John Thaw

John Edward Thaw

(1942-01-03)3 January 1942
Gorton, Manchester, England
Died21 February 2002(2002-02-21) (aged 60)
Years active1958–2001
(m. 1964; div. 1968)
(m. 1973)
Children3, including Abigail Thaw

John Edward Thaw, CBE (3 January 1942 – 21 February 2002) was an English actor who appeared in a range of television, stage, and cinema roles. He starred in the television series Inspector Morse as title character Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse, Redcap as Sergeant John Mann, The Sweeney as Detective Inspector Jack Regan, Home to Roost as Henry Willows, and Kavanagh QC as title character James Kavanagh.

Early life

Thaw was born in Gorton, Manchester, to working-class parents John Edward ("Jack") Thaw, a tool-setter at the Fairey Aviation Company aircraft factory, later a long-distance lorry driver, and Dorothy (née Ablott).[1][2] Thaw had a difficult childhood as his mother left when he was seven years old.[3] His younger brother, Raymond Stuart ("Ray"), emigrated to Australia in the mid-1960s.[4] Thaw grew up in Gorton and Burnage, attending the Ducie Technical High School for Boys.[5] He entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) at the age of 16.[6]


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 adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) 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 Bat Out of Hell. 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 the son of an elderly prostitute Budgie is "noncing" for: an effeminate failed playwright with a full beard and a Welsh accent.

Thaw will perhaps be best remembered for two television roles: the hard-bitten, tough-talking Flying Squad detective Jack Regan in The Sweeney (1975–1978), and the quietly spoken, introspective, well-educated and bitter Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse in Inspector Morse (1987–93, with later specials until 2000). His role as Regan in the Thames Television/ITV series, along with two film spin-offs, established him as a major star in the United Kingdom. Thaw was only 32 when he was cast in The Sweeney, although many viewers thought he was older.

Alongside his put-upon Detective Sergeant Robert "Robbie" Lewis (Kevin Whately), Morse became a high-profile character—"a cognitive curmudgeon with his love of classical music, his drinking, his classic Jaguar and spates of melancholy".[7] According to The Guardian, "Thaw was the definitive Morse, grumpy, crossword-fixated, drunk, slightly anti-feminist, and pedantic about grammar."[8] Inspector Morse became one of the UK's most loved TV series; at its peak in the mid-'90s, ratings hit 18 million people, about one third of the British population.[9][10] 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 appeared in two sitcoms—Thick as Thieves (London Weekend/ITV, 1974) with Bob Hoskins and Home to Roost (Yorkshire/ITV, 1985–90). Thaw is mainly known in America for the Morse series, as well as the BBC series A Year in Provence (1993) with Lindsay Duncan.

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.[11]

During the 1970s and 1980s, Thaw appeared in productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1981 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews in the foyer of the National Theatre in London.[citation needed]

Personal life

In the summer of 1964, Thaw married Sally Alexander,[12] a feminist activist and theatre stage manager, and now professor of history at Goldsmiths, University of London. They divorced four years later.[13] He met actress Sheila Hancock in 1969 on the set of a London comedy, So What About Love?[14] 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.[14] Following the death of her husband (from oesophageal cancer) in 1971, Thaw and Hancock married on 24 December 1973 in Cirencester,[14][15] and they remained together until his death in 2002 (also from oesophageal cancer).[16]

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.[13][17] Melanie Jane legally changed her surname from Ross to Thaw.[14] His granddaughter Molly Whitmey made a cameo in the Endeavour episode Oracle (series 7, episode 1, broadcast 1 February 2020) as the younger version of her grandmother Sally Alexander.[18]

Thaw was a committed socialist[19] and a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party.[20] He was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in March 1993 by Queen Elizabeth II.[21] 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.[22]

Illness and death

A heavy drinker until going teetotal in 1995,[14] and a heavy smoker from the age of 12,[17] Thaw was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001.[23][24] He underwent chemotherapy in hope of overcoming the illness, and at first had appeared to respond well to the treatment. However, just before Christmas 2001 he was informed that the cancer had spread and the prognosis was terminal.[25]

