One Question Quiz
Ernie Leonard in pictures
Ernie Leonard in pictures

Pop CultureMay 17, 2024

Blazing a trail: the Leonard family legacy in Māori television

Ernie Leonard in pictures
Ernie Leonard in pictures

Producer Susan Leonard remembers her father Ernie, a pioneer of Māori television, and how his legacy lives on in Pathfinders.

My father was a fabulous man. His name was Ernie Leonard and he started in TV in the 1970s when it was still glamorous – when TVNZ made behind the scenes Christmas tapes for staff each year that were devilish and occasionally debauched. In the late seventies, he was the presenter on New Zealand’s answer to WWF, a wrestling show called On the Mat. “Ernie Leonaaaard” King Curtis, a huge Hawaiian wrestler with scars on his forehead, yelled regularly in his face. He became a household name.

As his youngest daughter I was often pulled onto shows. The best was Hudson and Halls, a cooking show with two fabulous gay men. Robin Corbett, the puppeteer of Sooty and Sweep in the UK was a guest and they needed a child to play with Sooty. The worst was a kids show where I had to eat kina for the first time. After the first take when I spat it out, Dad said, with the perfect mix of gusto and kindness, “that was great darling. Now do it again and pretend that you like it.” 

My grandfather, Pakake Heketoro Leonard, was the chief of our hapū, but he didn’t teach my father Māori. To make it in this world, he said, he had to make it in the Pākehā world. He also pulled him out of school when he was 14 years old after his report read “Ernest performs better in front of the class than within it”. Dad was sent to work on the railways but it wasn’t long before he decided he’d much rather be a shoe salesman.

Ernie Leonard performing (Photo: Supplied)

My father began his career as the Public Relations Officer in Rotorua. He told me once that he called TV1 directly and asked them what he needed to do to make them bring a camera down. They answered – put on a show. So he gathered the Howard Morrison Quartet and other performers and staged a huge event in the soundshell. The cameras came and the rest, as they say, is history.

With his natural charisma and talent for entertaining, Dad was soon an actor, landing a lead role in an episode of Pukemanu. In 1971 it was groundbreaking for a drama series to have a lead Māori actor, and he enhanced the role, suggesting true-life themes of the struggle to integrate his Māori identity in a Pākehā world. But in 1974 (the year I was born), Dad lost all television work with the demise of the New Zealand Broadcasting Commission. It was reorganised into two channels, TV1 and TV2, and there were a lot of staff cuts. He had to work on the wharves to make ends meet for seven months (food for thought in our current climate). 

There are 38,000 references to my father in the television archives library from all of his roles over the years. He was a newsreader with Angela D’Audney, a reporter and presenter on countless shows, and then moved behind the scenes to direct and produce. 

Before 1985, Māori programmes were classed as “special projects”. Then, a new Māori department was proposed, but it was made clear it would not have the status of other departments. What I didn’t know until I started writing this article was my father wrote a 23-page application for the role saying he would only take it if it was equal to other departments. TVNZ agreed. 

Ernie (far left) as head of the Māori Department (Photo: Supplied)

The first Māori programmes, Koha, Te Karere and Marae to name a few, were captained by Dad and the team of talented Māori and Pākehā staff he drew around him. He was passionate about telling stories and reviving te reo Māori, because he didn’t speak the language himself. In 1987 he took a television crew and a waka to the America’s Cup in San Diego, and it was there that he had the idea for Waka Huia. He told me he looked at the many kuia and kaumātua who had flown with them and suddenly thought – what if the plane went down and they all died? Their stories would be lost forever. 

When Scottie Productions called me recently and asked me to produce their second series of Pathfinders, it was a no-brainer. Pathfinders is an offshoot of Waka Huia. Waka Huia celebrates kuia and kaumātua who have lived exceptional lives and who are fluent reo speakers. And, after 37 years, it is still in production. 

The author on her father’s lap

Pathfinders tells the stories of legendary, trailblazing Māori who aren’t fluent in the reo. A whole generation like my father whose stories are no less spectacular. The second series begins with the formidable and humble Nanaia Mahuta, who was the youngest member of parliament and lost her long-held seat last year. It includes, among others, Peter Gordon, master carver James Rickard and Mike Smith, the lifelong activist most known for taking a chainsaw to the pine tree on One Tree Hill in 1994. 

If my father was alive, I would make a Pathfinders episode about him. But I would likely need more than half an hour to explain the profound impact he had on television. I swore I wouldn’t get into the industry after growing up with him critiquing every show (“Terrible continuity! Did you see that shot? Who’s directing this?”) but I’m glad I did. My brother, sister and I all have careers in television. And his shoes were never too big for us to fill because his heart was so warm and open to all the worlds he traversed and his storytelling reflected that.

The new season of Pathfinders begins on TVNZ1 this Sunday, May 19 at 10am. Episodes can be streamed on TVNZ+.

Keep going!