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Dennis Waterman was one of Britain’s most popular television stars, whose career on the small screen spanned half a century.
The actor, who has died aged 74, was best known for his tough-guy roles in programmes including The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks, finding himself equally at ease on screen on both sides of the law.
Dennis Waterman was born in London in 1948, the youngest of nine children. His interest in drama, he said, “came from my oldest sister Joy who ran her own amateur dramatics society and dragged us all in ... and then there was this thing in Clapham that they all sang and danced in ... and my mother played piano a bit, East End knees up job.”
In 1959 he joined the Corona Academy – a theatre school and agency – and got his first film acting role in Night Train for Inverness (1960), starring alongside Jane Hylton and Norman Wooland, as his parents.
In his teenage years, during the early Sixties, he appeared in his first major television series, William, based on the eponymous and popular children’s books by Richmal Crompton.
After many minor roles throughout the late Sixties and early Seventies, his breakthrough came in The Sweeney, with Waterman playing the hard-nosed, straight-talking, old-school DS George Hamilton Carter, alongside DI Jack Regan (played by John Thaw), from 1974 to 1978.
The series found its name from Cockney rhyming slang – Sweeney Todd/Flying Squad – and depicted life within the specialist police unit, tackling serious and organised crime. It saw detectives facing hardened criminals in often violent confrontations and tackled issues previously seen as off-limits, such as police corruption.
As he recalled in a later interview: “We knew we were doing something really quite special and quite different from British television... John and I were great mates and it was just a joy to go to work every day.” Following its enthusiastic reception by audiences in the Seventies, the programme is still shown today on ITV4.
Just as The Sweeney ended, Waterman continued the following year in Minder, a comedy-drama about the criminal underworld. Minder saw Waterman, as a bodyguard to George Cole, bring humour to life on the wrong side of the law.
Minder introduced the character of Arthur Daley (played by Cole) – whose name has since entered the English language as a byword for an untrustworthy dodgy-dealer figure who is always on the lookout for a “nice little earner”.
Unusually for a leading actor, Waterman sang the theme tune to his own programme. The song “I Could Be So Good For You” reached No 3 in the UK charts in October 1980. He would record three solo albums and several singles in parallel to his acting career.
Waterman’s most recent major series was New Tricks, running from 2003 to 2015. Here he played Gerry Standing, the Cockney copper whose colleagues included retired detectives Jack Halford (James Bolam) and Brian Lane (Alun Armstrong). The investigation team, led by Sandra Pullman (Amanda Redman), brought much-needed experience to “cold” criminal cases that they were deftly able to solve.
Waterman published an autobiography, ReMinder, in 2000, which is notable for its many contributions from family and friends. In a 2012 interview with Piers Morgan, he opened up about his stormy marriage to Rula Lenska, admitting that he had struck her but denied that she had been a “beaten wife”.
He died in hospital in Spain, where he had relocated, with his wife Pam at his side.
The comedian and actor Matt Lucas said in tribute: “I grew up watching Dennis Waterman’s iconic performances in The Sweeney and Minder. His guest appearance in our Little Britain Live show at Hammersmith Apollo – in which he hilariously duetted with David’s absurd impersonation of him – remains the absolute highlight of my career.”
Waterman was married four times, including to Patricia Maynard, an actor (1977-87) – with whom he had two daughters – and Rula Lenska, an actor (1987-98). He married Pam Flint in 2011.
Dennis Waterman, actor, born 24 February 1948, died 8 May 2022