John Thaw

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John Thaw
Born (1942-01-03)3 January 1942
Longsight, Manchester, England
Died 21 February 2002(2002-02-21) (aged 60)
Luckington, Wiltshire, England
Cause of death Cancer
Occupation Actor
Years active 1960–2001
Spouse(s) Sally Alexander (m. 1964; div. 1968)
Sheila Hancock (m. 1973; his death 2002)
Children 3, including Abigail

John Edward Thaw, CBE (3 January 1942 – 21 February 2002)[1] was an English actor. He appeared in a range of television, stage, and cinema roles, his most popular being television series such as Inspector Morse, Redcap, The Sweeney, Home to Roost, and Kavanagh QC.

Early life

Thaw was born in Longsight, Manchester, to working class parents Dorothy (née Ablott) and John, a long-distance lorry driver. Thaw had a difficult childhood as his mother left when he was seven years old and he did not see her again for 12 years. His younger brother, Raymond Stuart "Ray" emigrated to Australia in the mid-1960s.[2] Thaw grew up in Gorton and Burnage, attending the Ducie Technical High School for Boys.[3] He entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) at the age of 16, where he was a contemporary of Tom Courtenay.[4]


Soon after leaving RADA Thaw made his formal 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 and he also acted on-stage opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Semi-Detached (1962) by David Turner. He appeared in several episodes of the BBC police series Z-Cars in 1963–64 as a detective constable who left the force because of an unusual drink problem: he could not take the alcohol so often part of the policeman's work. Between 1964 and 1966, he starred in two series of the ABC Weekend Television/ITV production Redcap, playing the hard-nosed military policeman Sergeant John Mann. 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 will perhaps be best remembered for two roles: the hard-bitten, tough talking Flying Squad detective Jack Regan in the Thames Television/ITV series (and two films) The Sweeney (1975–1978), which established him as a major star in the United Kingdom, and as the quietly spoken, introspective, well-educated and bitter detective Inspector Morse (1987–93, with specials from 1995–98 and 2000).

Thaw was only 32 when he was cast in The Sweeney, although many viewers thought he was older.

Thaw was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1981 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the foyer of the National Theatre, London.

Alongside his put-upon Detective Sergeant Lewis (Kevin Whately), Morse became a cult character—"a cognitive curmudgeon with his love of classical music, his classic Jaguar and spates of melancholy".[5] Thaw was the definitive Morse, grumpy, crossword-fixated, drunk, slightly anti-feminist, and pedantic about grammar.[6] Inspector 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,[7] and have been enjoyed by global audiences for years. For example, repeat episodes are even currently (September 2015) enjoyed most weeks in Denmark on the main DR1 television channel in English with Danish subtitles.[8] He won "Most Popular Actor" at the 1999 National Television Awards and won two BAFTA awards for his role as Morse.

He subsequently played liberal working-class Lancastrian barrister James Kavanagh in Kavanagh QC (1995–99, and a special in 2001). Thaw also tried his hand at comedy with two sitcoms—Thick as Thieves (London Weekend/ITV, 1974) with Bob Hoskins and Home to Roost (Yorkshire/ITV, 1985–90). Thaw is best known in America for the Morse series, as well as the BBC series A Year in Provence (1993) with Lindsay Duncan.

During the 1970s and '80s, Thaw frequently appeared in productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre. He appeared in a number of films for director Richard Attenborough, 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 alongside Robert Downey Jr..

