Saturday night at the movies was the big weekly outing for many in the 1930s and 40s. And from packed dress circles and stalls, New Zealanders delighted in watching one of their own - Colin Tapley, the boy from Dunedin - playing anything from a cowboy to a Russian officer, with flair.

In 1933 Tapley had entered Paramount Pictures' Search for Beauty - a worldwide talent quest in 15 English-speaking countries - as a dare. He won the New Zealand male section, landing a long-term contract with the studio.

Tapley had the debonair good looks, voice, and talent of a star, but he found his niche in playing character roles, and appeared in American and British films for more than 30 years without any real desire for movie stardom.


But he worked in some of the biggest movies of the 1930s, starring the likes of Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Loretta Young and Gary Cooper. "The most wonderful experience of my life," is how he later recalled those years. "I adored every bit of it."

Tapley was born in Dunedin on May 7, 1909. His interest in acting is thought to have been whetted at Christ's College in Christchurch, where belonged to the drama club and took part in several of its productions.

His desire for character parts came early in his Hollywood career. He wrote home enthusiastically to one of his brothers about his small part in The Scarlet Empress (1934), describing the long black beard and wonderful uniform that transformed him into the captain of the queen's bodyguard. Although his performance went unbilled, Tapley is seen directing the firing of the guns from the palace battlements, and yelling, "It's a boy!" to the excited crowd after the future empress (Marlene Dietrich) gives birth to a son.

While he derived great satisfaction from playing Captain Dobbin in Becky Sharp (1935), the first movie filmed in three-colour Technicolor, Tapley's favourite Hollywood role was probably Barrett, the spy in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. The 1935 release starred Gary Cooper, whom he called "an awfully good chap."

In 1938 Tapley returned to New Zealand to spend Christmas and New Year with his family. "I do not aspire to leading roles," he said in an interview. "I want to do comedy parts of the Roland Young type ... Leading men are in a constant state of worry over something or other and their film life is only seven years on the average."

He had been a good publicity agent for New Zealand while he had been away. "Scarcely anybody I know has not had New Zealand rammed down their throats, and many people in Hollywood are just waiting an opportunity to visit the Dominion," he said. "My best friends there, Fred MacMurrray and his wife [Lillian Lamont], will definitely be making a trip to this country shortly." His friendship with Fred MacMurray would last until MacMurray's death in 1991.

After the holiday, Tapley returned to his small ranch in the San Fernando Valley and continued his movie career until he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1940.

Posted to Britain, Tapley met Patsy Lyon, the widowed daughter of Major-General Sir Percy and Lady Hambro. They married quietly at St Martins-in-the Fields in August 1943.


The following year Colin and Patsy had a son, Martin, and cast Fred MacMurray in the role of godfather. Patsy also had a daughter, Charlotte, from her first marriage.

Tapley briefly retired from acting following the war and settled in New Zealand, where he operated a launch-charter service at Wanaka. But in November 1947 Martin died and the Tapleys left New Zealand.

Back in Hollywood, Tapley resumed his movie career, but the town was now a coldly competitive place, hit hard by the impact of television.

The bright prospects for British films seemed more inviting than the bleak new Hollywood, so Tapley moved to Britain in the early 1950s, quickly establishing himself as a stalwart of the second feature.

His first British movie was Cloudburst, a 1951 Hammer thriller that defined the path for much of his future career. Instead of the Ronald Young-type comedy parts he had earlier craved, Tapley often played police officers in his British films.

Although most of these movies were destined for the double bill, he had feature roles in a couple of the most popular British films of the 1950s, playing the adjutant in Angels One Five (1952) and the moustached, bespectacled scientist Dr W.H. Glanville in The Dam Busters (1955).


His last movie was Fraulein Doktor (1968), in which he played General Metzler.

Tapley also appeared regularly on British television, most notably as Inspector Parker in the Saber of London series from 1957-1960.

In 1983 he retired from acting and, with Patsy, moved to a cottage in the Gloucestershire village of Coates.

Tapley died on November 23, 1995, and is survived by Patsy, Charlotte, and his second son, Nigel. After his funeral, his ashes were sent to New Zealand where they were buried at Wanaka alongside his first-born son, Martin.