Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Horn Section Salutes: Edward Woodward (1930-2009)

Admittedly, I've been lazy lately, to the point of being about a week after the fact with this one, but I just couldn't let the passing of the one and only Equalizer go without comment. Last week, actor Edward Woodward, best known to us 1980's children as Robert McCall, a.k.a. THE EQUALIZER, but also the star of the terrific films BREAKER MORANT and THE WICKER MAN (1973; not the shitty Nicolas Cage remake) among many other impressive credits, died at the age of 79.

My tribute will focus on THE EQUALIZER, which was simultaneously a blast from the past and a breath of fresh air when it premiered on CBS in the fall of 1985. By that time, it was practically a rule that any "aged" and presumably, unattractive leading man in a crime drama required a "young sidekick" to keep the attention of the ladies. Think HARDCASTLE AND McCORMACK, and the latter day BARNABY JONES among others. William Conrad was trusted to carry CANNON by himself in the early 1970's, but a decade later it was decided that he required Joe Penny's help to rope in the young female viewers for JAKE AND THE FATMAN.

THE EQUALIZER went against this, with the title character played by the overweight, 5'9", toupeed and then 55 year old Woodward. While he often called in favors from various old contacts, he worked alone with no sidekick. The Equalizer, a.k.a. Robert McCall, had resigned from a long career in intelligence, no longer able to stomach some of the things he'd done as an operative and seeking a form of redemption via selflessly helping the helpless. "Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer" read his daily newspaper ad.

It was the ultimate testament to Woodward's superior acting ability that this stocky, less than physically imposing, polite Brit in late middle age was thoroughly convincing as such a resourceful badass. Wisely the producers revealed only a little of McCall's past at a time, keeping him properly mysterious while slowly letting viewers get to know him. At least, on this side of the pond. For those old enough to remember it, THE EQUALIZER at times seemed like a plausible sequel to Woodward's British series CALLAN, in which Woodward's title character worked as an operative.

I have yet to get around to posting a full review of THE EQUALIZER: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, but I'll highlight a couple of standouts for you to Netflix in your own spare time:

"China Rain" (9/25/85): A young and very appealing Lauren Tom is a maid whose son is mistaken for a millionaire's and kidnapped. McCall calls in a few old markers, enlists the help of a few old friends from the agency (including, for the first time, frequent guest star Keith Szarabajka as "Mickey") and, unbeknownst to them, NYPD's finest in outwitting the kidnappers.

You'll get a few giggles at an era in which a 3 character code was topnotch computer security, but director Richard Compton (MACON COUNTY LINE) really captures the seediness of the city at night and establishes McCall and many of his relationships with just the right dollops of humor and mystery. IMO a better introduction to the series than the actual pilot.

"Breakpoint" (2/19/86): The favorite episode of the entire series for many, this was the very first television appearance for MONK himself, Tony Shalhoub (as the lead terrorist) and also featured a young Patricia Clarkson. McCall's many years of experience come in handier than ever here as he is part of a wedding party taken hostage in a high rise building by terrorists who have no idea of his background.

McCall anticipates every single move meant to keep the hostages nervous and on edge.  For example, he knows that they'll give part of the original group a false sense of security early on, then take that very group hostage. He also grasps that he'll have to wait for the right moment to strike, even though it means gritting his teeth through the torture of a fellow hostage close to him and the possibility that some will not survive. A terrific episode that predates DIE HARD by two years and also shows yet again the resourcefulness of McCall, who can even find a useful weapon in the men's restroom.

Once you see these two, really, the entire first season is well worth checking out. The show started to slip in Season 3, when Woodward suffered heart attack and was off-screen too much, and shortly after the scripts started to sag in the fourth and final season. Still, Woodward's presence makes almost any episode worthwhile.

He tried again on U.S. television a year after THE EQUALIZER's demise, but unfortunately OVER MY DEAD BODY proved to be a terrible vehicle, barely lasted a season, and was quickly forgotten.

Still, Edward Woodward's signature role on U.S. television is still fondly remembered a quarter century later, and well worth Netflixing a disc or two to check out. R.I.P. Robert McCall.

The long promised 40th film review is forthcoming. Pinky swear!  Don't send McCall after me!

1 comment:

Frost said...

"The Equalizer" was one of the few truly badass shows of the pretty-in-lieu-of-gritty 80s. The premise was great, and Woodward really made a meal of the role.

And what can you say about "The Wicker Man?" A thing of bizarre beauty disgraced by the most thoroughly unnecessary remake of all time.

What happened to Nicolas Cage? Ever since peaking in "Raising Arizona," he's been spiraling, dragging us down with him. "Not the bees! Not the bees!"