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John Thaw CBE

Thaw as Chief Inspector Morse
Born John Edward Thaw
3 January 1942(1942-01-03)
Gorton, Manchester, Lancashire, England
Died 21 February 2002 (aged 60)
Luckington, Wiltshire, England
Years active 1960–2002
Spouse(s) Sally Alexander (1964–1968)
Sheila Hancock (1973–2002)

John Edward Thaw CBE (3 January 1942 – 21 February 2002) was an English actor, who made his television début in the military police drama Redcap (1964–1966), and subsequently appeared in a range of television, stage and cinema roles, his most popular being police and legal dramas such as Redcap, The Sweeney, Inspector Morse and Kavanagh QC. He became "one of the most familiar and well-loved actors of the British small screen".[1]


Early life

Thaw came from a working class background, having been born in Gorton, Manchester, to parents John Edward "Jack" (1919-1997) and Dorothy West (1921-1974) (nee Ablott), who had married in 1941. His father was a long distance lorry driver. He had a difficult childhood as his mother left him when he was seven years old and he didn't see her again until twelve years later. He had a younger brother called Ray. He grew up in the Burnage area of the city and attended Ducie Technical High School for Boys in Manchester. He entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 17, where he was a contemporary of Tom Courtenay.


Soon after leaving RADA he made his stage début in A Shred of Evidence at the Liverpool Playhouse and was awarded a contract with the theatre. His first film role was a bit part in the 1962 adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner starring Tom Courtenay. In the 1960s and 70s, Thaw frequently appeared in productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre, London. He was Laurence Olivier's understudy in the stage production of Semi-Detached and later stepped into the part for a week due to Olivier's problem with gout (1962).

He appeared in several episodes of the seminal BBC police series Z Cars in 1963–64 as a detective constable with a drink problem. Between 1964–66 he appeared as the central role of hard-nosed military policeman, Sgt John Mann, in two series of the ABC Weekend Television/ITV production Redcap. He was also a guest star in an early episode of The Avengers. In 1967 he appeared in the Granada TV/ITV series, Inheritance, alongside James Bolam and Michael Goodliffe, as well as appearing in TV plays such as The Talking Head and episodes of series such as Budgie, where he played against type (opposite Adam Faith) as an effeminate failed playwright with a full beard and a Welsh accent.

Thaw as DI Jack Regan in episode one, series one of The Sweeney

Thaw will perhaps be best remembered for two roles. The first was as the hard-bitten Flying Squad detective Jack Regan in the Thames Television/ITV series The Sweeney (1974 – 1978), (spawning two Sweeney films). The other, which established him as a major star in the United Kingdom, was Morse, the introspective, well-educated and bitter detective in the Inspector Morse series (1987 – 1993, with specials from 1995 – 1998 and 2000). Starring alongside Kevin Whately as the put upon Detective Sergeant Lewis, Morse became a cult character - "a cognitive curmudgeon with his love of classical music, his vintage Jaguar and spates of melancholy".[1] Lewis would subsequently acquire his mentor's detective post in a spin off series. Morse became one of the UK's most loved TV series - the final three episodes, shown in 2000, were seen by 18 million people - about one third of the British population [2] He won "Most Popular Actor" at the 1999 National Television Awards.

He subsequently played liberal working class Lancastrian barrister James Kavanagh in Kavanagh QC (1995 – 1999, and a special in 2001). Thaw also tried his hand at comedy with two sitcomsThick as Thieves (London Weekend/ITV, 1974) with Bob Hoskins and Home to Roost (Yorkshire/ITV, 1985 – 1990). Thaw is best known in America for the Morse series, as well as the BBC series A Year in Provence with Lindsay Duncan.

He appeared in a number of films, including Cry Freedom, where he portrayed the conservative South African justice minister Jimmy Kruger, for which he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and Chaplin for director Richard Attenborough. He won two BAFTA awards for Inspector Morse. Thaw also appeared in the TV adaptation of the Michelle Magorian book Goodnight Mister Tom (Carlton Television/ITV) as the title character. It won "Most Popular Drama" at the National Television Awards (1999).[3] In September 2006, Thaw was voted by the general public as number 3 in a poll of TV's Greatest Stars.[3]

Personal life

In 1964, Thaw married Sally Alexander, but they divorced four years later. He married actress Sheila Hancock in 1973 and remained with her until his death in 2002. Thaw had two daughters: Abigail Thaw from his first marriage, and Joanna Thaw from his second. He also adopted Sheila Hancock's daughter Melanie from her first marriage. Abigail has entered the acting profession.

In her 2004 autobiography, The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw, Hancock, who also starred alongside him in an episode of Kavanagh QC, revealed the extent of Thaw's alcoholism that had started in the late 1970s and caused problems in their marriage and the gaps in Thaw's career in the early 1980s and later 1990s.[1] Thaw was eventually able to get his alcoholism under control a year before his death.

Thaw was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1994.

Thaw had a noticeable peculiarity of gait, his right leg showing evidence of "dorsiflexor paralysis" or foot drop, for which there have been several explanations. Some even speculated that he had a wooden leg below the knee, or that he had contracted polio as a child. Several sources state that it resulted from an accident at the age of 15 when he tripped over a kerb and broke his foot rushing to catch a bus to school.[4] However, in her autobiography, Hancock says that Thaw's grandfather had a withered leg and walked with a limp; Thaw apparently copied him and also walked with a limp all his life. A car accident in his early twenties exacerbated the problem.

A heavy smoker, Thaw was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001. He underwent chemotherapy in hope of overcoming the illness. He died eight months later, on Thursday, 21 February 2002, seven weeks after his 60th birthday, having suffered a sudden setback the previous day. At the time of his death, he was living at Sherston, Wiltshire, and was cremated at Westerleigh Crematorium in South Gloucestershire.



Television series

TV movies

  • 1961 Sgt. Musgrave's Dance
  • 1963 The Lads
  • 1964 I Can Walk Where I Like, Can't I?
  • 1964 The Other Man
  • 1966 The Making of Jericho
  • 1974 Regan
  • 1978 Dinner at the Sporting Club
  • 1980 Drake's Venture
  • 1984 The Life and Death of King John
  • 1984 Killer Waiting
  • 1985 We'll Support You Ever More
  • 1987 The Sign of Four
  • 1992 Bomber Harris
  • 1993 The Mystery of Morse
  • 1994 The Absence of War
  • 1996 Into the Blue
  • 1998 Goodnight Mister Tom
  • 1999 The Waiting Time
  • 2000 Inspector Morse: Rest in Peace
  • 2001 Hidden Treasure / Buried Treasure



Honours and Awards


  1. ^ a b c Obituary. BBC. 21 February, 2002]. Retrieved: 2010-02-20.
  2. ^ Morse synopsis. ITV. Retrieved: 2010-02-20.
  3. ^ a b Goodnight Mister Tom synopsis. ITV. Retrieved: 2010-02-20.
  4. ^ John Thaw - Biography. IMDb.


Hancock, Sheila (2004). The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0747570202

External links


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