John Thaw

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 Oesophageal cancer
Occupation Actor
Years active 1960–2001
Spouse(s) Sally Alexander (m. 1964; div. 1968)
Sheila Hancock (m. 1973)
Children Abigail, Melanie, Joanna

John Edward Thaw, CBE (3 January 1942 – 21 February 2002) 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[1] 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. 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][24] 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,[25] and was cremated in Westerleigh, near Yate in South Gloucestershire, in a private service.[26] 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, Richard Attenborough, Tom Courtenay and Cherie Blair.[27]

Television, film, and stage performances

Television series

Television films

Guest appearances

Theatrical films


Honours and awards




  1. "The extraordinary world of John Thaw". Manchester Evening News. 17 February 2007. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  2. Whitty, Fiona (13 November 2000), "The last interview before Morse dies", The Sun
    "House of the Week Boulevard beauty is Creek choice", The Northern Times, 13 April 2001
    Viner, Brian (11 October 2001), "Is there life after Inspector Morse?", The Independent
    Dibben, Kay (10 March 2002), "Mother's rejection that haunted my brother John Thaw – Brisbane man tells of family heartache", The Sunday Mail
    Moon, Timur (7 April 2002), "The secret hideaway of John Thaw", The Northern Echo
    "A class of his own", The Sun, 31 August 2002
    Nixson, Matt (22 September 2002), "Sally, the wife who Thaw just couldn't forget", The Mail on Sunday
    Pritchard, Louisa (11 April 2004), "Now tragic John Thaw 's brother battles cancer", The Mail on Sunday
    Hancock, Sheila (2009), The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4088-0693-7
  3. Purser, Philip (22 February 2002). "Obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 January 2016.
  4. "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  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.
  7. ITV Morse synopsis . Retrieved 20 February 2010
  8. DR (Danske Radio) Television Overview
  9. 1 2 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.
  11. 1 2 McGowan, Bob and Catherine Avery (22 September 2002). "Mystery of John Thaw fortune". Express on Sunday.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Driscoll, Margarette (19 December 2004). "The Morse Saga – Interview". The Sunday Times.
  13. Lee, David (22 February 2002). "Friends' tribute to Morse star Thaw". The Scotsman.
  14. Guinness, Daphne (11 November 2004). "Morse: More Sad, More Angry Than You Ever Knew". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  15. 1 2 3 "John Thaw – Obituary". The Times. 23 February 2002.
  16. "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002.
  17. Sengupta, Kim (5 September 2002). "Prince and Cherie Booth at Thaw memorial". The Independent. London.
  18. "No Mystery Here". The Buffalo News. 19 March 1993.
  19. "Who dares WINS, Rodders! – David Greatest TV Star for 50 Years". News of the World. 10 September 2006.
  20. "John Thaw Has Throat Cancer". Evening Standard. 19 June 2001.
  21. "John Thaw Pledges Comeback as He Reveals Cancer Battle". The Guardian. 20 June 2001.
  22. "Thaw's Cancer Setback". Herald Sun. 6 January 2002.
  23. "Thaw Signed New Contract". Wales on Sunday. 7 April 2002.
  25. "Sold Down the River". Western Daily Press. 19 April 2006.
  26. Cowling, James (27 February 2002). "Actor Thaw Remembered for 'Generosity and Kindness'". Gloucestershire and Wiltshire Counties Publications.
  27. "Charles joins Thaw memorial". BBC News. 4 September 2002.


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