Peter Rowley is perhaps best known for his comedy sketches with the late great Billy T James.
His early life was spent in Christchurch, while at Christ’s College, he earned the nickname Schultz (the name of a character in 60s comedy series Hogan’s Heroes) after a teacher caned him for answering a question with the words “I know nothing”.
Rowley left school at 15 wanting to be an actor. He worked a variety of jobs —labourer, farmhand — before approaching Christchurch’s Court Theatre in 1974 asking to be an actor. Eventually, actor/producer David McPhail asked Rowley to audition for a new TV sketch show called ‘A Week of It’.
In a Kiwi first for a comedy, the cast filmed in front of a live audience, and the programme was broadcast just 20 minutes after recording finished.
After a stint in Australia, Rowley returned to work alongside Billy T James.
One of the pair’s most iconic sketches featured Captain Cook (Rowley) encountering a Māori chief (James). “Everyone is talking about the Treaty as a sacred document and we’re poking the borax at it,” recalls Rowley. The idea was to take the mickey out of Māori and Pakeha, in order “to have a release of white guilt about their relationship with Māori. So much of it was undercutting white racist attitudes, quite deliberately.”
In the 1990s, Rowley worked once again with McPhail and Gadsby on rural comedy Letters to Blanchy and rejoined the duo yet again for 1998’s McPhail Gadsby.
In 1994 Rowley finally got his name in the title, when he co-starred with Pio Terei in the sketch show Pete and Pio. In 1995 the two shared a NZ Film and Television Award for Best Performance in an Entertainment Programme.
Rowley continues to act, and make live appearances. In 2011, he performed a Billy T & Me tribute at the NZ International Comedy Festival. When he’s not working, the Christchurch resident loves to fly planes.
Profile written by NZ On Screen’s Natasha Harris.