Monday, November 16, 2009

In Memory of Edward Woodward, The Equalizer

This morning came the word that my old friend and colleague Edward Woodward had passed away. He was 79 years old. Over recent years our contact was pretty much limited to the exchange of Christmas cards. The one he sent last year carried the note that he was still working at 79 and wasn't that a wonder?

I didn't create the classic American television series of which Edward was the star. It was created by Michael Sloan and Richard Lindheim. Michael was a busy writer/producer and Dick was a top-level executive at Universal Television. After the pilot was written and produced, because of their commitments, neither could join the on-going staff of the show. It was turned over to others.

I came on board the team as the junior writer/producer in the fall of 1985. It was show eleven. I had worked on only one other series and that one had lasted for just eight episodes. When it ended I was offered an exclusive deal at Universal TV. I was thrilled to be there, but for months there wasn't much for me to do. Then came a call. Would I like to join the staff of a new series that was in production called The Equalizer? The concept sounded interesting so I said yes.

Almost immediately I ran into a false conception that plagued the show from beginning to end. When I told a woman writer friend that I was joining The Equalizer she looked disgusted. Why would I want to write for a show about a vigilante? To this day that's how many people perceive The Equalizer. But for those of us who worked on the series it wasn't about that at all.

When I joined the staff I discovered that things were in chaos. Most new series go through a painful first year, but this was particularly bad. The writing staff and the "showrunner" were in LA while the whole production team was in Manhattan. And there was war between the coasts. The New York team hated the scripts they were getting, while the LA team felt they were writing cutting-edge material that took the concept to a whole new level. I decided to be of help wherever I could and try not to make enemies on either coast. That was a challenge.

The writing staff was trying to deal with a number of scripts that had been done by freelancers. All of them needed major revisions to make them ready for production and deadlines were not being met. With my usual suicidal tendency I went into the showrunner's office and asked for the most difficult script he had. He gave it to me. It was a story about a street gang and it needed what we call a "page one" revision, basically a new script. And there wasn't much time to do it.

In the story the Equalizer had to stop a street gang that was terrorizing a neighborhood. For some reason I got it into my head to make that script an homage to the classic movie, "The Warriors." (When I see that episode today I just want to cringe.) But something strange happened as I wrote it. Here's the way it went down.

As always before taking any action, Robert McCall did his homework about the situation that he faced. In the episode his research took him to Spanish Harlem. One day on a street he passed a poor little barbershop. Glancing in the window, he froze. His eyes locked with those of the barber. Amazed, he walked inside. The barber and McCall stared at each other. They were old enemies from the days when McCall was a top CIA operative. The man motioned for him to come into the back room where they could talk.

McCall couldn't believe that his old enemy was here in New York cutting hair. When last they had met he was one of the leading Generals in Fidel Castro's Cuba. How in the world had he gone from that to this? The "barber" told him.

In a time of paranoia, Castro had ordered yet another sweep to cleanse the population of his enemies. Among the thousands pulled in was a little farmer, just a common man. But very quickly it became apparent that the best interrogators couldn't deal with him. He broke them. In frustration, the General took on the case himself. He tortured the man mercilessly, finally killing him. But that little farmer destroyed his life. And how had he done it? "...Because through all the torture no matter what I did to him he forgave me. What I experienced was the worst thing that could ever happen to a good Communist. I began to believe in the Love of God." This and other factors in the story led Robert McCall to do something that he had never done before. To win against the gang he had to lay down his gun and face them defenseless and alone.

After I wrote all that I had absolutely no idea how it would be received. Definitely it wasn't your garden variety vigilante story. I was certain of only one thing. In the history of American television never had such a scene been written for a hard-edged prime-time action series. I was in LA with no direct knowledge of what was going on in New York. I didn't know it, but later I was told that Edward was ready to walk off the show because he was so unhappy with his character as it was being portrayed. But when he read the script that I had written he said, "This is it."

Thus began a wonderful odyssey for me. The story of all we went through producing The Equalizer could fill a book. Beginning with the second year the writing team came together. A number of wonderful writers passed through the show adding their unique perspectives. Many of us are still close friends. For two of the four years the showrunner was a great friend who gave me amazing freedom to write whatever I felt. His name was Ed Waters and he passed away several years ago. Then there was Jim McAdams, the Executive Producer, who became a dear friend of decades. Jim died a little over two years ago. Supporting us were the executives at Universal TV led by Dick Lindheim. Without their encouragement nothing that I wrote would have been produced. I am grateful to them all.

As time passed it seemed that I had a kind of symbiotic understanding of the unique character created by Michael and Dick and portrayed so brilliantly by Edward. Consequently, most of the episodes that dealt with McCall's deeper background and relationships fell to me. By virtue of the fact that I stayed on the show longer than any other writer I wrote more episodes than anyone else. And what a wonderful opportunity it was. Never again on any series even those I created was I allowed such freedom.

What makes a television series successful? Of course, you need good scripts and good production. But most of all the audience has to love the main characters. They have to want them to come back into their homes week after week. That's why casting is such an art. Casting Edward Woodward as The Equalizer was brilliant and unpredictable. Think of it, a British actor virtually unknown in the US to play a CIA agent on a major network series. The world can thank Michael and Dick for such a choice.

