Belfast Telegraph

Monday 20 October 2014

Jimmy Ellis: Tributes are paid to 'trailblazer and legend'

Warm tributes from stage and screen have been paid to the "tremendous actor" James Ellis, who died at the weekend.

The Belfast-born actor, best known for his roles in Z-Cars and BBC Northern Ireland's Billy plays in the 1980s, died from a stroke in Lincoln Hospital early on Saturday. He was 82-years-old.

Leading the tributes, his young co-star in the Billy plays, Sir Kenneth Branagh, said Ellis had been "a great inspiration" to him and many other actors from Northern Ireland.

"I was blessed to begin my career working with him, and I will never forget his generosity to me," he said.

"He was a highly intelligent, funny, and kind man and a tremendous actor."

Enniskillen stage and screen star Adrian Dunbar, said he had known Jimmy Ellis as a friend and a companion for many years.

"It is a big loss," he said.

"He was a wonderful actor and a warm and generous man. He blazed a trail for many actors in Northern Ireland."

Graham Reid, who wrote the Billy Plays, said Ellis inhabited the skin of his bullying father character, Norman Martin. "He totally understood the character of Norman and every morning Jimmy would come in with another anecdote," he said.

Playwright Martin Lynch said Mr Ellis' direction of the Sam Thompson play Over The Bridge, which dealt with sectarianism, was a courageous move.

"He broke the back of conservatism in the establishment at that time and very, very courageously stuck to his guns," said Mr Lynch.

After Z-Cars and the Billy plays, Mr Ellis starred in some of the UK's best-known programmes, including Doctor Who, In Sickness And In Health, One By One and Only Fools And Horses.

Peter Johnston, director of BBC Northern Ireland, described him as a "major talent".

In a statement, Queen's University offered its deepest sympathies to his family circle.

Mr Ellis received an honorary Queen's doctorate in 2008 for services to the performing arts.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was among the many politicians also paying tribute.

He described him as "one of our own, a great actor".

Mr Ellis' son, Toto, said it had been extraordinarily hard to watch him die.

"The last words he heard were that he was a hero, a legend and we all loved him," he said.

Speaking about the funeral arrangements, he said: "We are taking him home to Belfast – Belfast meant the world to him.

"He blazed a trail for Northern Ireland actors, in that he was the first character not to change his accent. Dad was so proud of his roots and his beliefs."

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