Steve Halliwell, actor who found fame as the lovable, work-shy rogue Zak Dingle in Emmerdale – obituary

Steve Halliwell as Zak Dingle in 2002
Steve Halliwell as Zak Dingle in 2002 - ITV/Shutterstock

Steve Halliwell, the actor, who has died aged 77, stormed dramatically into the ITV soap Emmerdale in 1994 as Zak Dingle, bare-knuckle fighting with the farmworker Ned Glover in the sleepy Yorkshire village. After a bloody battle, the pair rolled down an embankment into a stream and Ned landed the final blow.

But it was for humour that new producer Mervyn Watson – tasked with turning around a serial whose future was in doubt – brought back Zak as head of the hated Dingle clan in 1995. “Suddenly, on discovering the rest of the family, you had these mad characters to whom everyone could relate,” said Watson. “They are genuinely and instinctively funny.”

Several years later, Halliwell reflected that Zak – unmistakable in his flat cap, wellies and wax jacket – had transformed from “violent nutter” to “work-shy, lovable rogue” as the Dingles became a cornerstone of Emmerdale, bringing trouble and strife to a programme that began as Emmerdale Farm in 1972 with simpler tales of the Sugden family toiling the land.

Halliwell easily related to Zak. “Everything the Dingles had been through, I had, too – trouble with the police, fighting, being evicted,” he told TV Times in 2014. “And, if there were any aspects of Zak’s life I hadn’t lived, I knew people who had.”

Zak is finally persuaded to sell his barn in 2002: with Lisa and Cain Dingle (Jane Cox and Jeff Hordley)
Zak is finally persuaded to sell his barn in 2002: with Lisa and Cain Dingle (Jane Cox and Jeff Hordley) - Brian Jeeves

Arriving in London at the age of 18, Halliwell was arrested for sleeping rough in an empty government building, spent two weeks in prison on remand and was put on probation. Later, he was sent to a detention centre for three months after being involved with a gang who put a brick through an off-licence window and looted alcohol.

The Dingles’ early eviction storyline was particularly close to home. Struggling for years to find success as an actor before Emmerdale catapulted him to fame, Halliwell was out of work for long spells and knew abject poverty.

“I had first-hand experience of bailiffs at the door,” he told Anthony Hayward, author of The Emmerdale Companion (1997). “The acting was so thin on the ground that I started writing.”

One result was All My Joy, a play performed by Rochdale’s touring M6 Theatre Company in 1993. “It was about a man of 50 who was on the scrapheap,” he explained.

His own pressures contributed to the end of a 1972 marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Susan Woods, and divorce from his second wife, Valerie (née Murphy), whom he married in 1984, although the couple later reunited. In Emmerdale, Zak similarly went through two marriages, to Nellie (Sandra Gough) and Lisa (Jane Cox).

Halliwell also battled depression and alcoholism throughout his life and, in 2003, took a break from the soap for treatment in a rehab centre.

Emmerdale changed Halliwell’s life and, by the time of his final appearance in June this year, he had become one of its longest-serving actors, clocking up 29 years and more than 2,300 appearances.

Stephen Harold Halliwell was born in Bury, Lancashire, on March 19 1946 to Jenny (née Moss), who played the piano in village hall productions, and Fred Halliwell.

From the age of nine, he took part in plays at school, leaving six years later for a “pretty grim” job at the Transparent Paper Mill, where his father worked. After six months, he decided he should have put more effort in at school, enrolled at Bury Technical College and came out with O-levels in art and English.

Zak gives away Emily Kirk (Kate McGregor) at her wedding in 2002
Zak gives away Emily Kirk (Kate McGregor) at her wedding in 2002 - ITV/Shutterstock

He became an apprentice in a heavy engineering company but left after a year. “I was doing what was expected of me – getting a trade – but I was no good at it,” he confessed.

A string of jobs followed – in hotel kitchens, gardening, seasonal work in Torquay – before a telegram informing him of his father’s death led Halliwell to turn his life around.

“He had been through the Depression of the Thirties and the whole work-ethic thing,” the actor explained. “He always thought that I wasn’t doing anything with my life. That made me think: ‘I have got to prove to my dad that there’s more to me than this.’ ”

Seeing an advert for part-time acting courses at the Mountview Theatre School in London, Halliwell successfully applied. He eventually became its caretaker and scene-shifter before landing a job as an assistant stage manager at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton.

He then acted in London fringe theatre and at the Oldham Coliseum, and was a founder member of the Interchange Theatre, Bury, in 1981.

Zak realises he has fed burgers made of real meat at a vegan market in 2017
Zak realises with horror that he has sold burgers made of real meat at a vegan market in 2017 - ITV/Shutterstock

His TV debut in Daft Mam Blues (1977), a BBC play by David Halliwell (no relation), was followed by various other character parts. He played an information officer in the 1984 nuclear war drama Threads, a police officer in a handful of All Creatures Great and Small episodes (between 1983 and 1990) and a fire officer in Cracker (1993).

Before Emmerdale, he had soap experience with the regular role of Peter Bishop, a social worker, in the GPs saga The Practice (1985-86) and four parts in Coronation Street, including head barman Bob Cairns at the Queens pub when Liz McDonald managed it (1993-94). He was also seen as a Russian courier in a car with Pierce Brosnan in the 1987 film The Fourth Protocol.

In 2018, Halliwell underwent heart surgery to have a pacemaker fitted. His autobiography, If the Cap Fits: My Rocky Road to Emmerdale, was published in 2014.

A baby daughter he had with Susan Woods was given away for adoption five years before they married.

Steve Halliwell is survived by his second wife, their daughter and his two stepsons.

Steve Halliwell, born March 19 1946, died December 15 2023