One of New Zealand's best known actresses, Dame Pat Evison, has died at the age of 85 after a long illness.

Born as Helen June Patricia Blamires in Dunedin in June 1924, she went to school in Masterton, Victoria and Auckland Universities, and Auckland Teachers' Training College.

She moved to Britain in the 1940s training as a director at the London's Old Vic Theatre Centre before taking up an role as assistant director with the Young Vic Theatre Company.

She returned to New Zealand as a freelance director before turning to an acting career working on stage, radio and TV in Australia and New Zealand.

She is probably best known for her roles in the Australian TV series Prisoner and The Flying Doctors.

In New Zealand she played Phyllis Telford in the landmark 1970s drama series Pukemanu - a role that the show's creator, Julian Dickon, said made her recognised as that character all over the country. She also featured in the popular Close to Home series.

Her New Zealand film appearances included playing the vampire's daughter in children's fantasy Grampire, and unwelcoming local in Bad Blood.

She was awarded an OBE in 1980 for her services to the theatre and was made a Dame in 1993.

Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Christopher Finlayson today paid tribute to Dame Pat's life and career, saying she was an important part of New Zealand history television history.

"Dame Pat Evison was one of our most well-known and well-loved actresses for her television roles in groundbreaking series, but she was also a pioneer in New Zealand theatre," he said.

"My thoughts go out to her family, friends and colleagues at this time."

Meanwhile, Labour Arts, Culture and Heritage spokesperson Steve Chadwick said Dame Pat's sharp wit and wisdom would be missed.

"Dame Pat was one of the first women to play leading roles on New Zealand's big and small screens," Chadwick said.

"Her face was readily identifiable as a Kiwi mum on shows such as Pukemanu and Close to Home.

"The warmth Dame Pat brought to her roles in New Zealand's very early soap hits was rewarded with the respect of her fellow actors and fans."

She is survived by her husband, Roger, two sons and a daughter.