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'Perfectionist' identified with Morse
John Thaw, known to millions of TV viewers worldwide as the grumpy, music-loving detective in Inspector Morse,died last week after a battle with throat cancer.

"John died with his family around him" at home, said his wife of 29 years, actress Sheila Hancock.

Mr. Thaw, who died Thursday at age 60, was indelibly identified with Inspector Morse after creating a complex character whose flaws appealed to fans as much as his better qualities. The highly praised British series began in 1985 and lasted for 33 two-hour episodes that aired over 15 years.

Mr. Thaw announced last June he was having treatment for cancer of the throat but he intended to got back to work. "He loved work," said Morse creator Colin Dexter. "He was a perfectionist . . . That's how I will remember him, I think, giving 100 per cent."

Mr. Thaw was born in Manchester, England, the son of a truck driver. His mother left the family when he was 7. After leaving school he worked as a baker and a labourer, until a teacher who had seen him in school plays encouraged him to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

His career began with a number of stage roles, followed by television work -- often as policemen. After Morse, Mr. Thaw went on to play a trial lawyer in Kavanagh QC.

Mr. Thaw's marriage to Ms. Hancock in 1973 was the second for both. Each already had a daughter, and they had a daughter together.

Mr. Thaw smoked heavily. He tried to give up but said he became so "nervy, edgy and snappy" he would rather smoke and be pleasant for everyone else's sake.

He became a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1993.

The end of Inspector Morse: 'Goodbye, sir'

By HEATHER MALLICK
Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 2, 2002 

The Feb. 21 death of John Thaw, 60, the beloved British actor who played the cerebral television detective Inspector Morse, came as a profound shock to millions. He had revealed only eight months before that he was suffering from esophageal cancer. And only eight months before that had been the last episode in the 13-year Morse series, which ended in a manner that would have been unheard of in North America, with the Morse character actually dying. "Seeing yourself on a mortuary slab pulls you up," Thaw said at the time. "I'd done a past Morse when he was in hospital and you think, 'This could be me tomorrow or in six months time. I could be here as John Thaw.' "

As it turned out, he was. Esophageal cancer is a particularly cruel form of the disease. It is most often caused by the combination of drinking alcohol and smoking. Thaw was asked once if he would keep on playing older and older characters. He said no. "I'll be dead. I smoke too many of these," he said, indicating his pack of cigarettes. The treatments for esophageal cancer are especially painful and the prognosis was poor. In a series of awful coincidences, Thaw's parents had died of cancer, his wife, Sheila Hancock (whose mother and first husband had died from cancer), was treated for breast cancer in 1988 (the stress of which caused a six-month marriage separation) and his grandson had recently recovered from a brain tumour.

John Thaw was a working-class boy, the son of a truck driver from Burnage, the same Manchester suburb that produced the Gallagher brothers of the rock band Oasis. When Thaw was 7, his mother walked out on the family. He never saw her again. All Thaw would ever say of this, with Morse-like understatement, was: "It wasn't very nice." When the teenaged Thaw came up with the novel idea of being an actor, his father said simply, "If it doesn't work, come back. We're here" and drove him to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in an old van, being unable to afford train fare.

Anyone who understands the stratified social world of London in the 1950s would know how difficult it must have been for Thaw to train alongside the other, upper-class students. The actor Tom Courtenay recalls meeting Thaw at RADA, "a shy young boy in a teddy boy suit," moaning about "all these posh girls." But the arrival of kitchen-sink drama and the sudden demand for working class cred were to be greatly helpful.

Thaw began in theatre, but it was never his real love. His television career began with a cop role in a 1965 series called Redcap. But his first huge success came in 1975, when he played a rough, tough copper called Regan in The Sweeney (Sweeney Todd being rhyming slang for Flying Squad). Regan, slim, handsome, brutal and tender, didn't speak so much as bark, and he barked things like, "Get yer trousers on, you're nicked!" Thaw was as lucky with his sidekick, Dennis Waterman, as he was to be with Kevin Whately, who played the sincere Sgt. Lewis in the Morse series. The Sweeney was fast, violent, profane, innovative and hugely entertaining, all of which forced Thaw to work hard to avoid being typecast. He played roles as varied as that of Air Marshal (Bomber) Harris, destroyer of Dresden, a farmer in a film based on a Doris Lessing novel, a crime reporter and a divorced father in a very funny sitcom called Home to Roost.

And then came Morse. The only change Thaw requested in the author Colin Dexter's version of Morse was his antipathy to women. "I didn't like the seedy side of him. He was a bit of a dirty old man. I hated the fact that he was sometimes rude to women and I told the writers I wanted that changed." Morse was an unlikely success as a series - "almost plodding, classic whodunnits moving from clue to suspect, red herring to culprit, at a stately pace," one critic wrote. But Morse himself, lover of real ale, Wagner and crosswords, had some special quality. Thaw himself said Morse was "the nearest character to myself I have ever played. I'm very fond of the old bugger. He's not a cliché copper any more than Regan was. The guy's brain is working all the time."

So what was the appeal of Morse/Thaw? For one thing, he was instantly recognizable: that shock of white hair, the tan, the strong nose and the peculiar mouth. He limped slightly, which led to constant speculation about a wooden leg (not true). Simon O'Hagan of the Independent says the British are uniquely fond of "crumpled, aging actors." Director Stephen Frears thinks it's their "salt of the earth quality."

As for the appeal of Morse/Thaw, Globe and Mail television critic John Doyle says it arose from "a very peculiar mixture of weakness, arrogance and loneliness. He had this stare which told you he lived in an enclosed world. Still he always shyly tried to hook up with the wrong women -- usually the murderer. In the early episodes, which were marvellously filmed, this [loneliness] was emphasized visually. You'd get this gorgeous distance shot of Morse on a street with the sun setting behind him. He looked like the loneliest man in the world. The Morse code music at the end of an episode was like a signal in the dark from some really isolated man."

Thaw's television work post-Morse was not as successful. In A Year In Provence, for instance, Thaw had nothing much to do beyond loitering domestically and his presence was too strong for such nebulousness. But, by non-Hollywood standards, Thaw continued to earn extremely large sums of money. He and Hancock, 69, who were married for 30 years, had a house in Provence, a cottage in Wiltshire and a flat in London. They had three daughters from their various marriages, all three girls becoming actresses.

A year ago, Thaw, who had been singing Captain Hook in a radio musical, noticed a hoarseness in his voice. It was a death sentence. Morse's death, described in Dexter's The Remorseful Day, could serve to describe Thaw's as well: "Lewis found himself pondering so many things as he thought of Morse's mind within the skull. Thought of that wonderful memory, of that sensitivity to music and literature, above all of that capacity for thinking laterally, vertically, diagonally, whateverwhichway that extraordinary brain should decide to go. But all gone now, for death had scattered that union of component atoms into the air, and Morse would never move or think or speak again. Feeling slightly guilty, Lewis looked around him. But at least for the moment his only company was the dead. And bending down he put his lips to Morse's forehead and whispered just two final words: 'Goodbye, sir.' "

John Thaw died peacefully at home, surrounded by family. He was cremated this week at Waterleigh in Gloucestershire.