When Blair Strang set the premiere date for his new play Nigel, it was only by pure coincidence that he chose the very same date Shortland Street’s mammoth 25th birthday episode went to air.
“I’m not meant to leave Shorty and Shorty isn’t meant to leave me,” laughs the actor, who found fame as ambulance driver Rangi Heremaia on the TVNZ 2 soap. “We’ve tried over the years, but it’s a bit like a dysfunctional relationship – we just can’t let each other go.”
However, a lot has changed since the star’s six-year stint on the show, which came to a gruesome end in 2001, when Rangi was murdered by his mistress and her husband. Since then, Blair has risen from the dead to finish a law degree and run his own Auckland practice, as well as star on Go Girls and Nothing Trivial.
On top of that, he’s launched the Sapphire Theatre Company, which the 45-year-old made his directorial debut for with the ’90s-themed comedy Nigel. And making the milestone even more special is the fact that the show also saw Blair’s son Steel, 20, in his first professional acting role.
“I told him he had to do it otherwise he could go flatting,” laughs devoted dad Blair, who took over sole custody of his son in 2011 as Steel’s mum lives in Aussie.
“I never pushed acting on him, but he hardly had a choice, did he? He grew up on TV sets, and had my mates Shane Cortese, Chris Hobbs, Will Hall and John Leigh always over at the house. I never wanted to be a stage parent, but he found acting by himself.”
A former arts prefect at his dad’s old private school, St Kentigern College, Steel performed in all the plays and excelled in media studies. And despite his dad’s best intentions to broaden his career horizons, he’s now studying a Bachelor of Education at the University of Auckland with the aim of becoming a drama teacher.
“In the beginning, I really dreaded going to St Kent’s, but I’m grateful for the sacrifices Dad made to send me there,” tells Steel. “At the time, it felt like Dad was being really hard on me, but he taught me a lot about commitment and dedication. In the end, I really loved school.”
This is just one of the important lessons Blair has imparted to his boy over the years, but there’s another that Steel would rather forget – the time his father made him scrub the local public toilets.
Laughing, Blair recalls, “When Steel was about 14, he decided to take a year off school. He was there physically, but mentally he checked out and his marks reflected that.
I thought to myself, ‘What’s the best way to show him the sort of job he can get without an education?’ So I took him to a toilet block with a bucket and some detergent.
“That was enough to really light a fire underneath him. I think all parents can agree that raising children is one big learning curve. I might’ve been a little tough on him, but I’m so proud of the fine young man he’s become.
“I’ve only ever wanted the best for Steel. So when he came into my care, I decided to put him into the school I knew, but that didn’t come cheap. That was predominantly the reason I went into law in the first place – to put him through school. Had I not had that responsibility, I’d probably still be a nomad actor.”
But now Steel has graduated from high school, Blair – who married his former Shorty co-star Katrina Devine, who played Minnie Crozier, in 2001, but later divorced – is relishing the opportunity to reconnect with his creative roots.
“Law was only ever to pay the bills, but the arts will always be my true passion,”
he says. “I felt a real sense of satisfaction with Nothing Trivial, like there was nothing more I could’ve given to that role. When that was done, I didn’t feel desperate to act any more. Now I get that creative buzz from producing and directing.”
But Blair also gets a real kick out of seeing his son perform. “Once I drag Steel out of bed, he’s great,” the solo dad quips. “He’s incredibly focused and really throws himself into everything. But with an actor for a son, I’ve had to seriously rethink my retirement plan – or at the very least, make sure he gets one of those big LA movie deals!”
Jokes aside, Blair says he feels a great deal of pride that his boy is following in his footsteps. “Rangi’s ambo uniform remains in my closet to this day,” tells Blair. “Steel asked if he could put it on one day and seeing him in it really took me back.
“However, what I thought was a really special father-son moment was shattered when he said that he needed it for an ’80s dress-up party. Come on, son, when did I become retro?”