On this day, nine years ago, the wonderful actor, Edward Woodward, passed away. The week after he left us, I wrote the following tribute:
This morning came the word that my old friend and great colleague Edward Woodward had passed away. He was 79 years old. Over recent years, our contact was pretty much limited to the exchange of Christmas cards. The one he sent last year carried the note that he was still working at 79 and wasn’t that a wonder?
I didn’t create the classic, American television series, of which Edward was the star. It was created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. Michael was a busy writer/producer and Dick was a top-level executive at Universal Television. After the pilot was written and produced, because of their commitments, neither could join the on-going staff of the show. It was turned over to others.
I came on board the team as the junior writer/producer in the fall of 1985. It was show eleven. I had worked on only one other series and that one had lasted for just eight episodes. When it ended, I was offered an exclusive deal at Universal TV. I was thrilled to be there, but for months there wasn’t much for me to do. Then came a call. Would I like to join the staff of a new series that was in production called The Equalizer? The concept sounded interesting, so I said yes.
Almost immediately I ran into a false conception that plagued the show from beginning to end. When I told a woman writer friend that I was joining The Equalizer she looked disgusted. Why would I want to write for a show about a vigilante? To this day, that’s how many people perceive The Equalizer. But for those of us who worked on the series, it wasn’t about that at all.
When I joined the staff, I discovered that things were in chaos. Most new series go through a painful first year, but this was particularly bad. The writing staff and the “showrunner” were in LA, while the whole production team was in Manhattan. And there was war between the coasts. The New York team hated the scripts they were getting, while the LA team felt they were writing cutting-edge material that took the concept to a whole new level. I decided to be of help wherever I could and try not to make enemies on either coast. That was a challenge.
The writing staff was trying to deal with a number of scripts that had been done by freelancers. All of them needed major revisions to make them ready for production and deadlines were not being met. With my usual suicidal tendency, I went into the showrunner’s office and asked for the most difficult script he had. He gave it to me. It was a story about a street gang and it needed what we call a “page one” revision, basically a whole, new script. And there wasn’t much time to do it.
In the story, the Equalizer had to stop a street gang that was terrorizing a neighborhood. For some reason I got it into my head to make that script an homage to the classic movie, “The Warriors.” (When I see that episode today, I just want to cringe.) But something strange happened as I wrote it. Here’s the way it went down.
As always before taking any action, Robert McCall did his homework about the situation that he faced. In the episode, his research took him to Spanish Harlem. One day on a street, he passed a poor little barbershop. Glancing in the window, he froze. His eyes locked with those of the barber. Amazed, he walked inside. The barber and McCall stared at each other. They were old enemies from the days when McCall was a top CIA operative. The man motioned for him to come into the back room where they could talk.
McCall couldn’t believe that his old enemy was here in New York cutting hair. When last they had met, he was one of the leading Generals in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and head of Castro’s secret police. How in the world had he gone from that to this? The “barber” told him.
In a time of paranoia, Castro had ordered yet another sweep to cleanse the population of his enemies. Among the thousands pulled in was a little farmer, just a common man. But very quickly it became apparent that the best interrogators couldn’t deal with him. He broke them. In frustration, the General took on the case himself. He tortured the man mercilessly, finally killing him. But that little farmer destroyed his life. And how had he done it? “…Because through all the torture no matter what I did to him, he forgave me. What I experienced was the worst thing that could ever happen to a good Communist. I began to believe in the Love of God.” This and other factors in the story led Robert McCall to do something that he had never done before. To win against the gang, he had to lay down his gun and face them defenseless and alone.
After I wrote all that, I had absolutely no idea how it would be received. Definitely, it wasn’t your garden variety vigilante story. I was certain of only one thing. In the history of American television never had such a scene been written for a hard-edged, prime-time action series. I was in LA with no direct knowledge of what was going on in New York. I didn’t know it, but later I was told that Edward was ready to walk off the show because he was so unhappy with his character as it was being portrayed. But when he read the script that I had written he said, “This is it.”
Thus began a wonderful odyssey for me. The story of all we went through producing The Equalizer could fill a book. Beginning with the second year, the writing team came together. A number of wonderful writers passed through the show adding their unique perspectives. Many of us are still close friends. For two of the four years, the showrunner was a great friend who gave me amazing freedom to write whatever I felt. His name was Ed Waters and he passed away several years ago. Then there was Jim McAdams, the Executive Producer, who became a dear friend of decades. Jim died a little over two years ago. Supporting us were the executives at Universal TV led by Dick Lindheim. Without their encouragement, nothing that I wrote would have been produced. I am grateful to them all.
