[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/6623?ns=guardian&pageName=Edward+Woodward+obituary%3AArticle%3A1305870&ch=Television+%26amp%3B+radio&c3=Guardian&c4=Television+%28Culture%29%2CFilm%2CTheatre%2CStage%2CBroadway&c6=Dennis+Barker&c7=09-Nov-16&c8=1305870&c9=Article&c10=Obituary&c11=Television+%26amp%3B+radio&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FTelevision+%26amp%3B+radio%2FTelevision[/img]Popular actor known for his roles in Callan, The Equalizer and The Wicker Man
Edward Woodward, who has died aged 79, was an actor with possibly far more potential than was ever realised on screen, but he became a popular television star in Callan and The Equalizer and enjoyed cult success with the film The Wicker Man. For many years, he was part of the comfortable community of jobbing actors, directors and producers which could be called the "Teddington set" – those who worked for the BBC, ABC and Thames TV studios in west London in their heyday – and so found it comparatively easy to get parts which were financially rewarding but not too stretching.
Presentable, but sombre in appearance, he played loners on the edges of society, and even sanity, who were in their different ways concerned with justice – either sympathetically or not. He was a man who, like many of his most memorable roles, never quite fitted into any comfortable category. Woodward could be greyness nice or nasty. He will be remembered by many as Callan, a seedy, disillusioned spy and hitman – one critic called him a lower-class James Bond – created originally by James Mitchell for a one-off Armchair Theatre programme in 1967. The show was then developed as a series which ran until 1972 and earned Woodward a Bafta award. In 1974 came a Callan feature film.
He was equally effective in a similar role as Robert McCall in The Equalizer (1985-89), playing a grey-suited do-gooder whose altruism took the form of removing, with a sawn-off shotgun or similar instrument of summary justice, villains and oppressors of the virtuous and vulnerable who could not otherwise be removed. This series, too obviously designed for a transatlantic audience, with an embittered ex-CIA man as the hero, made his face equally familiar on both sides of the pond, without bringing him parts to which he could have brought more depth. It won him a Golden Globe but, he said later, the hard-driving US schedules had nearly killed him.
Woodward was born in Croydon, then in Surrey, and as a child was bombed out of his home three times during the second world war. He attributed his ability to radiate personal danger, the suggestion of a hidden precipice within him, to the danger in which he lived in the war. He found it a very exciting time for children, though also horrifying. He saw buildings destroyed and he saw bodies. It was the era of the "you just had to get over it" school of thought.
Woodward went to Elmwood school in Wallington, Surrey, where he developed his interest in drama, and then arrived at Kingston commercial college at the age of 14 with the ambition of becoming a journalist. A stint as a shorthand typist for a sanitary engineers followed, before he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 16 and appeared on stage at Castle theatre, Farnham, in 1946. He spent several years in provincial rep, where he was not quite a glamorous juvenile lead but too interesting to play heroes' best friend parts.
His London debut was in Where There's a Will, at the Garrick in 1955. The late 1950s saw him distinguishing himself at Stratford, as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, and Laertes in Hamlet, then enjoying a popular success in Rattle of a Simple Man, opposite Sheila Hancock, at the Garrick in London in 1962. He went to Broadway with the play the following year and appeared there in two more shows in the mid-60s: High Spirits and The Best Laid Plans.
Woodward came back to Nottingham at a time when its new theatre, the Playhouse, was run by the distinguished actor John Neville, then making a reputation both for the classics and the experimental demands of the times. Woodward appeared there in Measure for Measure and Private Lives in 1965.
Money never appeared to be a prime motivator for Woodward. When he joined the National Theatre Company in 1969, after making a series of Callan and appearing at the Palace theatre in London in Two Cities, it was at great financial cost. But he explained that at the Old Vic – where the National Theatre was then located – he would have the right to fail, a concept foreign to the Americans, whose attitude was "enough to drive anyone right round the bend". His Flamineo in Frank Dunlop's 1971 production of The White Devil was well received, but he wanted to be a star.
The key to popular success, without sacrificing his family – he had two sons and one daughter by his first wife, Venetia Collett (the actor Venetia Barrett) – seemed to be television. His work in the medium included The Bass Player and the Blonde (1978); Winston Churchill – The Wilderness Years (1981), in which he was Sir Samuel Hoare; and the Cold War thriller Codename: Kyril (1988). There were also roles as F Scott Fitzgerald, the Ghost of Christmas Present (in a 1984 production of A Christmas Carol) and Sherlock Holmes.
On the big screen, Woodward will perhaps be best remembered for his role in the cult horror film The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardy. Woodward played the uptight, strongly religious police sergeant, Howie, sent to a remote Scottish island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl. The film, which co-starred Christopher Lee as the island's formidable lord, had a troubled production and was heavily cut for its release. But its popularity grew and a restored, extended version sealed its reputation. A 2006 remake starred Nicolas Cage in Woodward's role.
In 1978 Woodward was appointed OBE. He took the title role as a court-martialled lieutenant in the Boer war film Breaker Morant (1980), directed by Bruce Beresford, and starred in the 1982 SAS thriller Who Dares Wins, a big UK hit. His work as a singer was less well known, but he made 12 records and three as a reader of poetry, in addition to an acting career which won him more than 20 top awards.
In 1987, following a divorce, he married the actor Michele Dotrice, 17 years his junior. Suffering a heart attack on returning to England after The Equalizer in the late 1980s, he cut out smoking and tried to relax more, but in 1996 suffered a further attack. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003. He continued to appear on TV and film and gently lampooned his screen persona as an overly zealous member of a neighbourhood watch group in the comedy Hot Fuzz (2007). He had a brief role in The Bill in 2008, and earlier this year he appeared in EastEnders, playing Tommy Clifford, a character harbouring a guilty secret.
He is survived by Michele and their daughter, and the three children of his first marriage.
• Edward Albert Arthur Woodward, actor, born 1 June 1930; died 16 November 2009
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