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.
Thanks for this Coleman. Fascinating story, and I have to tell you it is that episode that magnetized me to the screen years ago. I loved watching a Prime Time drama that had a heart to explore deeper darknesses of guilt with the suggestions of hope that each episode brought. I have actually referred to this particular episode over and over again in explaining the uniqueness of the show. Well done brother.
Thank you. The opportunity to do it was a great gift from God.
I loved that show it is one of my two favourite all time ones! I had never heard of Edward Woodward before the Equalizer but grew to know his work later on. I think this show has touched me and moulded some of my character. I relate to Robert Maccol and to Edward Woodward. I love everything about this show. I only wished that they had made more. I know they kept it on for a season or two longer so that it could run in syndication a rare act of kindness in a business so dominated by the bottom line. What a show and what a gift from god this show and body of work is for us. God rest your soul. I hope to finally meet you one day in the great beyond.
I love the Equalizer and still do to this day. Edward Woodward is fantastic. Modern hollywood is basically making like you say vigilante movies with violence to appeal the youngsters. Tacky. This show had you believe that McCall was very capable of darkness when it needed to be done. He had a gravitas and believability that few ca match, But McCall also genuinely came across as caring too. Watching TV? Odds against you finding something good? Sick of reality shows and dark ‘gritty’ shows? Watch The Equalizer.
Thats beautiful Im in the UK and LOVE this series. It started airing on ITV over here about a year or so after it started being broadcast in the US so i spent my early teen years really looking forward to 9pm on Thursday nights. So i was about 13 to 17 while watching this for the first time. Edward Woodward was a wonderfully talented actor. As a kid i really wanted to be in it and used to fantasize that i was. Im now in my mid forties and am enjoying watching a repeat run on Forces TV. There is also a repeat run of Callan on Talking Pictures TV so im watching those for the first time as i was born in 73 just after Callan ended. Watching The Equalizer now as an adult i can also see it explored many themes and issues in a sensitive and respectful way. I have no interest in seeing the remade films. To me Edward Woodward will always be The Equalizer. I dont watch much current television except for news and documentaries. I HATE reality shows. When watching or re watching older shows it really brings it home that todays TV is mostly terrible. Coleman ..thank you for being a writer on something i loved very much and still do. It was a formative part of my childhood/teen years. You wrote some excellent story lines for this series. And this piece is lovely. Mr Woodward sounds as lovely as i thought he would be.
Thank you, Elizabeth. It was a joy to work on The Equalizer.
Mr. Luck, thank you for your amazing contributions to my favorite television program. I lived (and still do) in NYC and it captured the diversity, emotional footprint, and NYC aura of the time. Yet, the themes are still relevant today. How Robert McCall would be amazed at the changes of today’s New York! The Equalizer remains a very unique type of New York City “crime” show or even “spy” show, featuring rich character development and incredible multi-dimensional story-telling, The prescient guest star casting showcased young actors that have become household names today. I especially looked forward to the exchanges between Robert McCall and Control, each wrestling with their conscience in a different way. Edward Woodward brought great dignity and depth to his character, a part that could have been played in a cartoon-like fashion with a less capable actor. Robert Lansing, Keith Szarabajka, William Zabka. and Mark Margolis, as well as the other regulars and semi-regulars gave incredible performances. Mr. Woodward made it all look so easy! Ironically, many of the real-life political figures mentioned in various episodes, including Castro and Gaddafi, who were still in power until fairly recently, continued to live on many years after the show left the air. We could use with more programs that feature the themes of redemption and humility.
Thank you, Robin. The series was a joy to do. It is very sad that we have lost so many who worked on it and many were great friends.
Lovely tribute. Edward is one of my favourite actors. I love him the most in the series Callan. The Equalizer was on before I was born and I’ve only just got around to seeing it. I recently bought the boxset of The Equalizer and have really been enjoying watching it.
I love the dark and light that Edward brought to Robert McCall. Thanks to Edward’s layered performance, we can see that Robert has seen and done some dark things, but that he is also a gentle, decent and kind soul. I also love how he is this classy badass.
Robert McCall reminds me somewhat of Ethan Edwards in the film The Searchers; both men are outcasts from “normal” society in some way. Ethan because he is eaten up by his hate and a need for vengeance, and Robert because of his job and the people who he associates with. I enjoyed seeing the impact that Robert’s job had on his family, you don’t often see that in these types of series. I also like how Edward brought a lonely and weary quality to Robert that lets us see how much he just wants a normal life.
My favourite part of the series is the friendship/father son type relationship between Robert and Mickey. Love their banter and the affection they have for each other. Loved seeing Robert and Scott get closer over the seasons too. Robert Lansing is great as Control, and the scenes between him and Edward are terrific. I’ve enjoyed spotting so many actors just starting out in this who are now big stars.
Thank you for your work on this series, Coleman.
Wonderfully written. I found this on the Internet because I just watched “Reign of Terror” and was Googling the writer. This episode still packs the same visceral punch that it did when I first saw it 34 years ago on prime time. Massive respect. Cheers.
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I happened across your heartfelt tribute to the late Edward Woodward, while
looking for a photo of Robert Lansing and Edward together.
The scenes between Robert McCall and Control were always the best.
Two veteran actors making their character’s interactions riveting.
As a Christian, I always saw the Equalizer as a story of atonement and
seeking redemption. Your writing told that story.
Robert McCall always put others ahead of himself, and was indeed a
father figure. He was a loner, searching for a way to make up for his past.
I want to thank you for allowing us some insight on your friendship with
Edward and your work on The Equalizer.
As you say, the opportunity was a gift from God.
I too look forward to meeting Edward in heaven.
It was heartwarming to see his wife Michele’s note to you,
saying Edward was a believer.
God Bless You Coleman !
It was a wonderful period in my career. From that point on, it was war.
Is there a way I could obtain a copy the wonderful illustration of Robert McCall at the top of this page ?
It captures him perfectly – exhausted, but ready to help.
Unfortunately, it is one of a kind and hangs framed on my wall. The artist gave it to me in 1988. She interviewed me for an article that she hoped to sell to TV Guide and created the art to go with it. The article did not sell so she gave it to me. I posted it, but I do not have the rights to make print copies.
Thanks again Coleman.
Hi Coleman – I’ve just seen this posting, remembering it from 2009. But this time with that fabulous picture. A fabulous character and a wonderful actor. Thanks again for playing your part in bringing McCall’s character to life.