Thaw also appeared in the TV adaptation of the Michelle Magorian book Goodnight Mister Tom (Carlton Television/ITV). It won "Most Popular Drama" at the National Television Awards, 1999.[9] In September 2006, Thaw was voted by the general public as number 3 in a poll of TV's Greatest Stars.[9]

Personal life

On 27 June 1964, Thaw married Sally Alexander, a feminist activist and theatre stage manager, and now professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London.[10] They divorced four years later.[11] He met actress Sheila Hancock in 1969 on the set of a London comedy So What About Love?[12] She was married to fellow actor Alexander "Alec" Ross, and after Thaw professed his love to Hancock, she told him that she would not have an affair.[12] After the death of her husband (from oesophageal cancer) in 1971, Thaw and Hancock married on 24 December 1973 in Cirencester,[12][13] and he remained with her until his death in 2002 (also from oesophageal cancer).[14]

He had three daughters (all of whom are actresses): Abigail from his first marriage to Sally Alexander, Joanna from his second marriage to Sheila Hancock, and he also adopted Sheila Hancock's daughter Melanie Jane, from Hancock's first marriage to Alec Ross.[11][15] Melanie Jane legally changed her surname from Ross to Thaw.[12]

Thaw was a committed socialist[16] and lifelong supporter of the Labour Party.[17] He was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in March 1993 by Queen Elizabeth II.[18] In September 2006, Thaw was voted by the general public as number 3, after David Jason and Morecambe and Wise, in a poll of TV's 50 Greatest Stars for the past 50 years.[19]

Illness and death

A heavy drinker until going teetotal in 1995,[12] and a heavy smoker from the age of 12,[15] Thaw was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001.[20][21] He underwent chemotherapy in hope of overcoming the illness, and at first seemed to be responding well to the treatment, but just before Christmas 2001 he was told that the cancer had spread.[22]

He died on 21 February 2002,[15] seven weeks after his 60th birthday, the day after he signed a new contract with ITV,[23] and the day before his wife's birthday. At the time of his death he was living at his country home, near the villages of Luckington and Sherston in Wiltshire,[24] and was cremated in Westerleigh, near Yate in South Gloucestershire, in a private service.[25] A memorial service was held on 4 September 2002 at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, attended by 800 people including Prince Charles, Lord Attenborough, Sir Tom Courtenay and Cherie Blair.[26]

Television, Film and Stage Performances

Television Series

  • 1961 The Younger Generation
  • 1964 to 1966 Redcap (Two Series)
  • 1966 Bat Out of Hell
  • 1974 Thick As Thieves
  • 1974 The Capone Investment
  • 1975 to 1978 The Sweeney (Four Series & 2 movies)
  • 1983 Mitch
  • 1985 to 1990 Home to Roost (Four Series)
  • 1987 to 2000 Inspector Morse (Thirty-three films)
  • 1991 Stanley and the Women
  • 1992 A Year in Provence
  • 1995 to 2001 Kavanagh QC (Five Series)
  • 1999 Plastic Man
  • 2000 Monsignor Renard
  • 2001 The Glass

Television Films

  • 1961 Serjeant 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
  • 1986 Stainheads
  • 1987 The Sign of Four
  • 1989 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 The Last Morse
  • 2000 Inspector Morse: Rest in Peace
  • 2001 Hidden Treasure / Buried Treasure

