James Ellis was born in east Belfast in 1931, the son of shipyard worker. He is best known as an actor and stage director with a career stretching over sixty years. Educated at Methodist College, Belfast, he later studied at Queen’s University, Belfast, and trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
He began his acting career at the legendary Group Theatre in Bedford Street, Belfast, quickly become one of establishing himself as the company young male lead in such plays as 'April in Assagh', 'Is the Priest at Home?' and 'Playboy of the Western World'.
Having worked his way by the late 1950s to the position of Artistic Director, Ellis was instrumental in the decision to stage Sam Thompson’s controversial Over the Bridge. After its effective banning by the Theatre’s board of directors following representations from the Unionist establishment, Ellis resigned from his position as a matter of principle in order to direct the production of the play with a new company made of up of former Group actors who had likewise quit the Bedford Street theatre over the Thompson affair. It was a huge popular success.
Despite the overwhelming reception for the play, Ellis left Northern Ireland soon afterwards. He quickly quickly established himself on British TV screens – most notably as Sgt Bert Lynch in the groundbreaking series 'Z-Cars', a role he was to play for many years.
In 1982, he portrayed Norman Martin, the violent and troubled father of a Protestant working-class family, in Graham Reid’s ‘Billy’ triology. He also featured in many comedies and dramas including 'Doctor Who', 'Ballykissangel', 'One By One', 'Nightingales' and 'Priest'. He also appeared in countless cameo roles in many shows including such popular hits as 'Boys from the Blackstuff' and 'Only Fools and Horses'.
He has issued a collection of poetry, Domestic Flight (1998) and a collection of short stories, Home & Away: Ten Tales and Three Dreams (2002). In 2015, Lagan Press posthumously published his memoir Troubles Over The Bridge.
A well-loved feature in his native Northern Ireland, Ellis was awarded an honorary doctorate by Queen's University in 2008 and was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Belfast Film Festival. He passed away in March, 2014, aged 82.