Dennis Waterman, television tough-guy star of The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks – obituary

Dennis Waterman, right, as Terry McCann with George Cole as Arthur Daley in Minder - Rex Features
Dennis Waterman, right, as Terry McCann with George Cole as Arthur Daley in Minder - Rex Features

Dennis Waterman, the actor, who has died aged 74, specialised in playing unreconstructed south London jack-the-lads in a succession of popular television series, notably The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks.

In a memoir published in 2000, Waterman observed: “I’m about as far removed from an intellectual actor as you can get. My method is mostly based on heart and bollocks.”

This was perhaps overmodest, but it is true that audiences revelled in his portrayals of world-weary coppers and bodyguards, sensing that these characters’ tastes and prejudices were probably not dissimilar to his own.

Waterman was a generous friend and was always described as “a man’s man”. He loved football, cricket and golf; pubs were almost places of pilgrimage.

He was also an inveterate skirt-chaser for much of his career, and embarked on four marriages, including a disastrous union with a combustible red-headed Polish countess, Rula Lenska. Women, in Waterman’s lexicon, would be “very tasty”, “totally huggable” or “ridiculously delicious” – and it seemed he could not get enough of them.

Dennis Waterman with Rula Lenska - Fiona Hanson/PA
Dennis Waterman with Rula Lenska - Fiona Hanson/PA

Behind this persona, however, there lurked a highly professional actor who had been a seasoned performer before he emerged from his teens; and this despite a background that conferred no advantages.

Dennis Waterman was born on February 24 1948 in Clapham, south London, the ninth child of Rose Waterman and her husband Harry, a British Rail ticket collector. His parents were constantly at one another’s throats, but Dennis recalled being “spoilt to death by everybody”.

His brother Peter was a talented boxer who won the British and European welterweight titles, and Dennis was introduced to boxing as a small boy. Yet he also showed an aptitude for acting, and at seven appeared in a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Southwark Shakespeare Festival.

The following year his family moved to a council estate in Putney, south-west London; and, after failing his 11-plus, he was accepted by the Corona Academy, a stage school in Ravenscourt Park. From the outset he secured paid roles in films and on television, obviating the need to produce any fees.

Aged 11 he was cast as the kidnapped diabetic child in the film Night Train for Inverness (1960). A year later he was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company and spent nine months at Stratford-upon-Avon.

When he was chosen to play the lead in the BBC television series William in 1962, he had never heard of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books, and judged the character “a posh twit”. But it led to a part in a series called Fair Exchange, which required him to work in Hollywood.

The principal of the Corona Academy accompanied as his chaperone, and each day they were driven to the Desilu Productions studio in a Lincoln Continental. With that experience behind him, and still only 15, Dennis returned to stage school.

In 1964 he was on the West End stage alongside Sir Ralph Richardson in Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue, then joined the company at the Royal Court, where he appeared in Edward Bond’s controversial play Saved. At about this time he began living with Penny Dixon, a former drama student who in 1972 would become his first wife.

In 1968 Waterman was seen in his first leading film role, in Up the Junction (1968), based on the book by Nell Dunn. He played Pete, the bit of rough trade who attracts the Chelsea girl Polly who is slumming it in Battersea. Polly’s role was taken by (“the delicious”) Suzy Kendall, and she and Waterman enjoyed an affair, although she was then the girlfriend of Dudley Moore.

After appearing alongside Christopher Lee in Scars of Dracula (1970), Waterman made a film with the Austrian-born star Romy Schneider, who also became his lover. His marriage to Penny Dixon ended soon afterwards.

He was a member of the company of actors who featured in The Sextet (1972), a BBC 2 series which included the Dennis Potter drama Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and he later appeared in Potter’s Joe’s Ark (Play for Today, 1974).

The Sweeney first aired in 1974, and it made Waterman a household name. Produced by Ted Childs and directed by Tom Clegg, it aimed for a cinéma vérité style that would appeal to fans of films such as The French Connection.

