William James Te Wehi Taitoko MBE (17 January 1948 – 7 August 1991) better known by his stage name Billy T. James, was a New Zealand entertainer, comedian, musician and actor. He became a key figure in the development of New Zealand comedy, and a household name during his lifetime.
Taitoko was of Waikato Tainui and Clan Campbell descent, leading him to reflect humorously in one routine, "I'm half Maori and half Scots. Half of me wants to go to the pub and get pissed, and the other half doesn't want to pay for it.".
Taitoko joined the Maori Volcanics Showband in the 1970s and performed around the world. Prince Tui Teka encouraged him to embark on a solo career which saw him in great demand for his skits and impressions and his cabaret singing. He adopted the stage name Billy T. James because "it was something the Australians could pronounce".
In 1980 he appeared in the variety show Radio Times, the success of which led to his own comedy sketch show in 1981, The Billy T James Show (see section). The same year he was named New Zealand Entertainer of the Year.
In 1985 his cabaret act was recorded live and released on LP as "Billy T Live! at Pips Cabaret, Whangarei". Featuring standup comedy selections and live versions of songs such as Running Bear and When A Child Is Born, this title was out-of-print for more than a decade before being re-released in CD format in 2008.
He made a notable appearance in the 1985 feature film Came a Hot Friday and provided voice-talent for the popular animated film Footrot Flats: The Dog's Tail. Also in 1985 Billy was named New Zealand Entertainer of the Decade.
In 1986 Billy and Chris Slane published "Real Hard Case" which contained comic-strip interpretations of Billy's comedy. "Real Hard Case 2" followed in 1987.
During this period his name and likeness was used for the company "Billy T's Hangi Takeaways," with locations in Auckland, but the business did not last and closed after several years.
The Billy T James Show
Billy T James self-titled television show for TVNZ featured sketch comedy and live performances of standup comedy and songs. The show lasted seven series and became a New Zealand institution. Joining Billy in the first series were regulars Doug Aston and Laurie Dee. Almost all of the first (1981) and second series (1982) were wiped by TVNZ, with no known copies existing, only one episode from each of the first two series still exist in the TVNZ archive. The second series saw Billy introduce his first recurring character Pierre the Painter, who would paint pictures while telling a story. The third series, the first to survive in full saw the introduction of a parody of the Maori news show Te Karere entitled Te News in Episode 3, however this would not appear again until two years later during Series 5. The black singlet and yellow towel Billy wore in these sketches were to become iconic. After the 1984 series, Doug Aston and Laurie Dee, along with many of the writers, were dropped. The fifth and sixth series (1985 and 1986 respectively were co-written by Peter Rowley and included parodies of Miami Vice, Playschool, a 'Lands For Bags' television commercial and sketches featuring Rowley as Captain Cook.
Series 1 and 2 most likely ran for 6 half-hour episodes each in 1981 and 1982. Series 3 ran for 7 half-hour episodes in 1983, and Series 4 ran for 6 half-hour episodes in 1984.
Later Billy starred in a second television show also titled The Billy T James Show. It screened on TV3 and was based on a format devised by Billy and Tom Parkinson. Abandoning the popular sketch comedy format, this show was a family sitcom format and effectively starred Billy as himself. Co-starring were Ilona Rodgers and Mark Hadlow, with Mark Wright, Tania Wehi and Willa O'Neill. It ran for one series with only average audience ratings and reviews.
Deteriorating health, transplant and death
In 1988 James suffered a major heart attack and underwent a quadruple bypass operation. The operation was not successful, and in November 1989 he received a heart transplant. He returned to the stage of the Aotea Centre in April 1990 for the variety special Billy T James, Alive and Gigging. Howard Morrison appeared as a special guest.
James' health deteriorated again shortly afterwards, and he became ill with heart failure in February 1991. He died at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland on 7 August 1991.
Legacy, recent biographies and documentaries
The Billy T Award was founded in 1997 in honour of James. It is New Zealand's most prestigious comedy award, recognising comedians with outstanding potential. Winners are presented with a yellow towel, Billy's trademark from his "Te News" sketches.
The first biography of James was released in 2009. Entitled The Life and Times of Billy T. James, it was written by Matt Elliott and was based upon interviews with more than fifty friends and colleagues of Billy as well as wife Lynn and sister Ngaire.
In December 2010, funding was given for the production of a biographical film based on Billy T. James' life. In March 2011, it was revealed the film was to be titled Billy and would star Tainui Tukiwaho as Billy and Morgana O'Reilly as wife Lynn. The film premiered on 21 August 2011 on TV One. Liberties were taken for dramatic purposes including arguments with co-writer and television partner Peter Rowley and a minor heart-attack while filming, neither of which occurred. Both Peter Rowley and James' daughter criticised the inaccuracies of the production in the press.
A documentary entitled Billy T: Te Movie was released theatrically in August 2011. Directed by Ian Mune, it proved popular with both theatre-goers and reviewers, becoming the week's top box office performer on the week of release with $263,000 in sales. Te Movie is now available on DVD.
In 2011, Peter Rowley wrote and starred in Billy T & Me, a one-man show which combined Rowley's memories of working alongside Billy with archival video footage. The show toured New Zealand and was made available on DVD.