DEnnis Waterman, who died at the age of 74, was an actor whose gritty charm and gritty tones were particularly effective as criminals or crime fighters who walked a fine line between danger and humor and could pass side to side at unexpected times. .
While some TV stars become indelibly associated with a famous role, Waterman has had starring roles in three separate prime-time feature films that rank among TV’s most beloved series.
In The Sweeney (ITV, 1974-78) he was DS George Carter, a tough, sexist and corruptible detective, meeting violence with violence, in the Metropolitan Police’s ‘flying squad’, underling DI Jack Regan of John Thaw. Almost as soon as that show ended, ITV cast him (just) on the other side of the law in Minder (ITV, 1979-89) as Terry McCann, an ex-con who, upon his release from prison, can find work only as assistant bodyguard to George Cole’s little Dickensian crook, Arthur Daley. Those two roles secured Waterman’s place in television history, but his professional tenacity and audience connection earned him another long run as Gerry Standing, one of a group of retired detectives brought back to lead a cold case unit in New Tricks, which ran on the BBC. One from 2003-15.
In the South London working-class culture from which Waterman grew up, it often felt like it was a matter of narrow luck whether some men became a cop or a robber, and Waterman shrewdly used this ambiguity to menacing effect in The Sweeney, comedy in Minder and somewhere in between New Tricks.
Unlike actors who prefer clear billing and the most lines in the script, Waterman has always been the best as a co-star, forming terrific double acts with Thaw and Cole, resulting in close friendships and a deep bereavement of their dead. This loyalty and generosity also inspired New Tricks, where he was part of a revolving star ensemble with Amanda Redman, Alun Armstrong, James Bolam, Denis Lawson and Nicholas Lyndhurst.
One has to be careful in reading an actor’s life into his performances, but it seems reasonable to think that Waterman’s portrayals of the lucky and the hustlers may have relied on a nervousness he personally possessed. He had four marriages, one of which to actor Rula Lenska ended due to Waterman’s admitted violent behavior. Those incidents – and subsequent attempts to downplay his actions in an interview with Piers Morgan – likely would have ended a career by now, but the actor benefited from greater willingness at the time to forgive the alleged behavior. of “bad boy” among eminent men.
A viewer who has only watched The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks might raise questions about his acting lineup: DCI Standing could have been the older, slightly mellowed DS Carter and Terry McCann the nephew of either ‘other. But, in fact, throughout his career, Waterman was versatile. A natural performer, he has been an actor most of his life, making his film debut at the age of 11, playing an insulin-dependent child held hostage (can the police find him before he needs his drugs?) in the 1960 British film Night Train to Inverness. Drama school and the Children’s Film Foundation earned him several roles in his youth, including the likeable delinquent William Brown in a BBC production of Just William (1962).
Also adept as a singer and dancer, Waterman appeared in West End musicals – including My Fair Lady and Windy City – and, unusually, specialized in singing theme tunes from his TV shows, singing in the credits of Minder, New Tricks and two less successful ones, On the Up and Stay Lucky.
This signature gift was derided in sketches for the comedy series Little Britain, in which David Walliams played a caricature of Waterman infuriating his agent into turning down roles unless he was allowed to sing the title number . Showing an ability to laugh at himself is far from universal in showbiz, Waterman then made an appearance in a stage version of Little Britain, starring Walliams and Matt Lucas.
It will, however, be remembered and re-enacted in a 1970s and 80s subgenre of London street drama created by Thames Television, and its greatest achievements The Sweeney and Minder.