A veteran star of stage and screen, actor Edward Woodward is a bona fide British treasure. Best known for movie classics The Wicker Man and Breaker Morant, also TV hits Callan and The Equalizer, Woodward is still going strong at the age of 78, having recently completed a role on The Bill and introduced himself to a new generation of filmgoers in popular Britcom Hot Fuzz.
Learning his craft on the small screen throughout the Fifties and Sixties in top-rated shows like Emergency Ward 10, Dixon of Dock Green and The Saint, Woodward remembers those days as “…very exciting. Especially when ITV came along because there were so many programmes to work on. A tremendous number of drama opportunities.”
Key among those opportunities was the title role in espionage drama series Callan (1967-1972), the story of an embittered British agent skilled at the covert arts of blackmail and assassination. “Callan was TV’s first anti-hero,” notes Woodward with due pride. “He was not the sort of human being you’d want to spend much time with, but as a character, he was amazing to play.
“On most TV programmes there are one or two things that come up that concern you, things you’re asked to do that you don’t feel entirely comfortable with, and Callan was no exception, but it was such a well written series, rather than try to change anything, I just tried to rise to the challenge of performing it.
“Back when it started, we didn’t know if the programme was going to work or not. Callan was such an extreme character for the time. But it was a risk that paid off. It gave my career a huge boost, first nationally, then internationally. Really Callan was the key to my whole life and career.”
Particularly useful to Woodward was a rather famous fan. “Laurence Olivier loved Callan. He didn’t watch much television, but he never missed an episode of that. I was doing a musical in London and he came to see it. Afterwards he came backstage to tell me how much he’d enjoyed my performance, and would I like to come and work with him at the National Theatre? So I did, for two years, and it was while I was there that Noel Coward came to see me, and we ended up doing a musical together in New York. The way I see it, you always get work from work. It’s like dominoes.”
Wasn’t it Noel Coward who said that Woodward’s name sounded like a fart in the bath? Mercifully, the question makes the actor chuckle. “Noel Coward claimed he said it, but then so did Laurence Olivier! I still don’t know which one of them came up with it, but it was always enough for me that these two great men battled over who did!”
Another project that came to Woodward via the success of Callan was director Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), a chilling tale of Pagan sacrifice. “I never asked Robin if he was a Callan fan, but I suspect it played its part. I liked the screenplay immediately. There was something there. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but some quality in the script compelled me to do it.
“Despite the quality of the work, the film’s production was almost a disaster. The company making it was bought out, and the new American producers wanted to shut us down. Eventually they were persuaded to let us finish, but they didn’t understand it and cut the first twenty minutes before releasing it, which meant nobody else understood it either. But now, if you’ve seen the restored version that’s out on DVD, you can appreciate Robin’s full vision. It really is a remarkable film. I still get letters about it all the time.
“The other thing that people write to me the most about is The Equalizer,” says Woodward of US action series he starred in from the mid-to-late-Eighties. “Again, the writer/producer of that show was a big Callan fan, and I was the first person he thought of when casting it. I still had to audition for it, as nobody else in the States knew who I was, but after reading the first draft, which I didn’t think was very good, I ended up turning it down. So he re-wrote it, and suddenly is was very good, so we shot the pilot and to my surprise, they picked it up and it kept me in work for five years. I really was very lucky to get it.”
A private detective prone to righting wrongs, Woodward’s character was a one-man A-Team. Winning a Golden Globe for the role in 1988, the actor’s fan mail came to include pleas for help from people who believed he actually was The Equalizer. “People would approach me by letter,” he remembers. “‘Dear Mr Equalizer, I am in terrible trouble, my landlord wants to throw me out and I am in terrible debt…’ I used to get a lot of letters like that. I wouldn’t say those who sent them were crazy, exactly, just people in trouble. They’d get to a state where they had no hope, and had a vision of a man who could equalise things. They couldn’t resist reaching out to me, just in case I could help them.
“It was heartbreaking. Absolutely awful. I’d pass on helpline phone numbers, but beyond that, there’s really wasn’t anything I could do.” Was he never tempted, then, to pull on his trademark raincoat and go punch an evil landlord? “I don’t mind acting it,” he says with a laugh, “but I’m not going to do it for real! I’m just an actor from Croydon.”