Geoff Murphy was an exceptionally intelligent man who allowed budding artists to come up with ideas rather than imposing his own will, Whangārei lawyer Kelly Johnson says.

Johnson, who starred in three of Murphy's iconic Kiwi classics, was among scores of people who paid tribute to the acclaimed Kiwi film director who passed away on Monday aged 80.

Johnson acted in three films — Goodbye Pork Pie, Utu, and Spooked — that were written and directed by the leading figure in the fledgling New Zealand film industry in the 1970s and 80s.

"Geoff was exceptionally intelligent, very concise. He was the brightest person I've ever met and was someone who'd get people, even those doing street scenes who never acted before, motivated.


"He'd allow you to come up with ideas and to go with them rather than saying 'this is what I want'. I used to stay with his family in Hawke's Bay quite often and his conversations were all about films."

Johnson said he first met Murphy before auditioning for a movie in Wellington in 1979 and their last meeting was when the lawyer gave a speech three to four years ago.

The occasion was when Murphy received an honorary arts doctorate at Massey University's Palmerston North campus.

At that stage, Johnson said Murphy didn't look visibly ill although he did more recently.

Johnson was planning to see him in two weeks' time during a trip to Wellington.

Kelly Johnson, left, and Tony Barry starring in Goodbye Pork Pie. Photo/Supplied
Kelly Johnson, left, and Tony Barry starring in Goodbye Pork Pie. Photo/Supplied

"He was a bit of a mentor. It's a big loss, it marks a milestone. I suppose he was among a handful of people who'd put their mortgage to one side and go out on a limb to make movies.

"He was one of those special people who was prepared to really go for it against all odds. That's what New Zealanders are renowned for."

Citing an example of Murphy's determination to get things done, Johnson recalled the production crew didn't have an on-stage camera crane which was a major issue.


"Geoff got them to make one. They designed and welded it so that was the extent which he was prepared to go to get the work done," Johnson said.

Murphy's career also took him to Hollywood, where he directed blockbusters including Young Guns II and the Steven Seagal train thriller Under Siege 2.

He also worked as a second unit director on Dante's Peak (directed by fellow Kiwi Roger Donaldson) and for Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

In 2014, Murphy was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to film. He had previously been honoured as one of New Zealand's 20 greatest living artists when named an Arts Icon by the Arts Foundation.

He was a founding member of the hippie musical and theatrical co-operative Blerta, which toured New Zealand and Australia performing multi-media shows in the early 1970s.

Several Blerta members followed Murphy into film work - including the band's drummer Bruno Lawrence, who starred in Utu and The Quiet Earth.