He died on 21 February 2002,[17] seven weeks after his 60th birthday, the day after he signed a new contract with ITV,[26] 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,[27] and was cremated in Westerleigh, near Yate in South Gloucestershire, in a private service.[28] A memorial service was held on 4 September 2002 at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, attended by 800 people including Charles, Prince of Wales, Richard Attenborough, Tom Courtenay and Cherie Blair.[29]

Television, film and stage performances

Television series

Television films

Guest appearances

Theatrical films


Honours and awards



A memorial bench is dedicated to Thaw within the grounds of St Paul's Covent Garden.[30]


  1. ^ "The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/76933. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. ^ The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw, Sheila Hancock, Bloomsbury, 2004, chapter 2
  3. ^ "The extraordinary world of John Thaw". Manchester Evening News. 17 February 2007. Retrieved 9 February 2016.
  4. ^ "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
    Hancock, Sheila (2009), The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-1-4088-0693-7
  5. ^ Purser, Philip (22 February 2002). "Obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 January 2016.
  6. ^ "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002. Retrieved 20 May 2010.
  7. ^ "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002. Retrieved 7 May 2021.
  8. ^ "No one else should play Inspector Morse, says his creator Colin Dexter". The Guardian. 25 March 2014. Retrieved 7 May 2021.
  9. ^ McCann, Jaymi (22 October 2017). "Inspector Morse's legacy: John Thaw's daughter makes Endeavour appearance". Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  10. ^ "Great Britain population mid-year estimate – Office for National Statistics". Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  11. ^ Goodnight Mister Tom synopsis Archived 24 November 2010 at the Wayback Machine. ITV. Retrieved 20 February 2010.
  12. ^ Shut It!
  13. ^ a b McGowan, Bob; Avery, Catherine (22 September 2002). "Mystery of John Thaw fortune". Express on Sunday.
  14. ^ a b c d e Driscoll, Margarette (19 December 2004). "The Morse Saga – Interview". The Sunday Times.
  15. ^ Lee, David (22 February 2002). "Friends' tribute to Morse star Thaw". The Scotsman.
  16. ^ Guinness, Daphne (11 November 2004). "Morse: More Sad, More Angry Than You Ever Knew". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  17. ^ a b c "John Thaw – Obituary". The Times. 23 February 2002.
  18. ^ "It's a family affair: John Thaw's daughter Abigail stars in Endeavour's new series 7 with daughter Molly playing her mother Sally..." Ox In A Box. 4 February 2020.
  19. ^ "John Thaw: Forever Morse". BBC News. 21 February 2002.
  20. ^ Sengupta, Kim (5 September 2002). "Prince and Cherie Booth at Thaw memorial". The Independent. London. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022.
  21. ^ "No Mystery Here". The Buffalo News. 19 March 1993.
  22. ^ "Who dares WINS, Rodders! – David Greatest TV Star for 50 Years". News of the World. 10 September 2006.
  23. ^ "John Thaw Has Throat Cancer". London Evening Standard. 19 June 2001.
  24. ^ "John Thaw Pledges Comeback as He Reveals Cancer Battle". The Guardian. 20 June 2001.
  25. ^ "Thaw's Cancer Setback". Herald Sun. 6 January 2002.
  26. ^ "Thaw signed new contract". Wales on Sunday. 7 April 2002. Retrieved 12 June 2022 – via The Free Library.
  27. ^ "Sold Down the River". Western Daily Press. 19 April 2006.
  28. ^ Cowling, James (27 February 2002). "Actor Thaw Remembered for 'Generosity and Kindness'". Gloucestershire and Wiltshire Counties Publications.
  29. ^ "Charles joins Thaw memorial". BBC News. 4 September 2002.
  30. ^ "London's Famous Bench Dedications". 21 October 2016. Archived from the original on 6 March 2018. Retrieved 12 October 2018.