Accidental actor became a star
emigrating to New Zealand, when Lavington went to the Hutt Repertory Theatre to see Busman’s Holiday.
‘‘I mentioned to my wife that the acting was rather ordinary, and she challenged me to get into it. On the back of the programme was an application form to join the repertory and soon I started getting involved behind the scenes,’’ he recalled in 2015.
Up till then, his only stage experience had been rugby singalongs and seeing the odd pantomime.
That year he made his acting debut, after Davina Whitehouse cast him aptly as a policeman in Toad of Toad Hall. Two years later, Richard Campion singled Lavington out for special praise for his role as an Italian immigrant in Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge, and the NZ Drama Council named him actor of the year.
In 1958 he joined The New Zealand Players, the only professional company at the time, and won acclaim for a number of his roles with the troupe.
They were impecunious days, and Lavington later recalled sleeping under railway bridges and in pine woods on tour with fellow thespian Charles Walker to save money while on the road.
The travelling troubadours would brew their tea over an open fire in the mornings and fill their pockets with sausage rolls and sandwiches whenever the local host society put on a function after a performance.
His stage repertoire included myriad performances with the Hutt Repertory Theatre and The New Zealand Players and 13 plays for Downstage Theatre, including the debut seasons of Robert Lord’s Well Hung and Bruce Mason’s Awatea.
TV and film soon came calling. Pacific Films boss John O’Shea cast him in Think about Tomorrow, as a goldminer and
Alater in adventure romp Rangi’s Catch.
He channelled his inner policeman in TV Kiwi drama Pukemanu and played a university lecturer in Buck House.
Unlike many of his fellow actors, Lavington had never had any formal training in the profession and, despite his success, he always had a nagging fear that he’d be ‘‘found out’’.
Treading the boards was an unlikely profession for aWelsh bobby, for that is how Lavington started his career.
Growing up Cardiff, he was the eldest of five children. His mother was a barmaid and his father a carpenter and World War II soldier. He followed his grandfather into the police as a clerical assistant after leaving school.
But it was wartime and, because of his time spent in the sea cadets, he was able to join the navy in the final stages of World War II, before he turned 18. He spent two years at sea as a radar operator, based in Malta on the light cruiser HMS Orion, then mine-sweeping trawler HMS Vallay and HMS Virago, which in 1947 stopped Jewish immigrants from entering Palestine.
The New Zealanders he met during that time in the navy impressed him with ‘‘their free thinking and lack of respect for authority’’ and, after a short spell as a policeman back in Cardiff, Lavington and his first wife, Olga, headed to Aotearoa on an assisted immigration scheme, joining his brother-inlaw in the Hutt Valley.
Not long after coming to New Zealand, his first marriage failed. With his second wife, Diana, he had two children, David-Henry and Cerys, but that marriage also ended. In 1995 he met his third wife, Marilyn, who survives him.
Lavington worked for two years with the New Zealand Police, fulfilling his immigration commitments, before landing work as an environmental health officer, first in the 1960s and later again in the 1970s to augment his budding acting career.
In this capacity he was involved with the planning of numerous food outlets and all the early licensed restaurants, including the French restaurant Le Normandie in Cuba St.
He remembered a close call on the health and safety front one night at Le Normandie. As their dessert was being flamed at the table, a flame suddenly shot out and ignited his wife’s hairspray.
‘‘I grabbed the bottle of bubbles from the ice bucket next to me and poured the water over her head to extinguish the fire,’’ he told The Wellingtonian. You couldn’t script it better. Lavington’s final stage role was in the 1983 Roger Hall hit Hot Water. On screen, he had a small part in 1991’s acclaimed An Angel at my Table, borrowing director Jane Campion’s glasses to play a psychologist.
In the end, he never was ‘‘found out’’. Like any actor worth their salt, he had the power to make believe.
Sources: Lavington family, Sunday Star-Times (Jane Bowron), The Wellingtonian (Carey Clements), NZ On Screen.
Actor Harry Lavington during his Close To Home days.