Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Edward Woodward (1930-2009)
by Michael Burgess for

Edward Woodward’s career impressed three generations throughout the English-speaking world. Of course, he was best known to American audiences as Robert McCall in “The Equalizer,” but he was so much more than that.

He distinguished himself as a singer (12 albums), as an actor on the Shakespearean stage (“Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Pericles”, “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Measure for Measure”) and on the Broadway stage in “High Spirits” (1964).

His name was mocked by many. Sir Noel Coward said it sounded like farting in the bath. One newspaper journalist called him, “Edward Woodward, would-be winner of the wooden words award.” It was a jingle. It was a schoolyard game.

What about the soaps: “EastEnders” (2009)? What about the sitcoms: “Common as Muck” (1994-1997)?

What about the feature films? Horror buffs revere him as the virgin policeman sacrificed by Sir Christopher Lee’s witches in the original The Wicker Man (1973). Fans of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost remember Woodward as Tom Weaver, a different kind of cop in the comedy Hot Fuzz (2007).

In between was Breaker Morant (1980), a historical drama in which a squad of Australian soldiers serving in the Boer War unjustly face a death sentence at the hands of a corrupt British high command. During its theater release, Australians leaving the cinema at the end of the film seemed so stirred up with righteous anger, they shot daggers looks at my friend and me when they heard our English accents.

Such was the extraordinary ability of Woodward (an Associate Member of RADA) to play the stoical warrior downtrodden by circumstances and betrayed by his bosses. And, of his more than 2,000 television performances, his portrayal of the ex-SIS undercover man Callan created an icon, if not a genre.

Callan was the ultimate outsider called upon by unscrupulous civil servants to carry out the dirtiest jobs. His digs were squalid and his only sidekick, a disgusting snitch known as “Lonely,” had a body-odor problem: a running joke throughout the series, which ran from 1967 to 1972.

Aside from his tendency to beat people up and to be beaten, the coolest thing about the Callan series was the opening credit sequence in which a naked light bulb swung slowly to and fro until shattered by a pistol shot. And no baby boomer will forget the show’s chillingly simple bass guitar and piano theme tune.

Life seemed almost to imitate art when the inept mercenary Costas Georgiou (ultimately executed in Luanda in 1976 for war crimes during the Angolan War of Independence) adopted the nom de guerre “Colonel Callan.”

For my generation, it’s Callan who died of pneumonia on Nov. 16, 2009. And, for us, the sweetest thing about “The Equalizer” (87 episodes, 1985-1989) was the way Woodward’s Robert McCall, appeared to be an older Callan living out a long and prosperous retirement in a swanky Manhattan apartment, making wistful references to the terrible things the agency used to make him do when he was an undercover operative.