Lowe — and muses on fame and fortune.
Before 'The Hobbit' and 'The Almighty Johnsons' Dean O'Gorman starred in 'Bonjour Timothy '.
Before 'The Hobbit' and 'The Almighty Johnsons' Dean O'Gorman starred in 'Bonjour Timothy '.

Was everyone young and gorgeous once? Helen Clark certainly was. You can see her in this collection in all her bohemian glory, when, as a thrusting 24-year-old, she was already stealing the limelight at a Labour Party Youth Conference. Mind you it wasn't hard to shine in this room full of earnest smokers, captured in black and white glory by the NZBC in 1974.

In a few months TV would be beamed out in colour, but the muted monotone matched the energy of the room where every month is Movember. The ultimate party pooper pops up at the end of the short piece to tell us that the Youth Conference remits have little show of making any sort of impact on the grown-up Party. "Most of them have been silly, ill-researched, or in other ways not worth consideration."

Read and enjoy the first instalment of Before They Were Famous here.

That's the 1970s for you. By the 1980s things had cheered up considerably. Because in the 80s New Zealand had discovered that putting a 'z' at the end of name instead of an 's' was classy az (at the time there were at least 6179 hairdressing salons in NZ that incorporated the word 'Snipz' into their name). Naturally, 'Nite Spotz' were going off.

TV3 jumped on this trend a little late with a show called Short Sportz in 1991. Hosted by Phil Keoghan - before he developed an American accent - the show was aimed at the kidz and often featured future sports stars on their way up. You immediately recognise the face when you hear one of the them say, "This is Wainuiomata, this is where I live, my name is Tana Umaga". Although I was slightly thrown when the future-All Black great added, "and this is where I play league".

In the story, a youthful Umaga tells us that he's off to Australia for a two year contract with the Newcastle Knights. His ambition is not to play tiddlywinks or even for the All Blacks, but "to play for the Kiwis". Luckily he only lasted three weeks playing rugby league in Australia, and by 1994 he had been righteously converted to union.

A conversion of a more carnal kind is the subject of the short film Peach, which is filled with familiar faces. The opening shot is something of a cinematic epic, as it artfully introduces all the players, including the fruit in question. Lucy Lawless is a truck-driving sexual temptress, intent on showing up the misogyny of Mog (played by a lanky, greasy Joel Tobeck) and suggesting some same-sex therapy for the protagonist Sal (Tania Simon). It's all very suggestive, but is that a bite mark we see as the peach appears in the last frame? Has the fruit been tasted?

The great Don Selwyn also has a cameo, although he was already famous by this time, not so Ian Hughes, who went on to become a household nerd via Shortland Street, the show that Peach producer Caterina de Nave helped create. She had a hand in numerous kiwi hits including Outrageous Fortune before moving to SBS in Australia. And getting back to how good it all looks ... cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh had already shot The Piano and would soon go on to Analyze This, Runaway Bride, Bridget Jones's Diary and Martin Scorsese's epic episode of Boardwalk Empire. Oh, and the costume designer, Ngila Dickson, only went on to win an Oscar for her work on Lord of The Rings in 2004.

But Peach isn't the best looking film in the collection. That honour belongs to the short film The Water Cycle, an eco-porn of the highest order from the legendary National Film Unit. The year is 1972, but it may as well be today as it busts the myth of a 100% Pure New Zealand and laments the state of our waterways. It also busts out a 20-something Sam Neill who plays a polo-necked city slicker who wantonly necks water as he seduces a lady. It's steamy stuff. But the mood is soon ruined by talk of "untreated sewerage" and an inspired montage of horrors to a choral rendition of 'God Defend New Zealand'.

Given that it was set in a radio station you'd expect that the 1978 series Radio Waves might be a Kiwi version of WKRP in Cincinnati, but it's not. It's more like the least exciting ever episode of the The Onedin Line, but without the ships. But there is something captivating about the wooden performances and there are some interesting faces in the cast. You will recognise many of them; there's the mullet of Andy Anderson of course, but most notable is Alan Dale, seen here on debut. Dale graduated to Neighbours in Australia, before breaking into Hollywood via shows like Lost, 24, Ugly Betty and Entourage.

Like Radio Waves, which was set in Auckland, Night of the Red Hunter transports us to a Wellington that is both familiar and alien. A young Toby Laing appears, as does Kerry Fox. The latter is now an acclaimed international actor (An Angel At My Table, Shallow Grave) while you may know Laing better as the guy with the trumpet in the country's most popular band, Fat Freddy's Drop.

It seems like fellow muso Bic Runga has always been world famous in NZ, but you get a clear glimpse of the star in the making in the 1994 video for You. Back then she was part of Love Soup, a high school duo that caught the eye of the indie record label Pagan. Within a few months she'd write and record the song - Drive - that officially launched her career, making this practically the moment that she bade goodbye to being a nobody.

For actor Dean O'Gorman, now a leading dwarf in The Hobbit, his au revoir to anonymity began with a film called Bonjour Timothy from 1995. There's also an appearance from another musician, Milan Borich, who went on to become frontman for the band Pluto.

