Phillip Leishman 'lived the life of television'

17:45, Feb 25 2013
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman receives his ONZM for services to media and the community from Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand in 2011.
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman receives his ONZM for services to media and the community from Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand in 2011.
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman, Jeff Latch and Kelson Butler in 2006.
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman and Dave Currie in 2011.
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman and co-host Lana Coc-Kroft on the set of Wheel of Fortune.
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman presenting a show from early in his career.
Phillip Leishman
Phillip Leishman from the One World of Sport days.

Long-time broadcaster Phillip Leishman, who made his first television appearance in 1971, has died.

Best known in recent years as the host of popular television production the HSBC Golf Club, Leishman was operated on for a brain tumour in March 2012.

He made his first television appearance on Dunedin regional station DNTV2, then moved to the nightly national network bulletin as a sports news presenter.

Leishman covered Olympic and Commonwealth Games between 1976 and 1998, worked on Turf Talk with Glynn Tucker in the 1970s, and hosted 1250 episodes of quiz show Wheel of Fortune alongside Lana Coc-Kroft in the 1990s.

In 1997 he joined journalist Phil Smith to form the company Uplink, now Sportinc, to produce the golf programme which Leishman described as probably his most satisfying role.

In an interview with Screen Talk, a NZ On Air project, in December, Leishman recalled how Smith approached him about doing a golf show. Smith had said he did not know if he could pay Leishman to front the show, and in the end they set up a partnership.

"Probably his (Smith's) biggest mistake," Leishman said.

"It's probably been the most satisfying role that I've had ... We did an enormous amount of travelling. I've been all round the world, seen golf courses in virtually every country in the world."

Course highlights were filmed along with other attractions such as local hotels.

"We've then brought that material back, said to the viewer 'okay, here's your opening into a world that you'll never probably get anywhere near'. In that sense I've felt it's a little bit of an escape."

He loved the challenge of the 5-1/2 years he spent doing Wheel of Fortune.

"Every day you had to come up with a different patter," he said.

"We would record five shows in one day, we'd record 15 shows in three days, so we would reel them off. You'd hardly have time to get changed out of one suit into another."

A piece of New Zealand television history was created on one show where boxer David Tua was widely thought to have said "O for awesome".

It is a continuing source of amusement, although it has been argued that what Tua actually said was "O for Olsen", as in rugby league player Olsen Filipaina, a good friend of the Tua family.

"It actually rolled past me," Leishman said.

"When he said it, I sort of thought, 'O for awesome, yeah sure that's fine'. It didn't dawn on me at the time, and yet it became such a talking point.

"About two years ago I was walking down Fifth Ave in New York and coming towards me was a guy wearing a t-shirt which had 'O for awesome', and I thought, 'well, doesn't that say something - the world knows about Wheel of Fortune'."

One of Leishman's biggest early assignments was as the studio host of the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the first time Television New Zealand covered the Games live.

Technical difficulties meant Leishman had to provide all the commentary for the pictures of the event from the studio in Wellington, while Keith Quinn in Montreal was unheard for much of the proceedings.

"So I sat there thinking this is going to be the worst experience of my life," Leishman recalled.

"They concocted an amazing system where Keith would phone the control room in Montreal, who would then phone the control room in Avalon, who would then talk to my ear piece."

After the coverage had been going about 75 minutes he was told he needed to introduce some more colour, but his sartorial descriptions went about only as far as noting the Queen was wearing a yellow hat and coat.

Quinn had been "spitting tacks", left with a suitcase full of notes that he could not use.

Many African countries boycotted those games as a result of an All Blacks rugby tour of South Africa earlier in the year. In 1981 the issue of sporting contacts with South Africa was again a hot issue with the Springboks visiting New Zealand.

Leishman said he had considered it was his job as a journalist to cover the tour, and talked about being in the back of the bus with the All Blacks one time while people outside where beating their hands on the bus.

"It was pretty scary stuff," he said.

"Some would say, 'you deserved it'. In retrospect the tour clearly should never have taken place but ... it's always easy to be wise after."

Leishman also hosted the last Miss New Zealand show to be televised live.

"Most people thought I was mad. There was so much 'anti' feeling about Miss New Zealand shows at the time," he said.

Despite that, he was "far from embarrassed" about doing the show, saying it had been a "nice little challenge".

Among other shows he worked on were Air New Zealand Holiday and Sunday morning current affairs show Weekend, as well as one-off events such as the Halberg Awards.

Off screen Leishman was involved with children's charity Variety since it started in 1989, being chief barker - president - for 3-1/2 years in the mid-1990s.

In 2011 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to broadcasting and the community. In the interview, 10 months after he was was operated on for a brain tumour, Leishman said he wanted to be remembered as a "natural broadcaster" who loved his job.

"My legacy is I've lived the life of television in this country and I'm pretty proud of that," he said.

He was also proud that he and brother Mark had together had clocked up about 80 years of work in television

"It's hard for me to appreciate that I've been doing this job for 42 years," he said.

"I did some recent closing links for my golf show and I felt quite sad because I felt that it might be the last time that I'm actually hosting a show.

In golfing magazine The Cut, Leishman told of discovering he was ill after a near-miss when he drove through a compulsory stop sign which he had not seen.

"Something like this gives you a hell of a jolt," he said.

"You feel life is treating you kindly, then this happens and you become aware of your vulnerability."

Leishman interviewed many leading golfers during the years, although the illness last year meant he missed out on attending his fifth Masters tournament at Augusta in six years.

He was born in 1951 in Timaru, where his parents David and Noeline ran Leishman's Superette in North St, with the family living in the back of the shop.

In an article about fathers, brother Mark described their Dad as chatty and genial, and "such a fine example of what a great father can be".

"Dave was intensely interested in other people's lives, and loved to chat and solve the problems of the world with his customers," Mark Leishman recalled.

"He would also ride his bike around the neighbourhood delivering groceries about 10.30pm every Saturday, riding several kilometres to meet the bus which dropped off the Sunday papers."

Friends recall that at St Patrick's High School - which has since become Roncalli College - Phillip Leishman broke the record for the 100-yard sprint and was a prolific try-scorer on the wing for the First XV. He was also a keen participant in drama and speech events.

Leishman is survived by his wife Michelle, son Harry and daughters India and Lily.


PHILLIP LEISHMAN: Was a regular on New Zealand screens since making his first television appearance on Dunedin regional station DNTV2.