They met treading the boards at university, and nearly 50 years later their relationship has taken another dramatic turn - actor Elizabeth McRae and husband Don have both been made Officers of the New Zealand Order of Merit in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours list.

"It did come as a surprise," said Mrs McRae, best known for her role as Marjorie Neilson in Shortland Street. "My husband, I thought he would be in for one, because he's done so much voluntary work in the planning field."

Mr McRae has more than 50 years' experience in architecture, and was an actor for 20 years in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

He designed the Mercury Theatre in Auckland and as an executive member of Urban Auckland worked to challenge and influence prominent city building projects.

Last year, he was appointed to a new body, the New Zealand Registered Architects' Board.

Mr McRae is on the Auckland Theatre Trust Board, played an active part in setting up the Mt Eden Citizens' Advice Bureau and helped to set up the Auckland Community Child Care.

He was named as a Living Legend by the Auckland City Council last year.

"Both of us have enjoyed pursuing our different professions for the benefit of the community," said Mr McRae.

His wife has been acting and teaching acting for most of her life, and regards her honour as a nod to the acting profession.

"I think it's important that the arts get as much coverage as sport and other areas, so I'm very pleased on behalf of the acting community.

"The arts are an important part of our identity and our lives and it's an opportunity to tell our own stories."

Playing the receptionist Marj on Shortland Street rates as one of her career highlights.

"It was quite a privilege to be in that initial cast because it was a breakthrough that there was at last a New Zealand soap opera that wasn't full of Australians or Americans or English."

With a Living Legend for a husband, does Mrs McRae ever feel they are competing for the limelight?

"No, not at all! No way," she says, laughing. "There's absolutely no feeling of competing. Our fields are complementary in some ways and widely different in others."

Celebrating the couple's honours will have to take a back seat to what the McRaes love best - acting and the theatre.

"I wasn't thinking of celebrating," Mrs McRae says. "I'm involved in the production week of Mum's Choir ... I've a fairly heavy schedule of acting for the next three or four weeks."