I've thought often about what Edward brought to the part. In my opinion it was great strength, resolution and energy, coupled with an underlying sorrow. There was tremendous honesty in his performance. The character he played was a brilliant and brave man who had done terrible things for which he carried a heavy burden of guilt. The series was about the costliness of redemption. Robert McCall brought redemption to others, but to do so always cost him. And while he brought that redemption, he could never quite find it for himself.

I don't think you will ever see another series like The Equalizer. There are specific reasons for that. First, Robert McCall was the ultimate father figure. He would kick your butt when you needed it, but when the chips were down and life was fading away he would be there to save you. When he came you knew that if it was necessary he would give his life for yours. Hollywood is not a fan of those kind of fathers. Lovable, stumbling buffoons are much more popular. But there's another reason you'll never see a series like this again.

Over the years there have been a number of attempts to copy The Equalizer. They have failed because Hollywood misunderstands the meaning of redemption. Hollywood's definition of redemption is found in the wonderful movie, "The Shawshank Redemption." As excellent as it is, it isn't about redemption at all. It's about revenge. Redeem yourself by making somebody else pay. And therein lies the fatal flaw. With true redemption someone is willing to pay the price to save your life even if you don't deserve it. If The Equalizer had carried Hollywood's definition of redemption it would have been just a vigilante show.

Why did I have an understanding of the mysterious character of Robert McCall? Was it my experiences in war? Maybe in part. But there is a deeper reason. I too am a man who has done terrible things in my life. But unlike Robert McCall I found redemption because Someone else paid the price for me. Because of Jesus Christ I know what redemption is and the burden of guilt is gone.

People always want to know how much of the character that an actor portrays comes from inside. They want to believe that the real person is a lot like the character they love on the screen. Edward both was and wasn't the Equalizer. First, he was a whole lot funnier than Robert McCall. And he could sing. A number of years ago Carel and I visited Edward and Michele in their home near Portsmouth, England. It was a delightful time. We had great meals and went antiquing. Our gracious hosts showed us the area with its fascinating history. And Edward kept us in stitches. Not only was he a consummate actor, he was one of the greatest raconteurs of his generation.

Edward was much like Robert McCall in at least one way. He cared about people. The star of a series controls the tone of a show on the set. Too many series are chained with stars who are narcissistic spoiled brats. And some are truly evil. They bring agony on all those around them. That was not Edward Woodward. Our production team, that had to work with him day and night, all loved him. He was a true gentleman. Though we never talked about it I'm sure at a deep level Edward understood Robert McCall in the same way I did. If he hadn't, never would he have accepted the scripts that I wrote for him.

I was a grown man when my father died. Even so a strange sense of vulnerability came at his passing. Someone I trusted deeply wasn't there anymore and the world was a lonelier place. I think Edward portrayed a father very well. Our prayers are with Michele and all the children.

Rest in peace, my friend.

5 comments:

  1. Thank you for following the Lord Colman...your understanding of what the Lord has done for us is what the church needs to hear today. I would also add that I was one of those individuals that were glued to their television set when The Equalizer came on!

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  2. You may cringe at your first script for the show, but that was the one that made me sit up and say "Yes! THIS is what can be done!" And Woodward delivered it so well - those choices were never easy for the character, which is the way it ought to be.

    I'm sure it was a blessing as a writer to know you were writing for an actor who could deliver what you put on the page. And in such a wonderful voice, too.

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  3. Beautiful words, Coleman, and a wonderful tribute to a tremendous man. I've no doubt he, like I, would have a tear in his eye to read your words and to know he was so highly thought of. I never knew him, but I do genuinely miss him. As you say, he played a great father figure. Like you, I never once thought of McCall as a vigilante. He carried a heavy burden, and while helping people eased that burden, it never truly went away. Last night, out of respect, I watched "Nightscape", one of my favourite episodes because of the brief insight it gives us into McCall's reason d'etre. "You wanted to know what I do for a living...I kill people." Chilling, and brilliant. Edward was my favourite actor, and someone I hoped I might some day meet, if only to convey to him the profound impact his performances had on my at a formative age. Sadly, I'll never get the chance to tell him that. Not in this life, at least. I extend my love and sympathy to those who were lucky enough to know him, and who now feel his passing so strongly. A fine man. A consummate actor. Quite a legacy he leaves us. Beautiful words, Coleman. You did him proud. I can scarcely think of a more fitting tribute. God bless him, and you.

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  4. Going through the episode guides, it is interesting to note that many of my favourite episodes of The Equalizer were penned in whole or part by Coleman. "Reign Of Terror" - the one referred to in this tribute - was particularly meaningful - its message helped me handle a difficult situation where something significant needed to be changed in the least harmful way. One brief scene from "Christmas Presence" (another episode with a clear non-violent theme) sticks with me to this day. I think of the part at the end where McCall has stage-managed the reuniting of the young AIDS-suffering boy with his father who, suffering from the same condition, mistakenly thought he had nothing to give his son. There is one brief glimpse of McCall, stood by the open fire in Ophelans, where he knows his mission was accomplished. He didn't need fanfare or accolade - just the personal satisfaction and inner joy of knowing the good that he had just done. And it is a prompt to thought that 'equalizing' is something for the normal many, not the powerful few - that we all have opportunities to do something that will shift the balance in favour of someone less fortunate than ourselves. It's a message told in many ways, be it through the character of Robert McCall or George Bailey in 'It's A Wonderful Life' - that even if we can't fix everything that is wrong and rotten in the world, we can do something about making better that part of it that is on our own doorstep.

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  5. Thanks for that, Peter. You really caught what the series was about.

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