Acclaimed Maori actor Wi Kuki Kaa has died in Wellington, aged 67.

His death is being mourned by many in New Zealand, including the entertainment industry as well as the Maori community.

Kaa, a Te Aute College old boy, was involved in New Zealand film, television and theatre for more than 40 years.

His first major role was in the 1987 hit Ngati, the first film to be written and directed by Maori, for which Kaa accepted the prize for the best film award at an Italian film festival.

His most notable role recently was as Old Rangi in the box office hit River Queen.

Kaa also spent 15 years in the film and television industry in Australia.

Long-time friend Lindsay Shelton, who met Kaa while working at the New Zealand Film Commission, said yesterday that whenever Kaa performed in a New Zealand film, he was a charismatic personality on the screen and a very strong screen actor.

"Each time he was on screen he was a very, very strong and forceful character."

Mr Shelton said that during Kaa's time in the Australian film industry, he was only picking up roles as "Oriental ethnic villains".

"It wasn't until New Zealand got a film industry that he was able to come home to New Zealand and play real people who were people who he could empathise with because he was playing Maori characters.

"Until the Film Commission started financing films in New Zealand, a wonderful actor such as Wi Kuki Kaa really didn't have any ability to work in his own country."

Maori Party co-leaders Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia said they were mourning the loss of an extraordinary performer, a multi-talented artist, and a beloved personality of Ngati Porou and Ngati Kahungunu.

"Aotearoa is all the richer for the gifts Wi Kuki shared with the nation," Dr Sharples said.

"He has been in our theatres, on our large screens and in our homes through television, video and now DVD for over four decades."

Kaa is also remembered as a homeless man confronting memories of the Vietnam War in Turangawaewae (2003); as Old Koni in Taniwha-Water Spirit; as Wiremu in Utu (1983); as Rewi in Te Rua (1991) as King Tynah in The Bounty (1984) and for an extensive range of other films, and short features.

"He was an outstanding actor who was able to bring life to a huge range of characters," Dr Sharples said.

Mrs Turia said Kaa left a proud legacy of talent and composition.

"While the nation is right now able to admire his distinctive presence in River Queen, our tamariki and kura will have an enduring memory through the many different stories he recorded for school publications.

"I will always remember Wi Kuki for demonstrating the passion of performance.

"Wi Kuki had such energy and charisma that I think we all saw him as immortal.

"In fact, it was only just before Christmas that he withdrew from the role of ailing war hero Te Keepa Rangihiwinui in Dr Buller's Birds - Survival of the Fittest, which opens this Saturday night as part of the International Arts Festival.

"Knowing Wi, I am sure his presence will be there on opening night."

Mrs Turia said they shared with his whanau the profound loss of a remarkable man.

"His people of Ngati Porou refer to Te Uranga o te Ra, the shining of the rays on Mt Hikurangi.

"With the passing of this radiant light of the Maori theatre world, the clouds have no doubt settled upon Mt Hikurangi, and upon us all, as we farewell this descendant of Ohinewaiapu."

- NZPA