Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Breaker Morant (1930-2009)

As a screen persona, the English actor Edward Woodward made a nice pivot, in the course of his half-century-plus career, between martyr and avenger.

In the two movie roles we remember him for best, it was how and why his character died that impressed. Television audiences, on the other hand and on both sides of the Atlantic, came to know him as a fairly ruthless dispenser of rough justice.

A hard-working actor for more than five decades, Woodward moved easily from the stage to the big screen and to the small screen—essaying dramatic and comedic and singing roles. In film and television he played close to a hundred different roles. Although frequently seen on UK television from the beginning of the 1960s, he really leapt into the consciousness of a lot of us when he appeared in the 1973 art house horror flick The Wicker Man. His straight-arrow and religious Sgt. Howie responds to an anonymous tip that a young girl is missing on a remote Scottish island. The isle’s inhabitants are odd, probably because they include the likes of Hammer Films veterans Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt. Howie becomes convinced that the missing girl is to be used in some sort of pagan ritual. Only too late does the hapless sergeant realize the real truth. The moment where Woodward’s character realizes what is actually happening is one of the most frighteningly realistic and horrifying to ever be committed to celluloid. By all accounts, the 2006 remake with Nicolas Cage in the main role was a pale shadow in comparison.

Seven years later Woodward appeared in what I would (not without some agonizing) consider his best role. He played the title character in Bruce Beresford’s historical picture ‘Breaker’ Morant. Also starring Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown, the movie recounted the true story of the 1901 court martial of three Australian soldiers by British authorities during the Boer War in South Africa. The issues that the film raises resonated at that time, a half-decade after the end of the Vietnam war, and they still resonate just as strongly today. No more than Sgt. Howie, Morant and his comrades are sacrifices—in this case to the politics of the time. Under unofficial orders, the trio have executed Boer prisoners in the field. Their defense attorney is given one day to prepare a defense, but the verdict is foregone because the trial is essentially an act of good faith on the part of the British to facilitate a peace treaty with the Boers. In an echo of The Wicker Man, just before his execution Morant is asked his religion by the chaplain and he replies, “Pagan.” “What’s a pagan?” asks his fellow convict, played by Brown. “Well, it’s somebody who doesn’t believe there’s a divine being dispensing justice to mankind,” says Morant. Brown’s character nods and tells the chaplain, “I’m a pagan too.”

But before those two movies, Woodward was already a TV star in Britain, playing an embittered counter-intelligence agent in Callan. The character struck a chord in Britain and the series was very popular. As recounted in Woodward’s New York Times obituary, “when the show was canceled graffiti peppered the walls in the working-class East End of London declaring, ‘Callan Lives!’ and, ‘Bring Back Callan.'” In the 1980s, American audiences got to know Woodward in a similar role, as a former agent who hires himself out to mete out justice in cases where the police and the courts can’t. In The Equalizer Woodward was an urbane and civilized sort of vigilante.

In his personal life, he was surrounded by actors, including both his wives. His second wife, Michele, is the daughter of Roy Dotrice, whose many roles have included being a regular on the TV series Beauty and the Beast, and the sister of Karen Dotrice, who played one of Julie Andrews’s two charges in Mary Poppins. His two sons (Tim and Peter) and two daughters (Emily and Sarah) are all actors, as is his grandson Sam. His son Peter gets a special mention here because he appeared in 13 episodes of the late, lamented and aborted Babylon 5 spinoff series Crusade, as the enigmatic technomage Galen. The senior Woodward himself made a guest appearance on the show, acting alongside his son on an episode called “The Long Road,” also playing a technomage, called Alwyn. And, as long as we are indulging my Babylon 5 fetish, it is worth noting that Edward Woodward’s father-in-law appeared on a seminal episode of B5, called “The Fall of Night,” as a representative of the Orwellian-named Ministry of Peace, who arrives on the space station to sign a non-aggression pact with the rather aggressive Centauri.

As sentimental as I am about Woodward’s B5 connection and as impressed as I am by his work in The Wicker Man, it is always ‘Breaker’ Morant that I come back to when thinking of Woodward’s greatest movie role. And it was in ‘Breaker’ Morant that Woodward delivered one of my favorite movie lines of all time. It is one that I quote often, usually when I am having a few drinks. It is delicious and wise and expresses a simple and practical view of the world, particularly from a soldier’s point of view. In a toast, Morant proclaims, “Live each day as though it were your last; one day you’re sure to be right.”

Barnabas’s father (1932-2009)

In terms of making a huge impact on the world of the arts, the writer Ron Sproat won’t be mentioned in the same breath with the likes of Budd Schulberg and Ben Hecht. But his passing at age 77 will be noted here.

After attending Hamilton College, the University of Michigan and the Yale School of Drama, Sproat wrote for TV shows like United States Steel Hour, General Motors Presents, Love of Life, The Secret Storm, The Doctors and Where the Heart Is. He also adapted teleplays from two books by Charles L. Jackson, Rachel’s Summer and The Great Gold Mountain. He went on to write for the New York theater, including librettos for musicals, and contribute to magazines like New York and Paris Match. On November 6 he died of a heart attack in his Manhattan apartment, leaving behind his partner Frank.

Those of us who rushed home from school in the 1960s to catch our favorite afternoon gothic soap opera (favorite? Okay, it was the only one) know his name from the credits that rolled at the end of literally hundreds of episodes of Dark Shadows. (Yes, even back then I always stayed in my seat and watched until the last credit had rolled.) He was one of the main writers for the cult Dan Curtis series. For something like three years, he created many of the characters that wandered the halls of Collinwood and the streets of Collinsport—including a certain vampire named Barnabas Collins. For that one act of creation alone he deserves to be remembered forever.

In 1970 Sproat went to write for a somewhat similar Canadian gothic soap, which apparently was trying to cash in on Dark Shadows’s success. It was called Strange Paradise and followed the story of wealthy Jean-Paul Desmond, who lived on a Caribbean island and was obsessed with bringing his dead wife back to life. It appeared on my local TV station for a while and then was gone. So I am surprised to learn that it actually went on for something like 195 episodes.

Still nothing to compare with Dark Shadows’s 1,245. Clearly, those are Ron Sproat’s true legacy.

-S.L., 19 November 2009

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