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Photo of John Thaw
John Thaw, 1942-2002
Case Book: Farewell John Thaw
By Ron Miller

When John Thaw died on February 21, 2002, of esophageal cancer at the premature age of 60, he knew he was leaving behind a remarkable legacy of accomplishment as an actor. In fact he knew many millions of mystery fans already considered him a show business immortal because of just one role, his greatest: Chief Inspector Morse.

Ironically the last Thaw performance most of us saw was the dying Morse in last year's The Remorseful Day, the final Inspector Morse mystery. Morse, too, was struck down by illness, long before his time, leaving millions of us mourning, tears in our eyes for the cranky old Thames Valley police detective we'd come to love over the years.

Before he died, Thaw made peace with the knowledge that he'd always be remembered as Inspector Morse, in spite of all the roles he'd played. He once told me he regularly received letters from fans who thought he really was Morse.

"Women write to me 10 to 1 over men," Thaw told me. "I really think they're writing to Morse, not to me, which I find kind of sad. I think it's sad they have to tell their troubles to that man they watch on the box in the corner of their rooms."

When first approached to play Morse, Thaw read one Colin Dexter's novels and decided he didn't like the man much. But then he began to realize there were some subtle things that really appealed to him, especially Morse's love of classical music and opera.

"I love music," said Thaw, "and I listen to it the way Morse does. It helps me to think, to learn my lines. I thought that was a pretty good indication of what kind of guy he was. That was the key for me."

Thaw's instincts were correct. Though Morse was a bachelor, a heavy drinker, and a very hard man to live with at times, he grew on viewers week after week until he was perhaps the most beloved of all the detectives in the MYSTERY! family. Thaw reasoned that people responded to Morse's faults and imperfections, perhaps feeling that made him one of them.

"His viewers run the gamut from bus drivers to judges to academics," Thaw told me. "They're always very polite to me. They seem to want to express their gratitude for giving them so much pleasure."

Author Colin Dexter sensed the public's love for Thaw's Morse and never cared that the actor didn't resemble the man on the printed page much. Thaw also had great respect for Dexter and took pride that "his descriptions of the character in the later books are actually descriptions of me." When Dexter finally decided to reveal Morse's never-before-disclosed first name -- Endeavor -- one of the first persons he told it to was John Thaw.

"It was very sweet of him," Thaw told me. "At that stage, only Colin, his wife and I knew the name."

After playing Morse for several seasons, Thaw began to take on a genuine proprietary interest in the show, though he didn't own any part of it. In the final years, he negotiated the title of "executive producer" for himself by involving his own production company with the program. Though quite common in the U.S., where the stars of long-running TV series often begin to "take over" their show, that move was extremely rare in British television.

"Artistically, I have a big input," Thaw told me. "I have a say over who writes them and who directs them."

Thaw's influence was felt when the series took cameras away from England to film certain episodes abroad -- one in Italy, another in Australia. He felt the series needed a fresh setting after so many years in Oxford and its environs. His instincts again were right. The two were very popular and critically-praised episodes.

At the heart of the show's success was the fact that Thaw brought warmth, sincerity, and great understanding to the Morse character. Viewers really felt for him when he was frustrated in his many attempts to have a long-term relationship with a woman -- and showed the hurt in his eyes. They understood when he often went off in the wrong direction on a case and earned some disparaging remarks from his superiors. For his obvious vulnerability, we all forgave his frequent crankiness and his insults to poor Sergeant Lewis, his loyal assistant.

When the series ended its run in early 2001, Inspector Morse had become the longest running detective series in the 22-year history of the MYSTERY! series -- 64 episodes over 13 years, starting with The Dead of Jericho in 1988. Thaw knew he owed a great debt to the role because, "It has made me very materially comfortable. I don't have to work again in a series. If I do anything now, it's because I really want to do it, not just to pay the rent."

Once the Morse series wound down to just a pair of movie-length episodes per year, Thaw took on another series, Kavanagh, Q.C., playing a lawyer with a family, quite a departure from the Morse character. But he remained loyal to Morse despite a couple of announcements that he'd finished with the character, always coming back to the role when Dexter had a new Morse novel for them to film.

When I asked him why he always came back to Morse, Thaw conceded he still loved playing him, but mostly came back because, "It'll give the fans a lot of pleasure and, after all, that's my job, isn't it?"

Well, the truth is John Thaw gave us a very great deal of pleasure for a very long time and, like Inspector Morse, he did his job awfully well. They'll both be missed more than we can say.

More on Morse:
Inspector Morse Series 10
Inspector Morse Series 11
Inspector Morse Series 12
The Remorseful Day: The Inspector Morse Finale
The Last Morse: A Documentary
The Detectives: Inspector Morse
Case Book: A Detective's Last Case

Ron Miller is the author of MYSTERY!: A Celebration, and a regular contributor to this web site.

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