It's 7 in the morning and Edward Woodward has just come in after spending the night on the town in New York. Not playing, mind you, but working, and in 20 minutes there'll be more to do.

"It's my first experience working these kinds of hours," said Woodward. "We have 30 or 40 trucks to move through the streets. It takes a lot of time. We work on several locations each day."

And the hours are strange and varied, running typically from late afternoon to early the next morning and beyond. Welcome to American television production, Mr. Woodward.

And welcome to the start of a new television season, in which Woodward plays a key part. He is the star of "The Equalizer," a new CBS series revolving arounthe exploits of title character Robert McCall, a retired CIA-type operative who's gone into business for himself. Got a problem? Street thugs hassling you? Are you a terrorist's target? Check out his ad in the paper and give McCall a call.

In a business in which each of the fall's new offerings usually resembles something that distinguished itself by not failing the year before, "The Equalizer" has something of an original ring to it. Or at least an unusual ring. There are echoes, of course, of the Richard Boone series from more than 20 seasons back, "Have Gun, Will Travel."

In McCall we have a Paladin of sorts, a 25-year secret agent who quits his organization to go independent, setting up shop in a spiffy New York apartment. The idea is that if you've exhausted conventional law enforcement agencies -- a bit of a vigilante-ism disclaimer -- "if you're at the end of your tether," as Woodward put it, "here's someone who can help."

Also starring in the show are Steven Williams as police Lt. Burnett, who has the traditional role of the establishment figure who frets that McCall and his methods might exceed the law. And there's Robert Lansing of the old "Twelve O'Clock High" series as "control," who frets that McCall and his methods might compromise national security.

One of the most unusual things about "The Equalizer," of course, is its star. What, after all, is Breaker Morant doing prowling the streets of New York? How did an Australian film star land a role in an American-made TV series?

Woodward gained his widest recognition and helped lead the rush of quality Australian films to American shores at the turn of the decade when he played the title role in "Breaker Morant," the story of three soldiers court-martialed during the Boer War. But "Morant" may have been a more unlikely role for Woodward than "The Equalizer."

First of all, Woodward is not Australian. He's British, born in Croydon, Surrey. After a brief infatuation with journalism, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made his debut in London's West End in 1954 in "Where There's a Will." In addition to stage and film, he has done some 2,000 television productions, many in England, including the Emmy-honored "Rod of Iron" and the series "Winston Chuchill: The Wilderness Years." He's also an accomplished tenor, with 12 albums to his credit (he sang in "Breaker").

His British television work led to the role of Morant. "Bruce Beresford (director-writer of "Morant") sent me the script through the post. He had seen my work on TV," recalled Woodward. At first he turned it down, Woodward said, because Morant wasn't that prominant in the piece. "Bruce said, 'It's only a rough treatment.' And I said, 'Well, send it back when you've smoothed it out.' "

From the beginning, "Morant" seemed special. "After 38, 39 years as an actor, you say there are no new parts for me to play," said Woodward. "But Breaker was new. The whole thing -- right from the first we knew we were onto something special. There was a feeling on the set. If there were no disasters -- there was no time for disaster, it was a 41/2-week shoot -- that we would have something special . . . It was a breakthrough film at the time. It was the first film for Bruce that had a world-wide release -- and it was big in the U.S., which is the most important market of all. I've never seen a group so sad when the filming was over."

The success of "Breaker" generated a lot more submissions to Woodward through the mail, but nothing special. "A lof of imitation Breakers," he said. Meanwhile, events that would lead to him playing "The Equalizer" had been set in motion 17 years earlier.

Woodward was winding up a project in England and heading for a vacation when his agent asked him to look at a script from a young writer as a personal favor. "I like it," recalled Woodward. "It was called 'Hunted.' They were going to shoot it in two weeks on deferred payment." The film was released -- "if you're in Mongolia you'll see it pop up" -- but the payment was permanently deferred.

Eight months ago a script came to Woodward from Michael Sloan, a scriptwriter working on a project for Universal. It was Sloan who had sold Woodward on "Hunted" 17 years earlier. "By the way," said Woodward, "you owe me some money." "Never mind that," Sloan said. "Let's talk about some scripts." They struck a deal -- nondeferred -- and "The Equalizer" pilot was made.

And now Woodward is spending most of his nights on the street, with weekends off to spend time with his wife, Michelle, and 2-year-old daughter, Emily. He has two sons and a daughter by a previous marriage, all actors in Britain. He has residences in New York and Stratford-on- Avon in England.

The long hours and disrupted sleep will be worth it, of course, if the series lasts, in which case they will continue.

"There's nothing new in stories," Woodward observed, "certainly not in television. The only thing you buy is a character . . . It's a good story, well told."