The talent of the pre-famous is clear to see but there's only one man in New Zealand who could deliver the line, "These are designer jeans, they cost a hundred and twenty bucks" and make it sing. He is forever linked with Guatemala but this time he's in Wellington, in the strange and spooky gem from 1985 called Seekers.

Temuera Morrison is of course that man. And his designer jeans look well worth every penny. Legend has it that he bought himself another pair shortly after signing on to Star Wars.

Nationwide: Labour Party Youth Conference
Television, 1974 (Excerpts)
A 24-year-old Helen Clark (with long, flowing locks) features in this NZBC current affairs footage from the annual conference of Young Labour. Twenty five years before she will become NZ's first elected female Prime Minister, Clark is a junior politics lecturer making her way in the party machine.

Gloss - Jim Hickey cameo
Television, 1988 (Excerpts)
This 19 July 1988 Gloss episode features an acting cameo from future weatherman Jim Hickey. In these excerpts Hickey plays a policeman responding to the unexplained death of Brad Redfern. Hickey's early incarnation as an actor can also be witnessed in a 1984 episode of Children of the Dog Star.

Seekers - I Hope You Know What You're Doing (Episode One)
Television, 1986 (Full Length Episode)
This high concept 80s TV drama series saw three young Wellingtonions drawn into a mysterious 'fate and fortune' game for a prize of $250,000. Two of the trio - real estate agent Selwyn, TV producer Nardia - represented early turns for actors Temuera Morrison and Jennifer Ward-Lealand.

Fish out of Water
Television, 1997
This early Survivor-style TV3 reality doco saw six Kiwi teenagers marooned on Rakitu Island to fend for themselves. The teens included future National MP for Auckland Central, Nikki Kaye, who defies her role as "the private school girl who couldn't survive without a hairdryer" by clubbing an eel.

Bonjour Timothy
Film, 1995 (Excerpts)

Seventeen-year-old Timothy's parents hope the French-Canadian exchange student they're due to host will settle the errant student down, but when 'Michel' turns out to be 'Michelle' - and spunky - plans go awry. Dean O'Gorman (Almighty Johnsons, The Hobbit) plays a star-gazing, rugby-playing Tim.

Short Sportz - 1991 'Best Of'
Television, 1991 (Full Length Episode)

This 'best of' edition of the Phil Keoghan-hosted kids show has a segment presented by a rising Wainui league star who's just been signed by Newcastle Knights: Tana Umaga. Umaga's NRL career was short-lived, but he went on to become an All Black legend.

Peach
Short Film, 1995 (Full Length)

Luscious fruit, truckies, and Lucy Lawless feature in this short. Sal (Tania Simon) is gifted a peach and meets a saucy tow truck driver (Lawless) en route home to her boyfriend. "Watch it rot, or taste it when it's ripe" teases Lawless, in an early role, hinting at the cross-sexual appeal of Xena.

You
Love Soup Music Video, 1994

Love Soup was a high school duo formed by singer-songwriter Bic Runga and guitarist Kelly Horgan. After placing third in the Smokefree Rockquest, they were picked up by Pagan Records. Aged 19, Runga was shortly to be signed by major label Sony, her debut hit single Drive was only months away.

The Water Cycle
Short Film, 1972 (Full Length)
This gem from the National Film Unit archives shows Godzone's 1972 waterways to be far short of 100% pure. A mid-20s Sam Neill - then working at the National Film Unit - cameos as an eau-so-suave drinker in a scene (16min in) showing the disconnection between water use and where it comes from.

E Tipu E Rea - Thunderbox
Television, 1989 (Full Length)
This father-son tale was an edition of pioneering M?ori drama series E Tipu e Rea. It was director Lee (Once Were Warriors) Tamahori's first attempt at longer drama and at 9.46 into part one is the Shakespearean TV debut of actor Blair Strang (future star of Shortland Street and Nothing Trivial).

Asia Downunder - Future to the Fore (Lydia Ko)
Television, 2011 (Excerpts)

This excerpt from Asia Downunder's final (2011) season joins 14 year-old golfer Lydia Ko at the driving range. Ko talks about the challenges of keeping up study while training 40 hours a week. Challenges that were shortly to become moot: the world's top-ranked amateur turned pro on 23 October 2013.

Radio Waves - Episode
Television, 1978 (Full Length Episode)
TV series Radio Waves charted the "lives and loves" of a commercial Auckland radio station. In this episode Andy Anderson is a randy 'jock' and Alan Dale is urbane station manager Jack. It was Dale's screen debut, before finding fame in Australia (Neighbours) and the US (24, Lost, Ugly Betty).

Night of the Red Hunter - Telefeature
Television, 1989 (Full Length)
This sci-fi telefeature starred future Fat Freddy's Drop trumpeter Toby Laing, as one of a duo of runaway youths drawn into the orbit of the weird Piper family. Drama school grad Kerry Fox appears as a policewoman in the opening, shortly before her breakout role in An Angel at My Table.

Impressions
Urban Disturbance Music Video, 1994

On their second single, future BBC radio star Zane Lowe and his 90s hip-hop crew channel their "headphones and kerbstones", as they dedicate themselves to "knocking down the doors of the hip-hop frauds". Craig Jackson's music video aptly tracks Lowe et al along 90s Auckland's mean footpaths.

- nzonscreen.com

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