HARD to believe that it’s 17 years today since the untimely death of one of Britain’s most talented and versatile actors of the post-war generation, the late, great John Thaw.
Best remembered for portraying two widely differing police officers – the Sweeney’s hard-hitting action man DI Jack Regan and the cerebral opera-loving Inspector Morse – Thaw had that elusive quality of ‘becoming’ the characters he portrayed and making them entirely believable.
John Edward Thaw was born to working class parents in the Longsight area of Manchester on January 3rd, 1942. His father, a long-distance lorry driver, was often away from home and his mother left when he was just seven years old, making for a difficult childhood.
Thaw grew up in various Manchester suburbs, often cared for by relatives, and it was at the Ducie Technical High School for Boys that he first experienced drama and set his sights on a career as an actor. At just 16 he managed to win a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), which meant moving to London.
While still at RADA he appeared in a string of stage plays, everything from Shakespeare to Chekov, and began to make a name for himself. On graduating he made his professional stage debut at the Liverpool Playhouse and was given a contract with the theatre, appearing and soon starring in several productions there.
His first film role was an uncredited bit-part in 1962’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, which starred a RADA contemporary, Tom Courtenay. Even as a young actor, Thaw earned a reputation for playing ‘hard men’, bolstered by several appearances as a detective constable in popular TV drama “Z Cars” in 1963 and ’64. That led to the starring role in the ITV drama “Redcap”, playing hard-nosed military policeman Sgt John Mann between 1964 and ’66.
Although it didn’t immediately lead to another starring role, Thaw was never short of work throughout the latter half of the 1960s and into the ’70s. He had roles in feature films and made-for-TV films and made regular guest appearances in series including “The Avengers”, “Budgie”, the “ITV Saturday Night Theatre” and “The Onedin Line”. Thaw had become a busy jobbing actor and an increasingly familiar face to TV and film audiences, but his breakthrough came with a starring role in a new and gritty police drama, “The Sweeney”.
He made the role of tough Detective Inspector Jack Regan his own, playing the character in four series from 1975-78 and two spin-off feature films. He was only 32 when he first took on the role, although many viewers thought he was older. The series also brought a breakthrough role for Dennis Waterman as Regan’s Detective Sergeant, George Carter.
A less successful venture was the 1983 series “Mitch”, in which Thaw played a crime reporter for a national newspaper, but he also showed he could play for laughs in sitcoms “Thick as Thieves”, with Bob Hoskins, and “Home to Roost”, with a young Reece Dinsdale. Thaw’s next big role, and arguably his most memorable, was as another policeman, but one a world away from the Flying Squad’s Jack Regan.
He made his first appearance as intelligent, softly-spoken but curmudgeonly Detective Inspector Morse on January 6th, 1987, in “The Dead of Jericho”, the first TV adaptation of author Colin Dexter’s Morse novels. Over the next 13 years he would play Morse in 33 two-hour episodes spread over 12 series, ending with the character’s death in “The Remorseful Day”, screened on November 15th, 2000. By then the crossword, classical music and real ale-loving Morse had become a cult figure, loved by TV audiences not just in the UK but around the world.
Tragically, Morse’s untimely screen death from a heart attack would be mirrored by Thaw’s own death just 15 months later, not from a heart attack, but cancer of the oesophagus. It was diagnosed in June 2001 and despite treatment, it spread. Thaw had been a heavy smoker since the age of 12 and a heavy drinker until going teetotal in 1995.
He died on February 21st, 2002, aged just 60 and only days after signing a new contract with ITV in the hope he could overcome the disease. He left his wife of 29 years, actress Sheila Hancock, and three daughters, all of whom are actresses. He also left an enviable body of work, with other memorable performances including the long-running legal drama “Kavanagh QC” and an oft-repeated TV adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s book “Goodnight Mister Tom”.
Seventeen years on from his death, John Thaw is still seen regularly on our TV screens in reruns of his most popular shows. He is much missed by audiences who can only wonder how much more he could have achieved had he not died so young.