Woodward was best known for portraying stolid, highly principled characters who stood up for the defenseless and needy. His most prominent role for U.S. viewers was certainly that of former CIA agent Robert McCall in The Equalizer.
Living a simple and seemingly joyless life in New York City, McCall helped people in trouble who answered his ambiguous newspaper classified ads offering assistance. Every week the middle-aged former CIA agent would confront powerful, villainous individuals and gangs who were menacing and exploiting people unable to defend themselves. McCall’s shadowy past and evident contempt for corrupt authorities put him in continual jeopardy from his former government masters, yet his immense personal integrity and moral rectitude always saw him through–aided greatly, of course, by his CIA training and natural ingenuity.
McCall dressed impeccably, spoke clearly, stood straight and looked people in the eye when talking to them, and displayed exemplary manners. And then he overcame the most formidable criminals.
A memorable part of the show’s formula was the employment of a personal confrontation, at the episode’s climax, between McCall and the main villain or villains. McCall would stand firmly and tell the enemy precisely what was morally wrong with what they had been doing, and tell them what the consequences were going to be, and that McCall was going to make sure they paid the price. It was always a stirring moment, as McCall’s personal integrity matched his moral standards and his stolidity and skills were there to support them.
That connection was both morally satisfying and realistic. Criminals, after all, essentially take to crime because they want a short cut to the wealth regular people accumulate over time through hard work. Thus, instead of working at things, a criminal’s habit is to use force or stealth to take what they want. And since it’s easier to prey upon the weak than on the strong, the criminal life doesn’t encourage excellence in pursuit of one’s goals.
The bourgeois mentality, on the other hand, involves working at things to earn what one wants. Hence a hero such as McCall is much more likely to be well-trained and in top form than someone who expects to prey upon weaker people. Thus the dramatic convention of the hero typically overcoming the villain accords with both reality and common sense.
Woodward’s roles in films such as The Wicker Man and Breaker Morant added nuances to the type of character he played as the protagonist of the late 1960s UK TV spy drama series Callan. In addition, he was acknowledged as a master at acting in more explicitly serious dramatic roles, and his skills as as a singer were admired by Lawrence Olivier and Noel Coward, among others, and made him a sought-after performer in stage musicals. His final movie role was in the superb comedy Hot Fuzz.
Woodward was a brilliant, talented performer who consistently chose to invest his talents in service of worthy projects. He will be remembered fondly for The Equalizer, The Wicker Man, Breaker Morant, and the rest of his admirable body of work.
–S. T. Karnick