'Wicker Man' star Woodward dies aged 79

... but he was only the director's third choice for the role. Andy McSmith reports

Edward Woodward, the actor best known for his roles in the 1973 film The Wicker Man and The Equalizer television series, has died, aged 79.

Curiously, Woodward was not the first choice for his most famous film role as the devout Christian police sergeant Neil Howie sent to investigate a child's disappearance on a remote Hebridean island. The part was offered to Michael York, and then to David Hemmings, before Woodward accepted it.

Although the other two were more well known at the time, it is unlikely that they could have made the film's horrific climax as appallingly memorable as Woodward did, as it dawned on the policeman that he was to be burned alive. That scene turned the small-budget Wicker Man into a cult classic.

Woodward achieved international fame in 1980 in the title role of the Australian film Breaker Morant, and through the 1980s American series The Equalizer, in which he played Robert McCall, a former CIA agent turned freelance investigator and vigilante. He earned more per episode than most British actors were paid in a year.

Recently, Woodward did a short stint in EastEnders as Tommy Clifford, a dying man with a secret. Speaking about the role to What's On TV magazine this year, he said: "I was very pleased. I only like to do a few jobs each year and I pick the ones I can't turn down. I liked the character and six episodes suited me."

Woodward was born in Croydon in 1930, the son of a chicken farmer turned metal worker, and won a scholarship to Rada, the world-renowned drama school, at the age of 16. He spent almost 20 years in theatre before his big break in 1967, when he was cast as Callan, in the television spy series of that name. To have a show in which the hero was as tortured as Callan was a novelty at the time.

In the 1980s, Woodward went through a bitter divorce from his first wife, the actress Venetia Barrett, whom he married in 1952. They had three children, Tim, Peter and Sarah, who all took up acting. His former wife spilled their story to a tabloid newspaper under the heading "How The Equalizer wiped me out – by the wife he ditched".

Woodward married the much younger Michele Dotrice, who was famous in the 1970s as Frank Spencer's long-suffering wife, Betty, in the sitcom Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, at a private ceremony in New York in January 1987. The couple lived near Padstow, in Cornwall. Woodward died in the Royal Cornwall Hospital, Truro, after suffering several illnesses, including pneumonia.

Barbara Windsor, who worked with Woodward on EastEnders and in musicals, said she was "deeply saddened" by his death. She added: "I have such fond memories of our time working together."

Robin Hardy, who directed The Wicker Man, said: "He was one of the greatest actors of his generation, without any question, with a broad career on American television as well as British film. He was an absolute star of The Wicker Man. He was an extremely nice human being."

Woodward's agent, Janet Glass, released a statement praising Woodward on and off the screen. It said: "Universally loved and admired through his unforgettable roles in classic productions such as Breaker Morant, The Wicker Man, Callan, The Equalizer and many more, he was equally fine and courageous in real life, never losing his brave spirit and wonderful humour throughout his illness."

Simon Pegg, who starred with Woodward in the 2007 film Hot Fuzz, paid tribute to the actor on Twitter: "So sorry to hear we have lost the great Edward Woodward. Feel lucky to have worked with him. Sgt Howie, Tom Weaver, we will miss you."