Russell Smith may be best known to a generation of Kiwis as the inimitable Count Homogenized – a milk loving vampire, who was a mainstay of children’s TV in the 1970s.
Although not born in Christchurch, Lyttelton quickly became his home after he was given a lucky break in a television series directed by Kim Gibara and moved to the city from his hometown of Masterton.
Russell Smith talks to Zara Potts about his acting career and how Count Homogenized has lived on in the imaginations of a generation of Kiwi kids for decades…
You weren’t originally from Christchurch were you? You were originally a Masterton boy?
I came down to Christchurch because a friend of mine Kevin Wilson was doing a show with Kim Gibara and he said to me I should audition for a part in this show, so I flew down to Christchurch from Wellington, did the audition, and was at the airport about to return home when my name was called over the intercom, and it was a phone call from Kim Gibara saying ‘You’ve got the job, I’ll see you back here on Tuesday.”
Was that your first time in Christchurch?
And you moved straight down here.
Fortunately I knew a couple of people here, so I was really lucky to have somewhere to go when I first came down.
Was this your first big acting break?
I’d been working as a professional actor for three years doing children’s art theatre and then I moved to Auckland to do a secondary schools tour with Ian Watkin from Pukemanu. I worked with him for a year and then spent three years in New Plymouth being a ballet dancer, or learning ballet and jazz, but then I decided I wanted to pursue acting and I moved to Wellington.
Do you regret not having a dancing career?
No, I don’t ever wonder. And the reason is probably because dance is, for me, only one form of expression. If you’re an actor you’ve got to be a mover and a talker and use your voice. When I was offered a scholarship at the NZ Ballet Company, I was 22 I think, I thought about it and realised it didn’t really appeal to me.
In that time period, dance would have been an unusual profession for men – did you encounter prejudice for wanting to do ballet?
Absolutely. Lots of blokes laughed at me and called me a poofter. It wasn’t really until the All Blacks started getting ballet lessons to learn how to jump high in the line out that it became acceptable. Even with acting, you were looked at a bit sideways.
Did you come from an artistic family?
Hell no. My father was a teacher, my mother was a hairdresser. My father always said to me, ‘You will have to get a proper job someday, so maybe you should get some training in something else.” Which I never bothered to do.
So was performing something you were always interested in, or was there a lightbulb moment at some point?
How it first started was that I really enjoyed dancing at school. I used to do square dancing, and I enjoyed being in the choir and then my big break was being in a school production in the town hall and we did Bismarck. There’s one line that is spoken not sung, and I was given that line, and I got up there and felt really good, everybody clapped and I thought it was pretty great. I just enjoyed being on stage.
Your father probably wasn’t alone in thinking that being a performer was not a valid career choice in those days?
There were two professional theatres in New Zealand at that time. There were two theatre companies that toured the country, and there was radio, but that wasn’t considered to be a viable acting thing. Of course television changed everything in terms of being able to actually make a living.
So when you arrived in Christchurch, you were involved in children’s television and it would have been a boom time I imagine?
There was a lot of creativity going on. Children’s television was centred here and virtually every show was coming out of Christchurch. The Gloucester Street studios virtually ran every day of the week. It was a thriving industry.
Were you primarily acting?
I was. When I arrived in Christchurch I also went and auditioned at The Court Theatre. At that time the theatre was run on six month contracts, and you would get rolled over for five or six plays so that actors had a guaranteed income. They said to me that they weren’t rolling over any new contracts at that time, but they’d put me on their books. A week later they rang me and said ‘Could you come into the theatre please, we think we might need you…’ and what had happened was one of the lead actors had died, and I had to learn the script in 48 hours and then go onstage.
And you managed it?
I did, and then I became a regular at The Court Theatre. So I was basically a freelance actor who worked between The Court Theatre and television. I was just so lucky to be in the right place at the right time. If I hadn’t had the Court gig, I would have struggled because television was always about 12 weeks work and then nothing.
So once you found your feet in Christchurch, what was the creative scene like?
I moved there in 1975 and I fell in with all of these very creative people. A lot of Lyttelton was a creative hub because it was affordable to buy a house there. A lot of creative people, like Bill Hammond and Al Park and Lawrence Aberhart moved there. We all ended up in Lyttelton because it was cheaper there. It was an inspiring place to be. Al started Mollet Street and we went into a venture where we would just get people to come and put on gigs. We had a stage and that was all we needed. That was a really creative place, good old Mollet Street.
Why do you think Christchurch attracted such creative people?
