Cabby Drives to Stardom As Children's Movie Hero

LONDON -- "Thomas the Tank Engine" has been discovered driving a taxi, and now Hollywood fame beckons alongside American actors Peter Fonda and Alec Baldwin.

John Bellis, a fireman working part time as a taxi driver on the Isle of Man, landed the voice part of the popular children's book character when he gave the producer a lift in his cab.

Britt Allcroft met Bellis by chance after flying to the island in the Irish Sea in search of locations for the film version of the stories that have been delighting children for half a century.

"I was just helping out a friend who runs a car hire firm. I offered to do the pickup as a favor," he said. "I had no idea who the lady was."

Allcroft, who is writing, producing and directing the film, was immediately struck by Bellis' voice and felt it was perfect for the part.

The auditions proved nerve-racking for Bellis, 35, who fought off stiff competition from professional actors on both sides of the Atlantic.

"I went in shaking," he confessed to the Daily Telegraph. "I read the script like you would read a newspaper and she stopped me. She settled me down and gave me directions on how she wanted it."

Bellis is now in a daze: "The whole thing is such a shock. I am only just beginning to believe it. My kids are delighted. They love Thomas the Tank Engine."

His work mates have backed him, but he has no plans to give up the day job yet.

"All the lads at work are really supportive, the management are really supportive and they are all going around singing Thomas the Tank Engine tunes," he told BBC Television.

The internationally popular stories were created by Reverend Wilbert Awdry, who created Thomas in 1943 in a bid to entertain his son Christopher when he was sick in bed with measles.

His stories about the talkative steam trains and their carriages, each with its own distinctive personality, were an immediate hit after his wife, Margaret, sent Awdry's outlines to a literary agent in 1945.

Generations of children thrilled to the exploits of Thomas, James The Red Engine, Henry the Green Engine, Gordon the Blue Engine and The Fat Controller.

Awdry produced 26 books before handing over the reins to his son. They have sold millions of copies around the world and spawned a vast merchandise empire that is especially popular in Japan.

Now, firemen Bellis is to bring Thomas to life for Hollywood with Alec Baldwin playing Mr. Conductor and Peter Fonda playing the new character of Grandpa Burnett Stone.