By DANIEL JACKSON
A jacket and tie sit comfortably on the shoulders of Kelly Johnson these days but, if you look closely, you can still see a trace of Blondini.
Johnson, complete with oversized cap, frizzy hair and silver jacket, once used a stolen yellow Mini to rip up the cinema screen as the authority-challenged young larrikin Jerry Austin, aka Blondini, who had a penchant for smoking dope and racing cops in the classic New Zealand movie Goodbye Pork Pie.
But now, more than 20 years on, he's more likely to represent clients in court at Whangarei for exactly the behaviour he portrayed so well in the film.
The unthinkable has happened: Blondini, now in his 40s, has become a lawyer. "I'm not anti-establishment. If anything, as I've got older I've become more conservative," says Johnson, who has been practising law in Whangarei since 1996. "I tend to wince at things I would have once turned a blind eye to."
But Johnson is still questioning authority. He was among a group of Whangarei lawyers who formed a local criminal bar association to monitor police behaviour in the area.
He said lawyers often heard reports of violent or unethical behaviour by police, but a judge's decision that two teenagers acted in self defence when scuffling with police was the catalyst for forming the group.
The lawyers' concerns helped to prompt a continuing investigation into the behaviour of the Whangarei police. As Johnson says, "We don't manufacture complaints [against police], but we can't just stand aside when we hear them."
Most days Johnson can be found at the Whangarei court defending clients on criminal charges, which seems as far removed from acting as possible. But he believes there are similarities.
"With a trial you are trying to persuade an audience of 12 intelligent people, from diverse walks of life, to your client's point of view. With a play you try to persuade an audience to the author's point of view.
"Communication is the main tool. When you think about it, all you are using are words. The difference with acting is you are ultimately only responsible for yourself. If you do a bad performance you can always do another, but if you appear in court for someone and you do a bad job, it could affect their freedom."
Another difference is in the back pocket, which is important for a man with three young children. "I miss the creativity of films and plays, but I don't miss the uncertainty of employment," he says.
"There's always work for a lawyer, but any actor will tell you that an actor's life is uncertain - especially for someone with a family."
Johnson prefers criminal law to civil because criminal law involves people and is important for society. "A criminal lawyer is one of the checks and balances in a democracy. People slag us off, but it's true."
Johnson spent a decade working as an actor, beginning as an enthusiastic 18-year-old working through the ranks of Auckland's Theatre Corporate.
His movie break came four years later when he landed the role of Jerry Austin in Pork Pie - allegedly once Prince Charles' favourite movie - which co-starred Tony Barry and was directed by Geoff Murphy.
"It was a perfect start for me as far as movies went," says Johnson. "The role suited me and so did the slapstick humour."
The public agreed and the film did well here and overseas. Once, remembers Johnson, he saw a poster for a Spanish translation titled - predictably - Adios Tortilla.
"Pork Pie had a certain freedom. It didn't have to live up to anything, but it endeared itself to the public. It allowed people to live vicariously and it was a healthy form of anti-establishment."
Johnson's other film career highs included roles in Utu and Bad Blood where, famously, he shot Stanley Graham. He also landed a part in the post-apocalyptic Battle Truck, which wasn't quite the hit people thought it would be. As he says now, "no one talks about that one much".
But while others from Pork Pie went on to greater things (for example Lee Tamahori, who operated a sound boom in Pork Pie, directed Once Were Warriors) Johnson found it hard to shake the spectre of Blondini.
Frustrated at being denied the roles he wanted because of his well-known face, he set his sights on acting overseas.
"For a while it [Pork Pie] was a curse, because I felt typecast," he says. "But I probably didn't appreciate how valuable it was at the time."
His life took a different twist when he met his partner, Jan Fisher, while performing a play at Wellington's Downstage Theatre about a married couple wrestling with issues. The pair spent several years in Japan teaching English before returning to New Zealand for Johnson to study law.
"Life started changing as soon as I went to law school," he says. "I found it a challenge, which was what I had been looking for. Actors as a group are a pretty bright bunch but they tend to think in broad strokes. With the law you have to look at things differently. It felt like I was narrowing my vision to concentrate."
His decision to change careers was not surprising, considering his background. His father, Garfield Johnson, was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Massey University for his work in education, and his older brother, Russell Johnson, is a judge at the Waitakere District Court.
While at law school, Johnson briefly returned to acting, with appearances in advertisements and short films supplementing his student income. One of his last roles, shortly after completing his degree, was in Shortland Street, in which he played a doctor who fell in love with a transvestite before sailing off into the sunset.
But the halt in Johnson's acting career has not granted him anonymity - despite the suit and tie, he cannot escape Blondini.
"Sometimes I'll get recognised two or three times a day," he says. "Having a well-known face doesn't go against me. I'm often surprised at how many people recognise me, particularly young men who weren't even born when the film was made."
But even now, he has not completely given up on a return to acting. Several of the probation officers at the courthouse have tried to get him into the local amateur dramatic scene.
"I hope to try to act again sometime but at the moment I'm busy," he says. "I've got a family and a mortgage."
As for the other major star of Pork Pie, the Mini, Johnson has no love left. When he was reunited with it during a photo shoot several years ago as its owner publicised it was for sale, it was revulsion at second sight. "I wasn't interested at all, I hate them."