Actor Ian Mune on life after the loss of his wife and struggling to find work

It seems ironic that in a year when the entertainment industry is honouring him with a prestigious Television Legend Award, actor Ian Mune finds himself without any acting work at all and no hint of a role in the near future.

“I haven’t heard a peep from anybody, haven’t even been getting voiceovers,” says Mune, who adds he has no desire to retire. “I love acting and working with actors, but there aren’t many parts for a man of my age.”

However, Mune isn’t sitting around kicking his heels – far from it. At 80, he is busy developing a whole new career as an artist. So far, he has produced 60 or 70 canvases, a mix of portraits and colourful landscapes, many of which are propped against the walls of his home.

“I spend almost all my time painting,” says Mune. “I wake with the sun, turn on RNZ Concert, then stare at whatever I’m painting and wait for it to talk to me. When it does, I reply with a brush and we work it out between us. That could go on for a whole day and sometimes the damn things are quite argumentative.”

Mune would love to see his work exhibited at a gallery some day, although it is tricky at the moment with the pandemic having delayed the exhibitions of many more established artists. In the meantime, he continues painting.

“I keep getting people wanting to buy them and I haven’t got the faintest idea what they’re worth, so I need an exhibition so I can get some clue what to charge.”

In many ways, this new career is a return to Mune’s roots. As a school-leaver, he had two ambitions – to be an artist or an actor. Then he married his wife Jo, they had their first child and neither career seemed a sensible option, so he decided to train as a primary school teacher instead.

“I came from a family of teachers and so did Jo, and actually I liked it,” says Mune.

Even so, in 1964, when there was the offer of paid acting work at the newly founded Downstage Theatre in Wellington, Ian jumped at the chance, and that was the start of a long career which has seen him act in productions like Pukemanu and Once Were Warriors, and write and direct many more including Came a Hot Friday.

Wife Jo was always a huge supporter of his work, even once travelling in a cargo ship all the way to the UK with a new baby and a toddler to join Mune in Cardiff after he landed a role with the Welsh Theatre Company.

“She became seasick on the first day and barely held a meal down in the next eight weeks,” he recalls.

“When she finally got there, I couldn’t believe how thin she was.”

Ian and Jo had three children together and were married for more than half a century. When she became ill with emphysema, he dedicated himself to looking after her and her loss seven years ago was shattering.

“Jo and I both knew she was dying,” he says. “She would never talk about it directly, except to say on four different occasions that she wanted me to make sure I found another partner because I couldn’t live on my own.”

Mune was holding Jo’s hand as she died early one morning.

“I felt her wanting to escape, so I rushed to the window and threw it open and a bevy of tūī shot up from the tree making all that noise that only tūī can make, and then they were gone and so was she.”

Afterwards, his life took on a different character.

“Things went a bit haywire,” Ian admits.

“I spent the first year giving stuff away. Occasionally I’ll go looking for something and if I can’t find it, I’ll just assume I gave it away that year.”

Since he couldn’t really afford to stay on in the family home, Mune sold up and now lives in a rented cottage in rural West Auckland just a couple of kilometres away from the place he was born.

Although he did try to do what Jo had suggested and find another partner, it didn’t work out.

“I think I tried it at a time when I couldn’t face that she was dead and was still getting my head sorted,” he muses.

“And I’m much happier on my own. I cherish my sense of Jo’s presence. Occasionally I’ve had the sense of her in the room so strongly that I can see her.”

While he was trying to come to terms with her loss, Ian picked up his paintbrush again and says creating artworks has helped keep him sane. He is also quietly working away on a screenplay and loves to spend time with his children, seven grandchildren and a great- granddaughter.

Mune is modest about the Television Legend status conferred on him at this year’s NZ TV Awards and equally laid-back about being an octogenarian.

“Turning 80 didn’t bother me. My daughter wanted me to have a party and I tried to refuse, but she said, ‘Yes, you are’, so I turned up at her place and I didn’t know I had that many friends.”

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