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It was George Henare's inability to keep still behind one of New Zealand's greatest opera singers that began his own stellar career.

In a career spanning 44 years, Henare, who has been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the theatre, has travelled the world playing characters as diverse as Julius Caesar and Dracula, and toured shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom of the Opera.

In 1965, the then 19-year-old, who was in his second year of teachers college, auditioned for the New Zealand Opera Company and made it into a production of Porgy and Bess.

Henare remembers Inia Te Wiata out the front with his beautiful bass-baritone.

"He was a lovely man, hardworking and humble, never threw tantrums, just got on and did the work. It just happened I was in the chorus but they couldn't keep me still. So the [company] found little characters for me to do. I thought, 'Ah ha. This is what I want to do'."

That stint for the boy from Ngati Porou and Ngati Hine stock led to a tour through the old Soviet Union with a Maori theatre company, which was told the haka was too rude and it needed to be dropped from performances. "The director said 'no' and we did it and they loved it."

Henare has worked steadily in radio, television and in films such as Once Were Warriors, Potiki's Memory of Stone and The Silent One.

He still gets a kick out of finding new stories and characters to play.

"The best thing about getting older is that I've lived all those life experiences, and as you get older, the roles get richer," he said.

"This job is about understanding life, exploring the human condition - that's what's important to me more than anything."

One of the delights of a long career is finding out how people know him, and he is always surprised to be recognised. "They'll go, 'It's the voice' or 'It's the eyes'. I always think, 'Really?' But it's the nature of the job."