From Hollywood turf to Northland surf

Not many Northlanders can say they have been nominated for an Emmy, an Oscar and survived cancer but Tutukaka resident David Stevens isn’t your typical Northland bloke.

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David’s personal hermitage in Tutukaka

David’s home is situated amongst trees, rolling hills and the solitude he desires. The house overlooks Tutukaka’s sparkling blue ocean, looming over native bush with walls clad in corrugated iron there is no mistaking this home is truly Kiwi.

Described by David as “splendid isolation, my personal hermitage”, it’s not until you get inside that David’s eclectic style truly shines.
A large oak table stands underneath an ostentatious yet beautiful chandelier dripping with delicate drops of purple and clear crystal. The Mexican chairs are painted brightly with suns and plants, which complement the wide range of exotic bromeliads that David takes great pride in cultivating.

Beautiful pieces of art line the walls. One of the paintings, by Australian artist Ross Watson, portrays two young men sitting next to a swimming pool in the hot Mexican sun “that’s my partner Loren and I at our house in Acapulco” says David.

After looking at the paintings and pictures of him that are placed around his living room, there is no doubt David was a handsome young man with a friendly smile which throughout the years has turned into a cheeky grin.

Apart from his posh British accent, David looks like a typical Kiwi bloke, his skin is tanned from many years of travelling through hot countries. In stark contrast to his surroundings, David wears scruffy jeans and the obligatory swandri. He holds a cup of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It takes a rich man to look poor and David is definitely rich in more ways than one.

David and his dogs
David with his faithful companions

David was born in the British Mandate of Palestine, a country that no longer exists. He was educated in Jordan as the only non-Arab in a Muslim school, David admits his childhood was spent “living the life of Riley”.

He spoke Arabic with his friends and enjoyed being immersed in a vastly different world from England.
David’s father was the chief engineer at Arab
Airways and was in the enviable position of obtaining free air travel for the family, so every school holiday he would be packed off with his small suitcase, to board whatever plane was about to leave.

On one occasion when he was twelve years old, David was sent to Aden in Yemen. One of his Father’s colleagues, a pilot, asked if he wanted to fly to a desert town in an old DC3 aeroplane.

On the way, he was asked to check the aircraft. While walking back from the cockpit he noticed the three Bedouin passengers were boiling a billy over a small camp fire.
Concerned about the safety of the plane, David rushed back to the pilot, who replied, “Good, I could do with a cuppa!”
“Things were different back then” says David, “you could never get away with that nowadays”.

After meeting such a friendly group of pilots, David was treated to an even friendlier experience with a voluptuous Egyptian air hostess, with whom his mother referred to as a harlot. On arrival back to Jordan, David had seen more than most boys twice his age could ever hope to imagine.

One home away from home that David remembers fondly was the Heliopolis Palace Hotel in Cairo. As an impressionable young man, David loved the lavish opulence of the hotel. Years later, David has not lost his taste for the beautiful and glamorous lifestyle afforded to him during his time in the Middle East.

David went on to become an actor and was the lead in a play at London’s famous West End. It wasn’t until he moved to New Zealand in 1965 that he realised directing and writing was more his style. “I meant to go to Australia,” he says, but I got on the wrong cargo boat and arrived in New Zealand, instead.”

In 1972, he was offered a job in Australia where his career really took flight. It was there he met a new friend and professional partner Henry Crawford.
Henry produced an Australian crime drama called Homicide, due to his English stage background and his ability to understand the performers, David was asked to be one of the directors.

He “talked their language” and was “amazing at getting the best performances out of the actors” says Henry.
In 1981, Henry produced A Town Like Alice which David directed. It won an Emmy award for best international drama, the first and still the only Australian program ever to win that prestigious award.

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A Town like Alice

In the same year, David was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay for Breaker Morant about three Australian soldiers who are used as scapegoats and put on trial for shooting Boer prisoners.

Henry and David teamed up again on ‘Always afternoon’ a German/Australian co-production that David took an intensive course in German and travelled to Germany to learn the language. Once the film started he directed the German speaking scenes. Once the film was completed however, David confided in Henry “Life is too short to learn German.”
While still in Australia, David decided to visit Africa to research a future film. After warnings from missionaries not to go, David and a driver travelled across the Kenyan Rift Valley to visit the Pokot tribe, who were in a state of war with their neighbours and rivals, the Karamoja tribe in Uganda.

Although he had been warned about the dangerous fighting between the tribes, David was not prepared for the real danger of the government soldiers guarding the area. With a gun aimed at his head, David was stopped and searched at an army checkpoint where they had orders not to let foreigners past.

If it wasn’t for his driver who spoke the local language, David is sure he wouldn’t have survived. “They had their fingers on the triggers,” David says, “But my driver talked them out of shooting us and we ended up spending six weeks with the tribe in the middle of a small war” says David.

Always looking for challenges, he was offered a job in the United States in 1987 where he found that he wanted to write more than direct. He says he found life unsatisfying in the US at first, but then he was offered the chance to work with the great African-American writer, Alex Haley, who wrote “Roots. “Those two years with Alex were among the most challenging of my life,” he says. ”And the happiest.”

The front of the house

The front of David’s house in Tutukaka

When Alex died, David continued the work and wrote two books based on Alex’s research, “Queen” and “Mama Flora’s Family.” He was rewarded with an Image Award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

It is one of his proudest possessions and sits pride of place in his living room.
Film Commision, which she affectionately refers to as “the evil empire”.

David was averse to the film commission and during a guild meeting, he “had a go at the bureaucracy.”
Later on as Karin settled down and had children, David got on “enormously well” with the family and her two children referred to him as ‘Magic Stevens’ due to his magic tricks with old coins.

His passion for film and television it inspired his god daughter Joanna who decided to study at the London Film School. David takes great pleasure in helping his god daughter write scripts.

David’s life hasn’t always been so charmed. In 2001 he was diagnosed with what he describes as “downstairs” cancer. After six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, David was cancer free and the doctors marveled at the scan. “I still hold the record in Sonoma County in California for the shortest treatment of that cancer” says David.

But the cancer caused him to rethink his life and David decided to live in New Zealand again. He wasn’t sure where to settle, but stopped on the side of the road on the Tutukaka coast and fell in love the place. Within a few months David had his beautiful home and has lived there ever since.

DOne of his bromeliads
One of David’s plants in his Tutukaka garden

Does he regret leaving the big smoke? Not really, but don’t mention the word retirement to him, “I don’t cope well with nothing to do” he says.

And after almost seventy years on the planet, David has no plans to slow down, making chocolate truffles for the Alzheimer’s foundation auction, growing the bromeliads that fascinate him.

When he finally does leave this mortal coil he has a simple wish “that my gravestone says ‘at least he wasn’t boring’”.

 

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