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Thaw, John (1942-2002)

Actor, Presenter, Producer

Main image of Thaw, John (1942-2002)

Among the most consistently bankable of stars, John Thaw was born in Manchester. A versatile actor with an enormous range on television, screen and stage, he will forever be remembered for portraying two definitive fictional policemen: the tough Jack Regan and the introspective Endeavour Morse.

An underage Thaw (he was 16) successfully auditioned for a place at RADA, where he graduated with honours; he made his professional stage debut at the Liverpool Playhouse in 1960. His first appearance on television came a year later in The Younger Generation (ITV), a series of new plays by young writers and performed by young actors.

His small screen career continued with roles in two seminal programmes: Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78) and The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69). He landed the starring role of Sgt John Mann in Redcap (ITV, 1964), set in the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police. Two more series followed: Bat Out of Hell (BBC, 1966) and Inheritance (ITV, 1967).

After playing Banquo in Macbeth (BBC, 20/9/1970), he made guest appearances in a variety of programmes, including Budgie (ITV, 1971-72) and The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes (ITV, 1971-1973). His next starring role brought a new departure. Thick as Thieves (1974), a situation comedy penned by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, concerned a small crook (Bob Hoskins) who returns from prison to find his wife (Pat Ashton), 'shacked up' with his former accomplice (Thaw).

He first played Detective Inspector Jack Regan in the single television film Regan (tx. 4/6/1974), part of the Armchair Cinema strand (ITV, 1974-75). The success of that pilot led to The Sweeney (ITV, 1975-78), a hard-hitting, uncompromising, groundbreaking series which changed the face of British police drama. Regan was a role that Thaw could sink his teeth into. A womanising heavy-drinker who bent the rules to achieve the right result, Regan became an archetypal anti-hero and a television icon of the 1970s. The series spawned two feature films (1977 and 1978), the first of which won Thaw the Evening Standard Best Film Actor award.

Shedding the skin of Jack Regan, he continued a busy television career in a diverse range of roles: the manager of a young boxer in Leon Griffiths' play Dinner at the Sporting Club (BBC, 7/11/1978); Francis Drake in Drake's Venture (ITV, 28/10/1980); newspaper reporter Mitch (ITV, 1984) and a return to Shakespeare in The Life and Death of King John (BBC, 24/11/1984). After a gap of more than ten years, he tried his hand again at situation comedy in Eric Chappell's Home to Roost (ITV, 1985-88).

Returning to drama, he next took the role (one closer to his own personality) that cemented his reputation as one of television's most respected and well-loved actors. Adapted from Colin Dexter's novels, the melancholic real ale enthusiast and classical music lover Inspector Morse (ITV, 1987-2000) struck a chord with the international television audience. Although Morse and Regan were poles apart in their policing methods, Thaw was once again associated with a series that redefined the television detective genre. When Morse was killed off in 2000, 13 million tuned in to say farewell. BAFTA bestowed two Best TV Actor awards on him (1989 and 1992), for his performance. He was awarded a CBE in 1993 and the BAFTA Fellowship in 2001.

During his time as Morse, he starred in numerous one-off dramas; Bomber Harris (1989), David Hare's Absence of War (1995), in which Thaw had performed two years previously at the National Theatre; Into the Blue (1997); Goodnight Mister Tom (1998). Serial dramas continued in abundance: Kingsley Amis' Stanley and the Women (1991), The Plastic Man (1999), The Waiting Time (1999) and Monsignor Renard (2000). A rare blip in his career came during this period with Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence (1993), which lost a staggering 8 million viewers halfway through its run.

He worked sporadically in the cinema. His debut was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (d. Tony Richardson, 1962); other notable films included The Bofors Gun (d. Jack Gold, 1968), The Last Grenade (d. CHECK, 1970), and Dr Phibes Rides Again (d. Robert Fuest, 1972). Later films included two for Richard Attenborough: Cry Freedom (1987) - for which he got a BAFTA Best Supporting Actor nomination - and Chaplin (1992).

After the demise of Morse, Thaw diversified again, narrating the documentaries The Second World War in Colour (ITV, 1999) and Britain at War in Colour (ITV, 2000), and starring as a double-glazing man in The Glass (ITV, 2001) and in Buried Treasure (ITV, 2001) as a widowed estate agent.

Diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001, he was determined to beat it. He planned to film a new feature-length episode of the successful Kavanagh Q.C. (ITV, 1995-2001), a role which allowed him to prosecute and defend criminals instead of catching them. Still discussing new projects, John Thaw died on 21 February 2002.

Graham Rinaldi

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From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, The (1962)

A borstal boy turns marathon runner in this adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's novel

Thumbnail image of Inspector Morse (1987-2000)Inspector Morse (1987-2000)

Gentle Oxfordshire whodunnits faced by the melancholic detective

Thumbnail image of Kavanagh Q.C. (1995-2001)Kavanagh Q.C. (1995-2001)

Post-Morse vehicle for John Thaw as an affable barrister

Thumbnail image of Life and Death of King John, The (1984)Life and Death of King John, The (1984)

Leonard Rossiter's last screen role, as Shakespeare's 'bad king'

Thumbnail image of Macbeth (1970)Macbeth (1970)

Play of the Month adaptation of Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy

Thumbnail image of Sweeney, The (1975-78)Sweeney, The (1975-78)

Tough 1970s police drama with John Thaw and Dennis Waterman

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Related people and organisations

Thumbnail image of Hancock, Sheila (1933-)Hancock, Sheila (1933-)

Actor, Presenter