Waterman (right) as DS George Carter and John Thaw as DI Jack Regan in The Sweeney - Rex Features
Waterman (right) as DS George Carter and John Thaw as DI Jack Regan in The Sweeney - Rex Features

Waterman as DS George Carter and John Thaw as DI Jack Regan were streetwise coppers who knew all the angles, and sported trendy flares and outsized sideburns. When they apprehended a villain, often after a hair-raising car chase in their Ford Granada, they would advise him: “You’re nicked!”

Tom Clegg reflected: “They weren’t heroes as such, more anti-heroes who broke the rules and enjoyed a drink. They were guys with problems and attitude who had a tough job to do, dealing with the seamier side of society. There was no glamour, no ‘holier-than-thou’ sanctimony.”

The Sweeney became a cult show, accounting for 53 episodes that were sold to more than 50 countries. In the late 1970s there were two Sweeney films starring Thaw and Waterman.

While making The Sweeney, Waterman began a relationship with the actress Patricia Maynard. Their daughter Hannah (later the actress Hannah Waterman) was born in 1975; they married two years later, and had a second daughter, Julia, in 1979.

Waterman’s second great screen partnership, came in the 1980s with Minder, in which he played Terry McCann, the loyal if somewhat boneheaded bodyguard to that prince of shiftiness Arthur Daley (George Cole). McCann, a former professional boxer and ex-con, is constantly charged with executing Arthur’s dodgy deals for little or no reward. The series is richly comic, a sort of Only Fools and Horses with attitude.

Waterman was still married to Patricia Maynard when he became involved with Rula Lenska, who had starred in the television series of Rock Follies. They conducted a long and passionate affair, and in January 1982 he left his wife and children. In 1982-83 he appeared in the musical Windy City, an adaptation of the Hecht and MacArthur play The Front Page, and formed a relationship with one of the co-stars, Amanda Redman.

He and Rula Lenska eventually married in 1987. The marriage lasted 11 years before ending in an orgy of bitterness, with Rula Lenska selling the story of her “violent marriage” to a tabloid newspaper.

Waterman admitted that one night “the jibes got more than I could bear” and that he had “lashed out.” He added that he was “deeply ashamed”. Meanwhile, his ex-wife Patricia Maynard wrote to The Daily Telegraph to defend him.

After his divorce from Rula Lenska he married, in 2011, his fourth wife, Pamela Flint, the assistant stage manager at a pantomime in which he was performing at Windsor.

With Amanda Redman in New Tricks - BBC/ Television Stills
With Amanda Redman in New Tricks - BBC/ Television Stills

Waterman’s third long-running television series was New Tricks, launched in 2003, a comedy-drama about a group of crusty retired police officers set up to investigate unsolved crimes. His co-stars in the original line-up were James Bolam, Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman, and it became one of the most popular shows on British television.

If he felt that a series was running out of steam, Waterman was not afraid to leave to seek new roles; and he did exactly that with The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks. In the case of Minder, he decided that his character Terry was turning simply into a “feed” for Arthur Daley.

Among the other series in which Waterman had starring roles were Stay Lucky! (1989-93) and the sitcom On the Up (1990-92). He appeared in The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, adapted from Fay Weldon’s novel.

He starred in, and co-produced, the Tyne Tees Television film The World Cup: a Captain’s Tale (1982), the true story of a football team of miners from West Auckland, Co Durham, who in 1910 were selected to represent England in the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, held in Italy and beat Juventus in the final.

Waterman appeared in more than 25 movies, and was also active on stage. In 1978 he returned to the RSC to play Sackett for a production of Bronson Howard’s comedy Saratoga. In 1993 he toured Britain in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, following Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti and James Bolam in the role; and he was Alfred P Doolittle in the 2001 London revival of My Fair Lady.

Dennis Waterman was also a guitarist, singer and songwriter. In 1976 he released his first album, Downwind of Angels, followed a year later by Waterman. As well as starring in Minder, he sang the theme song, I Could Be So Good for You, which was a top 3 UK hit in 1980. He also recorded a song with George Cole, What Are We Gonna Get For ’Er Indoors?, which reached No 21 in the UK charts.

He is survived by his wife Pam Flint and his daughters.

Dennis Waterman, born February 24 1948, died May 8 2022