Eulogizing The Equalizer

The EqualizerYou may be familiar with a distinctive popular hit concocted from the following ingredients: an ex-intelligence operative based in the States but played by an actor from the British Isles known for his gravitas and theatrical chops takes on a mission to rescue someone in trouble using the varied specialised skills which he acquired in his former profession. Or here’s another one: a suave, well-spoken English actor unknown to American audiences wins over studio heads with a transatlantic screen test and proceeds to wow US viewers as an enigmatic, troubled but brilliant problem-solving hero… On consideration perhaps it could have been anticipated that both Taken and House, M.D. would become somewhat unlikely entertainment titans. Because two decades before either, The Equalizer starring Edward Woodward had featured all these attributes and become a major TV hit in America and around the globe, running for four seasons between 1985 and 1989 and earning its lead several Best Actor nods, then proceeding to age impeccably and inspire the successful 2014 movie (and forthcoming sequel) starring Denzel Washington.

Granted, thirty years on The Equalizer does not have the privileged place in the popular canon afforded to Miami Vice, partly because while Miami Vice in many respects is the 1980s, The Equalizer is what it is; the tale of Robert McCall, a fifty-something senior intelligence figure who has unilaterally and illegally retired in disgust from ‘the Company’, and now seeks to atone for the excesses and transgressions of his former job – organising foreign coups, helping to crush dissent, just being in the CIA really. He does so by offering his services, often free of charge, to the distressed and disenfranchised victims of crime, harassment or malign authority in the notoriously feral New York of the Eighties, depicted in the near-apocalyptic montage of the show’s phenomenal title sequence. McCall has a minimalist ad placed in a newspaper’s security notices, which coins his old Company nickname: “Gotta Problem? Odds Against You? Call The Equalizer”. Meanwhile the backstory of McCall’s erstwhile career with its past attachments and loose ends emerges at times to present its own cases for him, while his former employers agree to tolerate his reinvention in return for him occasionally “playing hero” for them. McCall likewise draws on the resources and expertise of former CIA colleagues and contractors including his frequent sidekick, the quietly efficient Mickey Kostmayer (Keith Szarabajka). In this way he equalizes the odds for his put-upon clients, through brawn yes, but just as often through brainpower, overpowering or outmanoeuvring hoods, stalkers and rapists, blue and white-collar criminals and even the Mafia and other organised crime syndicates. Though The Equalizer is sometimes disparagingly branded a vigilante show, McCall generally liaises and collaborates with the organs of law enforcement, whose own hands are often in some way tied. There is though some artistic licence taken regarding his violent unilateral equalizings, with the insinuation that his Company pedigree gives him some kind of lifelong licence to kill. Adding depth to this Robin Hood premise is the slowly emerging personal history of a failed marriage, the death of a daughter in early childhood, and his estranged, then strained, relationship with his classical musician son Scott (William Zabka). Only in the fourth and final season do we learn that McCall’s British officer father, murdered by a treacherous comrade, had earlier alienated his well-heeled English family by marrying a working-class American entertainer – helping to answer a question which millions of hooked viewers never cared about anyway; why a Brit has spent much of his life working in the American intelligence community.

All this may sound like the stuff of a slightly unusual and mildly arresting action-thriller yarn, and indeed on these terms alone The Equalizer might not particularly be worth talking about thirty years on; other comparable Eighties fare such as Magnum P.I. or Hunter now surely have little more than nostalgic appeal. What continues to elevate it above other such fodder can be summed up in a few nicely balanced (or equalized) couplings. The first, simply enough, is ‘Edward Woodward’. And by extension the second, in a phrase coined by his biographer Carolyn McGivern, is ‘controlled rage’. Woodward already had a distinguished track record in TV and radio, and in theatre of the highest, Shakespearian calibre. (This is man who was given carte blanche by Laurence Olivier to pick his roles during a season at the National Theatre.) He had also given superlative performances in the odd classic feature film (Breaker Morant and, of course, The Wicker Man). But despite early success on Broadway, Woodward was not well-known in the States and Universal executives were initially sceptical when The Equalizer’s co-creator Michael Sloan adamantly advocated him for the role of McCall. As Sloan later recalled, that immediately changed upon his initial screen test, their verdict being, “This guy’s got class!”

And indeed he does, exuding unaffected sophistication, gracious charm and a sanguine, worldly-wise air. Prior to engaging combative mode, he has an understated, amiably chattily delivery which can make his competent co-stars seem mannered and hammy in comparison. And yet at each moment of reckoning Woodward/McCall erupts fearsomely from this surface calm, in a unnervingly self-possessed manner, a vengeful Old Testament figure denouncing and despatching each nemesis figure with an intensity similarly of a different order from what others muster. This supreme command of the extremities of light and shade, all emanating incongruously from a greying man of diminutive and slightly portly form, saw US audiences (women in particular) start to warm to Robert McCall as an avenging action figure unlike all the rest. We British viewers, perhaps less in thrall to stereotypes of the alpha male tough guy and seeing the familiar Woodward as our own TV Englishman in New York, never needed any convincing, and The Equalizer was a no-brainer primetime hit on the ITV network from 1986. Incidentally, Quentin Crisp, the Naked Civil Servant and inspiration for Sting’s titular song, has a memorably game, dryly camp guest spot in one episode. And in a more significant Police-related in-joke, the show’s fantastic title theme, which builds from a menacing rhythmic rumble to the stirring though suitably off-kilter Equalizer melody, was composed along with much of the score by ex-Police rhythmatist Stewart Copeland, whose parents both had backgrounds in the Intelligence world. I was among many avid British fans of this post-watershed show from the age of 9, permitted to watch it by a liberal or perhaps negligent parent – unlike the toothless slapstick shoot-outs of The A-Team, The Equalizer is properly, consequentially violent, while also touching on some edgily adult topics.

