Death of Billy T. James

7 August 1991

Billy T. James, 1985
Billy T. James, 1985 (Alexander Turnbull Library, EP/1985/3350/26-F)

The much-loved entertainer was just 43 when he died of heart failure.

Born William Taitoko, the multi-talented musician toured the world with the Maori Volcanics Showband in the 1970s. He adopted the stage name Billy T. James because Australians could not pronounce his surname correctly.

James came to prominence in the television variety show Radio times, but he is best remembered for the Billy T James show, six series of which were screened by TVNZ between 1981 and 1986. On the show, the gifted impressionist portrayed a variety of characters in recurring sketches such as ‘Te News’, a parody of the Māori news show Te karere. He lampooned Māori and Pākehā quirks with affection and a trademark giggle. Later series of the show were co-written with Peter Rowley and featured more diverse material.

In 1985 James played the Tainuia Kid in an eccentric film adaptation of Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s novel, Came a hot Friday,

James suffered a major heart attack in 1988 and died three years later. The annual Billy T Award honours up-and-coming New Zealand comedians.

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