Dennis Waterman, who has died suddenly aged 74, was such a familiar face on television for more than 40 years, playing similar sorts of streetwise characters, that it is hard to imagine that he was once a child actor in Hollywood and appeared in the opening season of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1960. He also featured on the West End stage – in 1961, he led the first act closing number in Meredith Willson’s The Music Man at the Adelphi theatre.
He is indelibly associated with two of the most successful television series of all time, both shown on ITV: The Sweeney (four series, 1975-78), co-starring with John Thaw as members of the flying squad branch of the Metropolitan police tackling violent crime and armed robbery; and Minder (1979-1994, with two extended breaks in the overall 10 series), playing the hapless gofer and bodyguard Terry McCann to George Cole’s dodgy wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley.
Unmistakably and always a south Londoner, Waterman was a tough nut, detective sergeant George Carter, in The Sweeney, a series that coincided with an extensive inquiry into corruption inside the Met itself. In Minder, more of a sitcom than a serious crime drama, he revealed a more winning streak of vulnerability and ineptitude in a wonderfully evoked milieu of the criminal underside in west London.
Several other sitcom and crime drama series employed him throughout the 1990s before his third major long-running success in the BBC’s New Tricks (2002-14). Alongside James Bolam and Alun Armstrong, he played a retired police officer, Gerry Standing, part of a “cold case” squad specially formed to reinvestigate unsolved murders and other crimes.
As in The Sweeney, where he and Thaw had to contend with an officiously demanding detective chief inspector (Garfield Morgan), he often crossed swords with his New Tricks detective boss (Amanda Redman). These hierarchical tensions allowed him to display quite a subtle range of hard-headedness, seething resentment and bitterness.
The happy-go-lucky, rackety “Jack the Lad” image was not one Waterman had any problem in developing. He cheerfully admitted that acting came easily to him as an extension of his own personality and outlook in life. Drink, women and football were his cornerstone activities. Some of that spilled into darker areas, with drink-driving convictions and accusations of domestic violence from his third wife, the actor Rula Lenska, claims he discussed openly in a television interview with Piers Morgan 10 years ago.
Waterman, born in Clapham, south-west London, was the youngest (by six years) of nine children brought up on a council estate in nearby Putney. His father, Harry Waterman, was a ticket collector at Clapham Junction station, his mother, Rose (nee Saunders), made curtains and soft furnishings. Dennis attended Granard primary school in Putney and, after being inducted into the theatre by an elder sister who was busy in amateur dramatics, trained at the Corona stage school in Hammersmith.
One of his brothers became a professional welterweight boxing champion, another joined the RAF, and three of Dennis’s sisters ended up working in the film industry in Los Angeles. Even before he joined the RSC, Dennis had appeared as Moth in Love’s Labour’s Lost in Brixton town hall and had made his first movie, Night Train for Inverness (1960), playing the kidnapped diabetic son of a newly released prisoner.
At Stratford-upon-Avon, in Peter Hall’s first RSC season, he was a boy player in The Taming of the Shrew, starring Peggy Ashcroft and Peter O’Toole, and young Mamillius, son of Eric Porter’s ragingly jealous Leontes, in The Winter’s Tale.
After completing that Hollywood gig, recording a sitcom, Fair Exchange, starring Judy Carne, for Lucille Ball’s production company, he was cast by Peter Wood, who had directed The Winter’s Tale, in Graham Greene’s strangely religious Carving a Statue (1964) at the Haymarket; he played the recalcitrant son of an eccentric sculptor played by Ralph Richardson. This led to the most significant period of Waterman’s theatre career, at the Royal Court in Sloane Square, a place he described as his drama school.
Over three years, 1965-68, he appeared in two controversial plays by Edward Bond – Saved (1965) and Early Morning (1968) – which, as a result of being banned by the lord chamberlain, and performed in less than watertight club conditions, led to the abolition of censorship in the Theatres Act of 1968.
In Saved, Waterman’s disaffected teenager, Colin, was the first of the gang to throw a stone at the baby in the pram in the park. In Early Morning, which presented a lesbian relationship between Queen Victoria (Moira Redmond) and Florence Nightingale (Marianne Faithfull), he played another miscreant teenager who cannibalises a character standing in front of him in a queue.
Both plays, directed by William Gaskill, met with a hostile reception from most critics and audiences, but are now rated modern classics. Also at the Court, Waterman played Fabian in Twelfth Night and Nick, the bastard son of Sir Walter Whorehound, in Thomas Middleton’s tumultuous Jacobean city comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.
There followed a series of movies before he hit the small screen big-time: the 1968 inferior retread of Ken Loach’s television drama Up the Junction; My Lover, My Son (1970), a modern version of the Oedipus myth, in which Romy Schneider offered the wrong sort of mother love to Waterman as her murderous son; and Roy Ward Baker’s Scars of Dracula (1970) in which Christopher Lee, on the point of impaling Waterman on the castle turrets, was struck by lightning and engulfed in flames.
He returned to the RSC in 1978 for a revival of a famous old 19th-century American comedy, Saratoga by Bronson Howard, and returned to musicals in 1982 playing the manipulative journalist Hildy Johnson in another American stage landmark, a musical version by Dick Vosburgh and Tony Macaulay of the great newsroom comedy The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. This was highly enjoyable, though Michael Billington opined that The Front Page needed music like the Sahara needed sand.
Music, though, was a serious string to Waterman’s bow. He had enjoyed a pop chart success with his recording of the theme tune of Minder (co-written by his second wife, the actor Patricia Maynard), I Could Be So Good for You, and did likewise on several other of his TV shows, a habit that led to a satirical spoof – which he loved – on the Little Britain comedy show.
Many fine actors succeeded O’Toole in the title role of Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989) and it was Waterman’s turn in 1993, when he played the role in Australia, then on tour in Britain, opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath.
His most notable later stage appearance, though, was in the National Theatre’s revival of My Fair Lady in 2001, with Martine McCutcheon as Eliza Doolittle and Jonathan Pryce as Professor Higgins. Waterman’s dustman Doolittle rescued the role from Stanley Holloway knees-up cosiness in a spectacular stag night scene (I’m Getting Married in the Morning) on a manic pub crawl complete with dancing girls in black bodices and fishnet tights.
His last movie, Never Too Late (2020), was filmed in Australia, a comedy drama with four Vietnam war veterans planning a second escape from depressing circumstances in their residential retirement home.
Waterman, a fanatical supporter of Chelsea FC, had a home in Spain, where he died. Three marriages ended in divorce; he is survived by his fourth wife, Pam Flint, whom he married in 2011, and by two daughters from his second marriage, Hannah – an actor who appeared in EastEnders as Laura Beale – and Julia.
• Dennis Waterman, actor, born 24 February 1948; died 8 May 2022