A lot of them were born there. But there was also the fact that the university was in the city for a long time. I think Ngaio Marsh’s theatre company at the university was instrumental. A lot of the people who ended up in television and the theatre were taught by her. A world famous author and actress who lived in Christchurch. So the university scene was really strong and there were a lot of students who were writing plays and performing sketches and if you get one element working that well then it attracts other creative people.
Did you enjoy being in Christchurch?
Oh, I loved it. I still think of it as my home. Unfortunately the earthquake destroyed my house and so I no longer live there.
What was it that you loved about Christchurch?
Firstly, I loved the city. I thought it was such a beautiful city with the river and the Arts Centre. I loved the architecture. The other thing I loved about Christchurch was I was in a group of creative people. The creative energy of the place. I also loved the Peninsula. I spent a lot of time on Banks Peninsula.
So back to television and what would in some ways become your defining role – that of Count Homogenized…
Yep. That’s with me every day!
I’m sure there are days when you must think, ‘Oh no..’
No, I’ve never thought that. I am still amazed at how much that character resonated with people. People still recognise my voice. Probably four or five times a year, I run into people who say, ‘Oh my god, you’re Count Homogenized!” I think the fact that I’ve still got my hair makes a big difference. I had so much fun making that programme. Hearing people say that the Count really had an impact on their childhood – it affected so many people that age.
What do you think it was? Was it the fact that children’s television back then allowed for more experimentation, to do things that were quite unusual? Was that the secret to it?
I certainly think that was the secret to my character, in that before Count Homogenized came along, most of children’s television was very safe and proper and didn’t have extremes whereas my character had extremes and that’s what attracted people to it because they just didn’t know where the character was going to go and that was what was exciting. I think it was fortunate that David McPhail was writing it and he was as off-the-wall as I was in terms of thinking of ideas that the Count could dream up. How could you dream up yet another impossible scenario of how the Count could get milk? Just crazy shit. I was lucky enough to have that character and be allowed to be as crazy as I was.
It sounds like it was a blast.
It was but it was still incredibly structured. Kim Gibara who produced and directed it was a dot-the-i’s and cross-the-t’s kind of man. He was a hard man to work for. After lunch if you weren’t on set at the given time, he would absolutely rip you to shreds and point out that there were 40 people standing on the studio floor waiting for you to turn up.
That’s a fairly harsh learning curve for people…
Hell yeah. I actually ran into Kim at David McPhail’s funeral and he said to me, ‘I really enjoyed working with you so much, especially on Telethon’s because I knew if I had a space to fill I knew I could rely on you to come up with some crazy thing to do.” That was a lovely compliment, and I loved doing telethons, but I never knew he had such respect for me in that regard.
Freelance acting though can’t have been an easy life – were there times when you struggled financially?
I had to take other sorts of jobs. When I started living in Christchurch, I would happily do work like stack pallets of wood. I would do that when I had down time from acting. You got paid for the amount of timber you stacked. I would help paint houses, I worked in the scrap metal business.
You have to be resourceful.
You always have to be open to doing other stuff because there are very few actors in New Zealand who work full time. It’s easier in supportive centres like Christchurch and Wellington, but it’s still hard for a lot of performers.
Especially in recent times with Covid. Performers have been hit hard.
During Covid the creative sector was incredibly hard hit. Quite often people have one or two big gigs a year that make 90% of their income and if those go, how do you pay your rent? How do you pay your mortgage? The pandemic has been really hard on all of the creative arts.
Back to your television days in Christchurch – who did you enjoy working with?
David McPhail was probably one of the nicest people you could ever work with and for. I didn’t do a lot with him, apart from being in A Week of It and McPhail and Gadsby, but I really enjoyed working with him. The number of years I worked at The Court Theatre, I worked with some amazing people. Michael Hurst and Peter Elliot… The majority of people who work as actors are genuinely nice people. They look out for each other and have a good time together.
What about artists from Christchurch – who do you admire?
Well, Bill Hammond obviously. The wonderful thing about Bill was that he was a creative person before he became an artist, he was a wooden toy maker. He dreamt up these wonderful toys. David Wilson, is another one – a lovely landscape artist.
Last question – is about your old home of Lyttelton – It’s very much a creative hub now as it was in your time. Were you all aware of your own creativity as a group back then?
So much good stuff is coming out of Lyttelton. I think we were all aware that so many people who chose to live there were creative people. It was such a lovely feel in the village, the pubs, the people who lived there at the time were all very creative and we all just connected. I think we knew we were creative and contributing in our own ways. It was a great place to be. It’s still so creative now and it’s wonderful to see how it’s still carrying on the tradition.