Television Series Guest Appearances

  • 1962 Probation Officer: Episode No. 4.4 (28 May 1962)
  • 1963 ITV Television Playhouse: The Lads (15 August 1963)
  • 1963 Z-Cars: A La Carte (18 September 1963)
  • 1963 Z-Cars: Light the Blue Paper (25 September 1963)
  • 1963 Z-Cars: A Quiet Night (2 October 1963)
  • 1963 Z-Cars: Hide – And Go Seek (16 October 1963)
  • 1963 The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre: Five to One (31 December 1963)
  • 1964 The Avengers: Esprit De Corps (14 March 1964)
  • 1965 A Poor Gentleman: Episode No. 1.1 (12 October 1965)
  • 1965 A Poor Gentleman: Episode No. 1.2 (19 October 1965)
  • 1965 The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre: Dead Man's Chest (31 October 1965)
  • 1967 Inheritance: Murder (29 September 1967)
  • 1967 Inheritance: A Man of His Time (1 December 1967)
  • 1969 The Borderers: Dispossessed (25 March 1969)
  • 1969 ITV Saturday Night Theatre: The Haunting (28 June 1969)
  • 1969 ITV Saturday Night Theatre: The Talking Head (30 August 1969)
  • 1969 ITV Saturday Night Theatre: In Another Country (11 October 1969)
  • 1969 Strange Report: Report 2475: Revenge – When a Man Hates (9 November 1969)
  • 1970 Play of the Month: Macbeth (BBC, 20 September 1970)
  • 1970 Happy Ever After: Don't Walk Away (12 December 1970)
  • 1971 Budgie: Sunset Mansions or Whatever Happened to Janey Baib? (25 June 1971)
  • 1971 Armchair Theatre: Competition (5 October 1971)
  • 1971 Suspicion: I'll Go Along with That (14 December 1971)
  • 1971 The Onedin Line: Mutiny (24 December 1971)
  • 1972 Pretenders: The Paymaster (9 April 1972)
  • 1972 The Frighteners: Old Comrades (21 July 1972)
  • 1972 Armchair Theatre: What Became of Me? (29 August 1972)
  • 1972 ITV Playhouse: Refuge for a Hero (6 September 1972)
  • 1972 The Adventures of Black Beauty: The Hostage (30 September 1972)
  • 1973 The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes: The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Horst (4 March 1973)
  • 1973 Menace: Tom (26 April 1973)
  • 1973 BBC Play of the Month: Caucasian Chalk Circle (16 May 1973)
  • 1973 ITV Saturday Night Theatre: Passengers (20 May 1973)
  • 1973 The Protectors: Lena (28 December 1973)
  • 1976 The Morecambe & Wise Show: 1976 Christmas Show (25 December 1976)
  • 1977 This Is Your Life: Sheila Hancock (5 January 1977)
  • 1978 The South Bank Show (26 November 1978)
  • 1981 This Is Your Life: John Thaw (18 March 1981)
  • 1982 Saturday Night Thriller: Where is Betty Buchus? (4 December 1982)

Theatrical Films

  • 1962 Nil Carborundum
  • 1962 Smashing Day
  • 1962 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • 1963 Five to One
  • 1965 Dead Man's Chest
  • 1968 The Bofors Gun
  • 1970 Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition
  • 1970 The Last Grenade
  • 1972 Dr. Phibes Rises Again
  • 1977 Sweeney!
  • 1978 Sweeney 2
  • 1981 Killing Heat
  • 1987 Business As Usual
  • 1987 Cry Freedom (aka Biko – Biko Asking for Trouble)
  • 1992 Chaplin
  • 1996 Masculine Mesculine


  • 1958 Cymbeline
  • 1958 As You Like It
  • 1958 The Cherry Orchard
  • 1958 Pillars of Society
  • 1958 The Taming of the Shrew
  • 1958 A Winter's Tale
  • 1958 The Lady's Not For Burning
  • 1958 Twelfth Night
  • 1958 MacBeth
  • 1959 Hobson's Choice
  • 1959 Paradise Lost
  • 1959 Antigone
  • 1959 Alcestis
  • 1959 Faust
  • 1959 The Knight of the Burning Pestle
  • 1960 A Shred of Evidence
  • 1960 The Wind and the Rain
  • 1960 Staircase
  • 1961 The Fire Raisers
  • 1961 Chips With Everything
  • 1961 Two into One
  • 1962 Women Beware Women
  • 1962 Semi-Detached (with Laurence Olivier)
  • 1964 The Father
  • 1967 Around The World in 80 Days
  • 1967 Little Malcom And His Struggle Against The Eunuchs
  • 1969 So What About Love?
  • 1970 Random Happenings in the Hebrides by John McGrath
  • 1971 The Lady from the Sea
  • 1972 Chinamen
  • 1972 The New Quixote
  • 1972 Black And Silver
  • 1972 The Two of Us
  • 1973 Collaborators
  • 1976 Absurd Person Singular
  • 1977 The Two of Us (Revival)
  • 1978 Night and Day
  • 1982 Serjeant Musgrave's Dance
  • 1983 Twelfth Night
  • 1983 The Time of Your Life
  • 1983 Henry VIII
  • 1984 Pygmalion
  • 1986 Two into One (Revival)
  • 1988 All My Sons
  • 1993 The Absence of War by David Hare
  • 2001 Peter Pan as Captain Hook