The appeal of The Equalizer might further be explained in terms of a few more pairings. The first is its bi-national, Anglo-American credentials; a kind of televisual ‘special relationship’, if you will. The Anglo element is clear enough; Robert McCall is something akin to an ageing James Bond (though in fact not as aged as late-Bond Roger Moore), but shorn of the tedious lothario element and with more of the jaded, thousand-yard stare of the Dalton and Craig interpretations. As any English guy who has been stateside will know, our accent seems instantly to confer intelligence and cultural sophistication and evoke misty-eyed, reverent visions of the European ‘Old World’. (Lucky that our great cultural export football hooliganism has never travelled that far.) McCall, with his precise vowels, gentlemanly bearing and impeccably tailored suits, his dry wit and his stoic reserve, represents much of what seems to beguile our North American cousins. That steely composure also seems to imply the cunning, ruthless streak which is indeed a facet of McCall, reflected elsewhere in the frequent casting of English actors as baddie or evil genius. But while it incorporates the best of British, at least as potent for audiences is The Equalizer’s simultaneous appropriation of one of the most profound and enduring tropes in the American cultural psyche (so significant that it even featured in my undergraduate lectures on American politics), that of the lone ranger; the rootless, solitary figure who goes from place to place, righting wrongs, helping the helpless, forming no attachments and inexorably moving on. (Think the famous personas of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, even Knight Rider’s Michael Knight.) The mysterious and lonesome McCall, despite his Englishness, is very much in this tradition. At the close of the pilot episode, an eternally grateful, pretty single mother who McCall has saved from a knifepoint rape chances her arm with, “I’d like to get to know you better”, to which McCall replies, politely but matter-of-factly, “You wouldn’t”. Of course such stonewalling only adds to the romantic allure of this heroic but haunted figure. Whilst to British audiences and critics Edward Woodward was to an extent depicting a more upmarket take on his early TV role as renegade Secret Service assassin Callan, the actual blueprint for The Equalizer was Have Gun, Will Travel, a Sixties US show starring Richard Boone as a similar lone troubleshooter for hire. So as, while echoing aspects of popular English fare such as Bond, The Prisoner and the Cold War fiction of John le Carré, The Equalizer is at its heart a Western, albeit with the anarchy of the post-Civil War frontier replaced by the mean streets of the Big Apple, and featuring a somewhat offbeat gunslinger hero more like those of Death Wish or Die Hard.

McCall’s past career and present calling also reflect the pair of somewhat dissonant beliefs at the heart of America’s outlook; a fierce, unswerving patriotism and sense of destiny as beacon of democracy and individual liberty (and ultimately its global enforcer), and an entrenched suspicion of big government, state intervention and bureaucracies – its’ essentially libertarian inclinations. Thus Robert McCall is seen to be an agent who has served his adopted country diligently and efficiently, but been left disenchanted by the dubious policies and practices inspired by its governmental elites. Meanwhile in his new role as redresser of wrongs McCall is attending to the failings of local and federal law enforcement and ineffective or corrupt institutions. A related strength of The Equalizer’s formula lies in yet another twosome, that of McCall’s secret agent past and philanthropic present. The stories are varied, moving between high stakes Cold War-era geopolitical intrigues with their attendant moral murkiness, and compassionate, satisfyingly redemptive tales with a noticeably progressive take on social issues of exploitation, discrimination, poverty, even gun control. It makes for a multi-faceted show whose narrative potential was not noticeably near exhaustion at the time of its abrupt cancellation.

This pungent blend of allusions, and Edward Woodward’s remarkable gifts, together with punchily compelling scripts, exciting and cathartic action scenes and the moody, almost monochrome rendering of its grimy New York locations made The Equalizer a huge popular hit, but not at the time particularly a critical one. While US commentators were struck by the elemental force of Woodward’s performance and the refreshingly novel depiction of a thinking man’s tough guy, some British voices were predictably sniffy about an actor of Woodward’s classical pedigree appearing to slum it in a populist American vigilante series. In the event The Equalizer was prematurely cancelled in 1989 while still getting healthy ratings, apparently forming collateral damage in network-studio wrangling over a rather more whimsical crimebusting show, Murder, She Wrote. But like the Scotches and fine wines which are its tough guy’s tipple, The Equalizer has matured well, acquiring the distinct period flavour and nostalgic aura of a classic series – indeed the Cold War-themed episodes may make mature viewers somewhat wistful for the bipolar certainties of that grand standoff and the gentlemanly mutual respect of its spy games, compared with the asymmetric and irrational qualities of the current West versus Islamists confrontation. Of course The Equalizer’s other dimension, its’ portrait of a white knight selflessly taking on small and big-time bullies, remains as resonant as ever, and the vicarious pleasure of witnessing Robert McCall, invariably the smartest (in both senses) guy in the room, evening odds and settling scores continues to appeal and affirm. In the epilogue to one satisfying resolution, McCall is asked by a concerned female acquaintance how much longer he intends to pursue his isolating vocation to aid the needy. “Until the books are balanced”, he replies. The Equalizer may have in the past suffered its own miscarriage of justice, or judgement, but just as Robert McCall’s moral sense won out over his oath to the Company, so it seems that with a renewed appreciation for the series, reflected in a well-appointed DVD box set and the recent cinematic reboot, and the memory of the now-deceased Woodward as one of our most versatile and best-loved actors, The Equalizer may finally have balanced those books.