As time passed it seemed that I had a kind of symbiotic understanding of the unique character created by Michael and Dick and portrayed so brilliantly by Edward. Consequently, most of the episodes that dealt with McCall’s deeper background and relationships fell to me. By virtue of the fact that I stayed on the show longer than any other writer, I wrote more episodes than anyone else. And what a wonderful opportunity it was. Never again on any series, even those I created, was I allowed such freedom.
What makes a television series successful? Of course, you need good scripts and good production. But most of all the audience has to love the main characters. They have to want them to come back into their homes week after week. That’s why casting is such an art. Casting Edward Woodward as The Equalizer was brilliant and unpredictable. Think of it, a British actor virtually unknown in the US, to play a former, top-level, CIA agent on a major network series. The world can thank Michael and Dick for such a choice.
I’ve thought often about what Edward brought to the part. In my opinion it was great strength, resolution and energy, coupled with an underlying sorrow. There was tremendous honesty in his performance. The character he played was a brilliant and brave man who had done terrible things for which he carried a heavy burden of guilt. The series was about the costliness of redemption. Robert McCall brought redemption to others, but to do so always cost him. And while he brought that redemption, he could never quite find it for himself.
I don’t think you will ever see another series like The Equalizer. There are specific reasons for that. First, Robert McCall was the ultimate father figure. He would kick your butt when you needed it, but when the chips were down and life was fading away, he would be there to save you. When he came, you knew that if it were necessary, he would give his life for yours. Hollywood is not a fan of those kind of fathers. Lovable, stumbling buffoons are much more popular. But there’s another reason you’ll never see a series like this again.
Over the years there have been a number of attempts to copy The Equalizer. They have failed, because Hollywood misunderstands the meaning of redemption. Hollywood’s definition of redemption is found in the wonderful movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.” As excellent as it is, it isn’t about redemption at all. It’s about revenge. Redeem yourself by making somebody else pay. And therein lies the fatal flaw. With true redemption someone is willing to pay the price to save your life, even if you don’t deserve it. If The Equalizer had carried Hollywood’s definition of redemption, it would have been just a vigilante show.
Why did I have an understanding of the mysterious character of Robert McCall? Was it my experiences in war? Maybe in part. But there is a deeper reason. I too am a man who has done terrible things in my life. But unlike Robert McCall, I found redemption because Someone else paid the price for me. Because of Jesus Christ, I know what redemption is and the burden of guilt is gone.
People always want to know how much of the character that an actor portrays comes from inside. They want to believe that the real person is a lot like the character they love on the screen. Edward both was and wasn’t the Equalizer. First, he was a whole lot funnier than Robert McCall. And he could sing. He had a wonderful voice and made a string of records. A number of years ago, Carel and I visited Edward and Michele in their home near Portsmouth, England. It was a delightful time. We had great meals and went antiquing. Our gracious hosts showed us the area, with its fascinating history. And Edward kept us in stitches. Not only was he a consummate actor, he was one of the greatest raconteurs of his generation.
Edward was much like Robert McCall in at least one way. He cared about people. The star of a series controls the tone of a show on the set. Too many series are chained with stars who are narcissistic, spoiled brats. And some are truly evil. They bring agony on all those around them. That was not Edward Woodward. Our production team, that had to work with him day and night, all loved him. He was a true gentleman. Though we never talked about it, I’m sure at a deep level Edward understood Robert McCall in the same way I did. If he hadn’t, never would he have accepted the scripts that I wrote for him and given me such enthusiastic support.
I was a grown man when my father died. Even so a strange sense of vulnerability came at his passing. Someone I trusted deeply wasn’t there anymore and the world was a lonelier place. I think Edward portrayed a father very well. Our prayers are with Michele and all the children.
Rest in peace, my friend.
After I wrote this, I sent a copy to Edward’s wife, Michele Dotrice, herself a wonderful actor from a famous family of British theater, film and television. A short time later, I received a gracious note of thanks from her. In it she said, “Edward believed as you do.”
Indeed, after nine years, continue to rest in peace and joy, my friend. We will meet again.