Holmes entertained and informed us

The death of Sir Paul Holmes marks the end of a broadcasting era, Prime Minister John Key says, labelling Holmes a "gentleman broadcaster".

Holmes, 62, died at his Hawke's Bay home early yesterday morning.

As news spread, tributes came in from colleagues, politicians and the public.

"I think he was someone who entertained us and informed us and who a great many New Zealanders had enormous affection for," Mr Key said.

Arguably the greatest broadcaster of a generation, Holmes had previously been treated for prostate cancer, but it returned last year.

He had also had heart surgery, with his poor health forcing him to end his television and radio career in December.

A late inclusion in the New Year honours list, Holmes was knighted in a special investiture in front of friends, family and dignitaries at his home this month.

In a statement his family said he died peacefully at home - just as he had wanted.

"More than just a broadcaster, Paul was a loving husband and father, as well as a generous friend. He loved people and people loved him."

His wife, Lady Deborah, his children Millie and Reuben and his brother Ken, thanked the public for their "incredible support", but said they now needed privacy to grieve.

Holmes built his hugely successful broadcasting career on championing the underdog and holding authorities to account.

But he knew he would lose his final battle with cancer, saying grimly at his investiture: "I don't think Houdini will do it this time."

Despite living most of his life in the public spotlight, it was less well known that Holmes had previously cheated death four times - twice in plane crashes, once in a helicopter crash and once in a car crash.

He was just 22 when he lost the sight in his right eye in a spectacular car crash off a mountain road near Kaikoura. He spent five weeks in hospital with a fractured neck.

Twenty-four years ago, Holmes and Wayne Johnson spurred each other on in a perilous swim through freezing waves to survive a fatal helicopter crash.

Mr Johnson, a cameraman, was one of five in the chopper that crashed into the sea off the East Coast in stormy conditions in June 1989.

Although never close friends, he and Holmes were irrevocably linked. After the chopper hit the water, the pair, separated from the others, encouraged each other to survive as they swam a kilometre to shore.

In his autobiography, Holmes recounted the high, cold waves and driving rain in the dark. He and Mr Johnson stayed close, but couldn't see each other. Instead they called each other's names constantly.

"I was nearly dead when I reached the shore, with no more than a few minutes of struggle left in me," Holmes said later.

It happened just three months after the Holmes show launched with the infamous Dennis Conner interview, and preceded a 20-year period in which the broadcaster found fame and the occasional infamy on TV and radio.

It took all the characteristic doggedness that marked his career to reach the shore that day, Mr Johnson recalled this month.

Holmes' son Reuben, now 21, has Apirana as a middle name, after Api Mahuika, the Ngati Porou leader who said a prayer with survivors in the hours after the crash.

Despite the fatal helicopter crash, Holmes would later gain a pilot's licence.

On New Year's Eve in 2004 he was lucky to walk away from the wreck of his beloved Boeing Stearman biplane, after flipping it in a vineyard near Hastings.

A year earlier he crashed the plane through a fence and down an incline on the remote Ngamatea Station, between Napier and Taihape.

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1999. He beat it, initially, with treatment and went on to front advertisements encouraging men to get check-ups.

Fairfax Media