Nov 17, 2009

R.I.P. Edward Woodward

Callan's Red File has finally caught up with him. Yesterday, the world lost Edward Woodward, star of two classic spy shows: the terrific, gritty British series Callan from the Sixties and Seventies and its Eighties counterpart, the also-gritty American action series The Equalizer. Edward Callan and Equalizer Robert McCall had a lot in common; they were related in almost the same way that Patrick McGoohan's Number 6 was to his previous character John Drake. As with The Prisoner, it didn't matter if McCall and Callan were actually the same character (as some have suggested); what mattered was the extra-textual associations that Woodward brought to the character from his prior series. Callan was a bitter civil servant who did his country's dirty work because he was forced to; the specific dirty work he did often left a bad taste in his mouth. McCall was a former intelligence officer hellbent on atoning for the dirty work he'd done in his past life by using his skills for good. Woodward brought to the role a believable sense of world weariness, lent all the more credibility thanks to his earlier role.

While Woodward went on to play many more parts after McCall, his two spy shows worked nicely as bookends for his career. First, he was the spy as angry young man; later he was the spy as cynical, embittered old man, his soul wrecked by a lifetime spent ruining lives and inflicting violence on behalf of a government not always in the right. Those two archetypes together pretty much define the serious side of the spy genre, and they defined Woodward's own estimable career. The Equalizer, while more iconic in the United States, was not nearly the gold standard of the genre that Callan was, and wasn't always all that "serious." But even when the plots (sometimes concoted by future 24 mastermind Joel Surnow) veered into typical 80s vigilante action and mayhem, Woodward himself always remained as serious as hell, firmly anchoring the whole show with his undeniable gravitas. He was the prototypical asskicking old guy. Before Alias' Jack Bristow or Taken's Bryan Mills, McCall was a bonafide silver-haired action hero. And it wasn't his Walther that told kidnappers and drug dealers and other assorted 80s riffraff that McCall wasn't a man to be trifled with; it was Woodward's ice-cold stare. He was a master of the stare, conveying many emotions without speaking a word, from Callan's "I hate you and I detest what you're making me do, but you know damn well I'll do it" defiant stare reserved for his ever-changing boss, Hunter, to McCall's "don't you dare f--k with me, because I've seen it all and done it all and I may be old but you haven't got a chance" steely gaze.

As iconic as those two roles were, Woodward's contributions to the spy genre actually went well beyond Callan and McCall. Early in his career, he turned in memorable guest performances on ITC staples like The Saint (where he played a tormented politician) and The Baron. His Belloq-like, unscrupulous antiques dealer on the very best episode of the latter series was the dark side of the Baron himself (Steve Forrest), and a far more complex and compelling character. It's a pity he was introduced so late in the series, as he would have made a fantastic recurring antagonist. He created the character of Callan in dramatisation of James Mitchell's "A Magnum For Schneider" on the anthology series Armchair Theatre. That led to four seasons of the series, and after that Woodward reprised the role twice, in the theatrical film Callan (a remake of "A Magnum For Schneider") and the reunion movie Wet Job (1981). Later spy roles included an MI6 officer in Codename: Kyril (1988) and, in the late 90s, stepping into Gordon Jackson's shoes as leader of The New Professionals, Brian Clemens' (The Avengers) more espionage-heavy revival of his 70s action drama.

As good as he was at wet work, Woodward's CV covered a great deal more genres than spy. He revealed an unexpected flair for black comedy in Edgar Wright's sublime Hot Fuzz (2007), his last major theatrical role. He shined in military roles in movies like Breaker Morant (1980) and Mister Johnson (1990, with Pierce Brosnan) and even took a stab at Sherlock Holmes in the TV movie Hands of a Murderer, but will probably remain best remembered for his stellar performance as Sgt. Howie in the 1973 cult horror classic The Wicker Man, opposite Christopher Lee. While Lee had the showier role, it was Woodward on whom it fell to carry the movie. And he did so in fantastic fashion, playing a stuffy, unlikable hero with such utter conviction that you can't help sympathize with the out-of-his-depth policeman by the film's final moments. The character may have lacked Callan's steely resolve or McCall's prickly badassery, but once more Woodward brought to the role that undeniable gravitas that defined his career. He was an unsung titan of the spy genre, and he will be missed. For a good idea of the legacy that Edward Woodward leaves behind, I highly recommend checking out Callan: Set 1, finally released on DVD in America just this year.

Read my review of Callan: Set One here.


Delmo said...

Nicely done.

Jennifer Pierno said...

I'm watching The Equalizer, but am also a great fan of the Callan series. These shows stand the test of time, i.e. they are far better than most of the shows of today. Edward Woodward was great. Something I really love about The Equalizer is the backdrop of New York. Also love his clothes, apartment and lifestyle.