Honours and awards



  • 1988 British Academy Award – Best Actor in a Supporting Role for: "Cry Freedom"
  • 1991 British Academy Award – Best Actor for: "Inspector Morse"
  • 1992 British Academy Award – Best Actor for: "Inspector Morse"
  • 2000 National Television Award – Most Popular Actor for: "Monsignor Renard"
  • 2002 National Television Award – Most Popular Actor for: "Buried Treasure"


  2. Whitty, Fiona (13 November 2000), "The last interview before Morse dies", The Sun<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    "House of the Week Boulevard beauty is Creek choice", The Northern Times, 13 April 2001<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    Viner, Brian (11 October 2001), "Is there life after Inspector Morse?", The Independent<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    Dibben, Kay (10 March 2002), "Mother's rejection that haunted my brother John Thaw – Brisbane man tells of family heartache", The Sunday Mail<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    Moon, Timur (7 April 2002), "The secret hideaway of John Thaw", The Northern Echo<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    "A class of his own", The Sun, 31 August 2002<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    Nixson, Matt (22 September 2002), "Sally, the wife who Thaw just couldn't forget", The Mail on Sunday<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    Pritchard, Louisa (11 April 2004), "Now tragic John Thaw 's brother battles cancer", The Mail on Sunday<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
    Hancock, Sheila (2009), The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4088-0693-7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002. Retrieved 20 May 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. BBC Obit . Retrieved 20 February 2010
  6. "No one else should play Inspector Morse, says his creator Colin Dexter | Television & radio". The Guardian. 25 March 2014. Retrieved 30 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. ITV Morse synopsis . Retrieved 20 February 2010
  8. DR (Danske Radio) Television Overview
  9. 9.0 9.1 Goodnight Mister Tom synopsis. ITV. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  10. "'The idea of appearing in Morse without Dad brought tears to my eyes': John Thaw's daughter gives emotional interview". Daily Mail. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. 11.0 11.1 McGowan, Bob and Catherine Avery (22 September 2002). "Mystery of John Thaw fortune". Express on Sunday.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 Driscoll, Margarette (19 December 2004). "The Morse Saga – Interview". The Sunday Times.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. Lee, David (22 February 2002). "Friends' tribute to Morse star Thaw". The Scotsman.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. Guinness, Daphne (11 November 2004). "Morse: More Sad, More Angry Than You Ever Knew". The Sydney Morning Herald.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 "John Thaw – Obituary". The Times. 23 February 2002.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Sengupta, Kim (5 September 2002). "Prince and Cherie Booth at Thaw memorial". The Independent. London.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. "No Mystery Here". The Buffalo News. 19 March 1993.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. "Who dares WINS, Rodders! – David Greatest TV Star for 50 Years". News of the World. 10 September 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "John Thaw Has Throat Cancer". Evening Standard. 19 June 2001.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "John Thaw Pledges Comeback as He Reveals Cancer Battle". The Guardian. 20 June 2001.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "Thaw's Cancer Setback". Herald Sun. 6 January 2002.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "Thaw Signed New Contract". Wales on Sunday. 7 April 2002.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Sold Down the River". Western Daily Press. 19 April 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Cowling, James (27 February 2002). "Actor Thaw Remembered for 'Generosity and Kindness'". Gloucestershire and Wiltshire Counties Publications.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. "Charles joins Thaw memorial". BBC News. 4 September 2002.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Hancock, Sheila (2004). The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-0-7475-7020-2
  • John Thaw: The Biography. Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank. London:Andre Deutsch.ISBN 0-233-99475-0

External links