Lewis Collins: Screen hard man who came to fame in 'The Professionals' but found that Bodie cast a shadow over his career
Thursday 28 November 2013
Forever destined to be remembered as Bodie, alongside Martin Shaw as fellow tough guy Doyle, Lewis Collins made his name in The Professionals (1977-83), the television action series about the fictional British Secret Service branch CI5. The Professionals was never as realistic as its gritty predecessor, The Sweeney, starring John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as members of the real-life Flying Squad, and Collins and Shaw were undoubtedly cast for their good looks and as "buddy cops" in the manner of Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul in the American series Starsky & Hutch.
However, the programme attracted up to 18 million viewers and became a part of popular culture, as much for its weaknesses as its popularity. Bodie and Doyle's tyre-screeching, gun-toting antics were parodied in a Two Ronnies sketch, "Tinker Tailor Smiley Doyle", and by the Comic Strip team in The Bullshitters, with Keith Allen as Bonehead and Peter Richardson as Foyle.
Some Professionals storylines were, on the surface, ambitious – inner-city racism, homophobia, bribery and corruption in government – but most of the plots featuring international terrorism, drug trafficking and political intrigue met with a hostile response from TV critics. "Of all the rotten new breed of thuggish cops and secret agents… this little gang is the least attractive," wrote one.
Collins was second choice to play William Bodie. Anthony Andrews had been picked for the role of the ruthless former mercenary alongside Shaw's hot-headed police detective, Ray Doyle, but was dropped when producers considered the pair looked too similar. (Shaw was cast after Jon Finch turned down the role of Doyle.)
Creator Brian Clemens decided on the pairing of Collins and Shaw after recalling their appearance together as villains in a 1977 episode of his previous series, The New Avengers. "Martin had a kind of roughness," said Clemens, "but we tested a lot of people before we eventually settled on Lewis, who was perfect." Of reports that there was friction between the duo, Clemens commented: "Let's say there was a healthy rivalry between them at first, but they became friends."
Gordon Jackson was cast as Bodie and Doyle's limping boss, Cowley, and the murders, shootings, explosions and car chases were particularly popular with younger viewers. When Collins tried to prove in real life that he was as much an action hero as his screen alter ego, he took up parachuting – only to delay filming by four months after breaking an ankle. Fiction also turned to reality when Collins trained with the Territorial Army Volunteer Reserve and gained a Red Beret, but he was rejected by the SAS's TA branch on account of his fame.
Shaw wanted out after the first series but was tied to a four-year contract. Concerned that it was hampering his future career, he later vetoed repeat screenings, which meant that Collins and others could not benefit from repeat fees, but he relented on hearing that Jackson's widow was keen on re-runs.
Collins did benefit from a few starring roles in films, although he found himself firmly typecast. In Who Dares Wins (1982), he played Captain Peter Skellen, an SAS soldier (he described the SAS as his heroes). The film was inspired by the 1980 storming of the Iranian embassy in London but told the story of American and British politicians and military leaders being held hostage at a meeting to discuss the siting of nuclear missiles in Europe. Similar roles followed in Code Name: Wild Geese (1984), Kommando Leopard (1985) and Der Kommander (1988). There was even a brief interview with producer Cubby Broccoli for the role of James Bond, but, Collins reflected, "He found me too aggressive." Television guest roles followed but fizzled out.
Collins was born in the Bidston suburb of Birkenhead and named by his father, Bill, a shipwright, pianist and dance-band leader, after a jazz musician. He attended the local Grange School, enjoyed karate and judo, played the piano and was a member of Liverpool Central Rifle Club. He drummed in his father's band, the Savoy Swingers, from the age of 13 and joined other bands on leaving school and taking a job as a hairdresser alongside Paul McCartney's brother, Mike. In 1964, after learning to play bass guitar, Collins joined the Mojos, for whom his father was road manager. The group had just enjoyed chart success with three singles and he soon found himself enjoying the high life in London, but they failed to follow up their hits and Collins left in 1966 to join the Robb Storme Group.
After window-cleaning, waiting on tables and other jobs, Collins decided to become an actor and trained at LAMDA (1968-71). He then gained repertory experience at Chesterfield's Civic Theatre (1971) and Glasgow's Citizens Theatre (1972). In London he played Albert in David Storey's play The Farm (Royal Court and Mayfair Theatres, 1973).
After half a dozen bit parts on television, Collins landed the regular role of Gavin Rumsey, the dashing lodger escaping a broken marriage to live with his friend and friend's wife, in the first three series of the sitcom The Cuckoo Waltz (1975-77). Following The Professionals, he played Colonel Mustard in the game show Cluedo (1991-92) and had occasional guest roles on television. He later moved to the US and studied direction and writing at the University of California Los Angeles Film School and set up a computer business, although he returned to Britain briefly in 2002 for his final screen role, in The Bill. He died after suffering from cancer for five years.
Lewis Collins, musician and actor: born Birkenhead, Cheshire 27 May 1946; married 1992 Michelle Larrett (three sons); died Los Angeles 27 November 2013.
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