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Throwback Thursday: The untold story of New Zealand’s small screen legend Alan Dale

Alan Dale is a national treasure, acting legend and generally lovely man, who has for far too long flown under the radar. Katie Parker celebrates this humble kiwi great of the small screen.

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It was out of unconditional love that I joined my boyfriend to see the Entourage movie last year. As I should have foreseen, it was a misguided way to show it. Having never seen the show, I lacked the affection and nostalgia necessary to enjoy the sparse jokes and defend the flagrant chauvinism and misogyny.

Even the celebrity cameos were ho-hum – until a character called John Ellis appeared late in the film. My heart soared. The horrible show that spawned this horrible movie had a secret, beautiful treasure at its heart: New Zealand’s greatest living television actor, Alan Dale.

Whether you know it or not, Alan Dale is to the small screen what Sam Neill is to the big. A pioneer in the first wave of high concept US television, he is one of our most precious, prolific and lucrative exports. Yet he remains underexposed, undervalued and criminally unrecognised in his home country.

Like all the best stars, Dale followed an unconventional path to success. I highly recommend watching the entirety of this excellent and informative NZ On Screen interview charting his rise to fame:

Allow me to summarise: hailing from ngere, young Alan enjoyed the odd bit of theatre in his schoolboy days – a pastime he deemed not lucrative enough as he came of age. After a spate of odd jobs, he returned to the craft at 29, landing a starring role in the sadly forgotten 1970s Kiwi soap Radio Waves. With this under his belt and acting work thin on the ground in New Zealand, he made the move to Australia where he was quickly snapped up by Neighbours. There on Ramsay Street, he gave eight and a half years of his life as kindly patriarch Jim Robinson.

But where to go from playing a lovable schmo on an Australian soap? The best part of this interview, and perhaps the entire legend of Dale, is how his move to Hollywood was inspired by former Neighbours castmate Natalie Imbruglia. I could tell it no better than the man himself:

I was at the gym one morning with the gang of car salesmen I’d got to know … and I’m working out on the elliptical or something watching the TV above me [and] there was Natalie singing that… Born was it? Torn! And she’s lovely and always beautiful. Gorgeous song. And there she was in Hollywood and she was with David Schwimmer and all this stuff in the papers and things. And I think well, ‘God this is not right’. I mean here I am. Is this gonna be me for the rest of my life?

Within two years he had emigrated.

Though Alan would have been in his fifties when he made the move to Hollywood, it feels as though a star was born – and oh how that star shone. For a time it was as though Dale’s beaming light was inescapable in the televisual landscape, usually as some kind of antagonist. The OC, 24, Lost, NCIS, Entourage, Ugly Betty, The X Files: Alan Dale was the unsung anti-hero of cult television in the 2000s.

This is not to say he has fallen into obscurity. In recent years Dale has appeared in The Killing, The Mindy Project, Once Upon a Time, Dominion and *cough* Hot in Cleveland. I may not have watched Top Coppers, but I am sure his work in it was up to his same impeccable standard.

Even today I still come across poor, ignorant souls who know not of his majesty. How have we let this happen? It is time for us to celebrate this man, and all he has done for us. If by some cruel luck you are unfamiliar with this noble expat, I suggest you quickly acquaint yourselves with the following of his greatest hits:

Jack Delamore in Radio Waves

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Before The Boat that Rocked there was Radio Waves. Centering on a Radio Hauraki-esque Auckland radio station, Jack the station manager was Dale’s first ever role. With wild flared pants, a sleek turtleneck and a lovely little fro, he lit up the screen from the very start. Though the show was clunky and short-lived, Dale was destined for bigger things – and it was still a far cry better than Filthy Rich.

Jim Robinson in Neighbours 

Full disclosure: I have never watched Neighbours and certainly was not watching it during Dale’s tenure from 1985-1993, given that I was born in 1990. I’ve surmised that his role was something akin to that of Alf Stewart in Home and Away. He was kindly, fatherly, a pillar of the community. The above video depicts Jim Robinson’s tragic demise, and was perhaps the first of Dale’s many, many onscreen deaths. Suffering from a Golden Retriever-induced heart attack, Jim was clearly a gentle soul. It’s no wonder Dale has pursued more nefarious characters ever since.

Vice President Jim Prescott in 24

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As treacherous Vice President Jim Prescott, Dale used the aftermath of a terrorist attack to usurp noble POTUS David Palmer and tried to declare war on a fictional Arab nation. Fortunately, it took but a day for Jack Bauer to prove that he was wrong and for order to be restored. Total sweetie pie David Palmer ultimately forgave him though, because who could stay mad at that face.

Charles Widmore in Lost

Charles Widmore was a member of The Others on the Island back in the day and was also enemies with main Lost villain Ben Linus. Charles got exiled due to his secret non-Island family, but dedicated the rest of his life to scotch appreciation, messing with Ben and stopping sexy Desmond Hume from marrying his daughter Penny.

Charles was a consummate douchebag, but a mysterious one. His connection with the island was built up to for many seasons, long after we all hated him for being snobby to Desmond. When he finally died in a showdown with Ben, Lost was at peak crazy. At least with lovely Mr. Dale present we knew we were in safe hands.

The best thing about Charles Widmore was that his British accent frequently swerved into a Kiwi lilt, and one could feel momentarily proud that it was a fellow New Zealander stirring up so much shit.

Caleb Nichol in The O.C

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Dale’s greatest role was naughty, haughty, amoral patriarch Caleb Nichol, the secret heart and axis of a show not nearly as concerned with teens as it would have had you believe.

Remember how he called Sandy “Sanford”? Remember when he booty called Julie? Remember when his illegitimate daughter Lindsay showed up and proved so dull that he demanded a paternity test? The man was pure gold.

It is no coincidence then that, immediately subsequent to Caleb’s death, The O.C went swiftly and efficiently downhill.

His death, an unfortunate heart attack by the pool, was made all the crueler as his estranged wife Julie had just decided NOT to poison him. It was a television event, capping off season two and accompanied by Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’. The dramatic tension evaporated with the departure of this snarky sweetie, as did my interest in the show.

RIP Caleb you are forever in my heart, and long live Alan Dale.


Throwback Thursday is brought to you by NZ On Screen, click here to see more from their ‘Before They Were Famous’ collection, including Alan Dale, Helen Clark, Lorde and more.

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