Woodward was that rarity in the entertainment world: one who specialised in nothing much, yet appeared to be especially talented in whatever he took on: villains, heroes, characters from melodrama and the musical comedy stage – all were tackled with a superb professionalism.

To his portrayal of the cynical secret service agent Callan, he brought an authentic seediness; whi

le his majestic portrayal of the avenging Robert McCall, the upright figure in the long overcoat in The Equalizer, turned him into an unlikely cult figure in the United States.

Supposed to be television's answer to James Bond on the big screen, Callan was broadcast by ITV from 1967 to 1972. Woodward's eponymous hero cut a lonely and unglamorous figure. While Bond moved in a world of gadgetry, fantasy and sex, Callan's universe was that of an outsider whose life as a professional killer was solitary and bleak.

In 1970 Woodward won a Bafta award for best actor for his role in Callan. But he became so closely identified with the part that when the series ended after six years, he had a job to find work in the theatre. In 1974 he starred in a feature film about Callan.

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Edward as the Equalizer

The Equalizer was shown on ITV from 1986 to 1989, with Woodward as a former secret service agent for "The Company" (the CIA) who had turned to working as a private investigator. He dressed immaculately, drove a Jaguar and carried a gun; unusually in this genre, the hero was on the wrong side of 50 years old. While making the series he worked 18-hour days, subsisting on a daily diet of junk food and 100 cigarettes (on his return to England he was to suffer a heart attack).

Set in Manhattan, the series was particularly popular in the United States: he won a Golden Globe award for best actor in a dramatic television series in 1987, and was nominated five times for an Emmy.

In 1990 Woodward starred in an American television series called Over My Dead Body, in which he played a mystery writer solving real crimes. Although it proved to be short-lived, it led the following year to his much more successful ITV true crime drama documentary series In Suspicious Circumstances, in which he guided viewers through some of the most celebrated British crimes of the 20th century.

Woodward had a fine tenor voice, appearing on a number of occasions in The Good Old Days and making a dozen LPs. He also recorded three albums of poetry, capitalising on the reputation he had forged at Stratford as a lyrical speaker of verse.

He was appointed OBE in 1978.

In 1996 Woodward underwent triple heart bypass surgery, and in 2003 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Edward Woodward married first, in 1952, Venetia Mary Collett, with whom he had two sons and a daughter, all of whom became successful actors. The marriage was dissolved in 1986, and he married secondly, in 1987, Michele Dotrice, daughter of the actor Roy Dotrice and best known for her role as Betty Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em; they had a daughter.