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Edward Woodward: Star of 'Callan', 'The Equalizer' and 'The Wicker Man'

Two espionage series made Edward Woodward a television star on both sides of the Atlantic. First, British viewers saw him as the cold, unglamorous British Intelligence hit-man in Callan, a brutal, uncompromising drama intended by its creator, James Mitchell, to be an antidote to spy fantasy programmes such as The Avengers and the jet-set lifestyle depicted in The Troubleshooters.

It began as the single "Armchair Theatre" play A Magnum for Schneider (1967), with David Callan given the mission of sniffing out a gun-runner to redeem himself after challenging his bosses' authority once too often.

This led to four series of Callan (1967-72), which also featured as Callan's fellow-agents Peter Bowles, then Anthony Valentine, as Meres and – from the third run – Patrick Mower as Cross. Most memorable, though, was Russell Hunter in the role of the the petty thief Lonely, the spy's snivelling, smelly accomplice. Also memorable was the title sequence, showing a swinging lightbulb exploding in slow motion to the sound of a gunshot. Callan was spun off into a 1974 feature film and revived on the small screen for a single, feature-length drama, Wet Job, in 1981.

Four years later, Woodward was signed up by American television to star as the tough Robert McCall in The Equalizer (1985-89). The cynical, former secret agent offered his services for free to those seeking revenge and had no qualms about using his gun to "equalize" matters for the aggrieved.

"McCall is hard and ruthless, but he's also very gentle, soft-hearted and compassionate," insisted the actor. "And I think that's what makes him an interesting character – he's full of contradictions. And I cut an awful lot of violence out if I think it's gratuitous."

Woodward is also remembered by a legion of cult supernatural film fans for his starring role in The Wicker Man (1973) as the devout Christian police sergeant visiting a remote Hebridean island in search of a missing girl whom locals insist never existed. There, he discovers pagan rituals being practised and believes that the girl is probably being prepared for sacrifice – only to discover that the abduction was a hoax and that he is the real target. The policeman is then placed inside a massive, hollow wicker effigy of a man above the cliffs and the pyre is lit.

The Wicker Man also starred Christopher Lee, branching out from his performances in Dracula films to play Lord Summerisle, and Britt Ekland as the island's goddess of love deflowering young men.

Born in Croydon, Surrey, in 1930, the son of a metal worker, Woodward attended the town's Eccleston Road and Sydenham Road Schools, the Elmwood School, Wallingford, Hinchley Wood School and Kingston Commercial School. Keen on acting since winning a talent competition at the age of five, he joined the repertory company at the Castle Theatre, Farnham, as assistant stage manager and made his professional début in A Kiss for Cinderella (1946).

Winning a scholarship to Rada enabled Woodward to leave the job he had taken in a sanitary engineer's office. Following years in repertory theatre across Britain, he made his first West End appearance as Ralph Stokes in Where There's a Will (Garrick Theatre, 1954) and reprised the role in the B-film remake the following year.

His subsequent West End roles included John Evans in Doctor in the House (Victoria Palace Theatre, 1956), Captain Yule in The High Bid (Mermaid Theatre, 1967), the Duke of Bristol in On Approval (Haymarket Theatre, 1975) and Jaspar Tudor in The Dark House (Comedy Theatre, 1978).

A talented singer, Woodward also played Haggis in Scapa (Adelphi Theatre, 1962) and Sydney Carton in Two Cities (Palace Theatre, 1969), a musical version of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, which won him the Variety Club's Best Performance in a Musical award.

During a 1958 season with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon, Woodward acted Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, Laertes in Hamlet, Thaliard in Pericles and Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing. The following year, he toured the Soviet Union with the RSC. Later, at the National Theatre, he played Flamineo in The White Devil (1969) and the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac (1970).

He was seen on Broadway in Rattle of a Simple Man (Booth Theatre, 1963), High Spirits (Alvin Theatre, 1964-65, as Charles Condomine, in a musical comedy based on Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit and directed by the writer) and the short-lived comedy The Best Laid Plans (Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 1966).

Woodward made his television début in the "Armchair Theatre" play The Fabulous Moneymaker (1969) and took bit-parts in popular series such as Emergency – Ward 10 (1961) and The Saint (1967), before he was cast in Callan, which won him Bafta's Best Actor on Television award (1970). He later appeared on the small screen in Saturday, Sunday, Monday (alongside Laurence Olivier, 1978), the sitcom Nice Work (1980, as Edward Thornfield), Arthur the King (1985, as Merlin), both series of the comedy-drama Common as Muck (1994, 1997, as the binman Nev) and CI5: The New Professionals (1999, as Harry Malone, boss of the fictional CI5 in an updated version of the popular action programme).

Woodward also introduced the real-life crime series In Suspicious Circumstances (1991-96). The American drama Over My Dead Body (1990), in which he played a former Scotland Yard detective living in Los Angeles, failed to match the success of Callan and The Equalizer. Last year, he was joined by his son Tim and grandson Sam when he played the patriarch of a gangster family in The Bill. Then, he had a brief run in EastEnders (2009) as Tommy Clifford, seeking forgiveness for the murder, several decades ago, of Patrick Trueman's girlfriend.

Although known predominantly for his television work, Woodward brought his presence to bear on the cinema screen not only in The Wicker Man but as Sergeant Wellbeloved in Stand Up, Virgin Soldiers and the court-martialled Lieutenant Harry Morant in the Australian drama Breaker Morant (1980). He also played a member of a murderous neighbourhood watch group in the comedy Hot Fuzz (2007).

He was able to cash in on his Callan fame, using his singing talent to break into the charts with the single "The Way You Look Tonight" (1971) and the albums This Man Alone (1970) and The Edward Woodward Album (1972).

With his first wife, Venetia Collett – who acted under the name Venetia Barrett – Woodward had two sons, Tim and Peter, and a daughter, Sarah, who all followed their parents into acting. He and his second wife, the actress Michele Dotrice, had a daughter. The actor was appointed OBE in 1978.

Anthony Hayward

Edward Albert Arthur Woodward, actor: born Croydon, Surrey 1 June 1930; OBE, 1978; married 1952 Venetia Collett (marriage dissolved; two sons, one daughter), 1987 Michele Dotrice (one daughter); died Truro, Cornwall 16 November 2009.