Edward Woodward, 79, dies; British actor, spy in 'Equalizer'

Edward Woodward once said he had probably done more television
Edward Woodward once said he had probably done more television "than any actor living." He was also a gifted stage actor and a singer. (1986 Cbs File Photo)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Edward Woodward, 79, an urbane and versatile British stage actor who specialized in playing introspective men of conscience and who gained his widest following on the TV drama "The Equalizer" as a disillusioned spy who offers his services to ordinary people, died of pneumonia Nov. 16 at a hospital in Cornwall, England.

Mr. Woodward appeared in Shakespeare productions opposite Michael Redgrave and showed flair in a musical comedy directed by Noel Coward. He attracted superlatives from the demanding Coward as "one of the nicest and most cooperative actors I have ever met or worked with."

If he was appreciated by many of his peers, he was well in his 30s before achieving popular success. He became a star by playing a weary secret agent in "Callan," a spy series that aired on British television from 1967 to 1973. He had leading roles in several exceptional films, including the eerie thriller "The Wicker Man" (1973) as a Calvinistic policeman who investigates the disappearance of a young girl and becomes ensnared in a pagan cult, and "Breaker Morant" (1980) as a scapegoated Australian soldier who is court-martialed by the British during the Boer War.

Mr. Woodward's career was largely overshadowed by "The Equalizer," which brought him five Emmy Award nominations during its run on CBS from 1985 to 1989. He played Robert McCall, who in retirement from espionage, puts himself at the service of clients who have "exhausted all conventional means of law enforcement."

McCall drives a sleek Jaguar and is favorably disposed to Savile Row suits -- giving him a classy sheen to mask an impressive arsenal and a flair for vigilante one-liners. "Please do not do anything you will never live to regret," he tells one villain.

Mr. Woodward said he initially found the show's premise silly but said a leading role on a major American television network was too great an opportunity to refuse. "Because of it," he noted wryly, "when I was 58, I was voted Sexiest Man in America -- ahead of Tom Selleck."

In the course of a taxing production, Mr. Woodward smoked upward of 100 cigarettes a day and gained more than 40 pounds while subsisting largely on junk food. He suffered a heart attack but recovered in time to serve as a host and narrator of the documentary series "Remembering World War II," which brought him a 1990 Emmy.

Edward Albert Arthur Woodward was born June 1, 1930, in Croydon, England, where his father was a factory worker. At 16, he won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he was one of the youngest students ever accepted at the prestigious institution.

He worked in repertory companies throughout England and Scotland before making his stage debut on London's West End in the R.F. Delderfield comedy "Where There's a Will." He reprised his supporting role in the 1955 screen version.

In 1952, he married Venetia Collett, and they had three children. They later divorced, and Mr. Woodward married actress Michele Dotrice, with whom he had a daughter. Survivors include his wife and children.

Mr. Woodward, a gifted singer, recorded albums of music, poetry and audio books while continuing a stage career. He had various acting roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company before making his Broadway debut in 1963 in Charles Dyer's comedy about a timid soccer fan who spends a night with a London prostitute, "Rattle of a Simple Man."

The next year, he had a leading role as the husband torn between his current wife and the ghost of an ex-wife in "High Spirits," a Tony Award-nominated musical adaptation of Coward's "Blithe Spirit" that co-starred Tammy Grimes, Louise Troy and Beatrice Lillie.

"The Equalizer" made Mr. Woodward a household name in the United States, but he had long been a fixture on British television.

He starred in several acclaimed British TV productions, including the Evelyn Waugh trilogy "Sword of Honour" in the 1960s and "Common as Muck" in the 1990s. Mr. Woodward played Tommy Clifford in the BBC soap opera "EastEnders" this year.

"I think I've probably [done] more television than any actor living. I've done over 2,000, could be 3,000 now, television productions," Mr. Woodward told the Associated Press in 1987. "I love television. To me it's the most exciting medium. . . . I think there is a strange immediacy to it. I suppose there is also the feeling that it is the largest medium by far for information, education and above all, entertainment. And after all, that's what an actor's life is all about. Getting work and entertaining people."

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