HOLLYWOOD star Sir Kenneth Branagh has paid tribute to Z-Cars actor James "Jimmy" Ellis, who has died at the age of 82, saying he had been an inspiration to work with.

Ellis, who performed alongside a young Sir Kenneth in BBC Northern Ireland's series of Billy plays in the early 1980s, died from a stroke in Lincoln Hospital early yesterday.

Sir Kenneth, who went on to become a star both in front of and behind the camera, said: "James Ellis was a great inspiration to me, and many other actors from the North of Ireland.

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"I was blessed to begin my career working with him, and I will never forget his generosity to me. He was a highly intelligent, funny and kind man, and a tremendous actor."

Belfast-born Ellis was best known for playing Bert Lynch in BBC police drama Z-Cars, which ran from 1962 to 1978.

He studied at Belfast's Methodist College, Queen's University and at the Bristol Old Vic before starting his acting career at Belfast's Group Theatre in 1952.

His career also saw him star in television series including Doctor Who, In Sickness And In Health, Ballykissangel and Only Fools And Horses.

He played Norman Martin in the 1982 production of Too Soon To Talk To Billy - the first of a trio of Graham Reid plays focusing on working-class Ulster Protestants.