Monday 23 October 2017

Lewis Collins

Actor who played the wisecracking tough guy William Bodie in the hit TV crime-fighting series The Professionals

LEWIS Collins, who died last week aged 67, was part of one of the great double acts in British television: Bodie and Doyle, the Seventies crime-fighting duo in the series The Professionals.

As William Bodie, a former mercenary-turned-SAS trooper, Collins played the hardman of the team– restrained, tough, yet armed with as many one-liners as lethal weapons. Alongside Ray Doyle, played by Martin Shaw, and under the uncompromising leadership of George Cowley (Gordon Jackson), his character worked for the secret government agency CI5. A fictional amalgam of MI5 and the CID, it was a below-the-radar unit set up to take the fight to nefarious criminals of every stripe – from international drug dealers to terrorists.

Created by Brian Clemens, a producer who had made his name as the principal scriptwriter of The Avengers in the Sixties, The Professionals was filmed over four years (1977-81, though it continued to be aired until 1983). Yet Collins very nearly missed out on the central role of his career.

When filming began, in June 1977, Shaw was partnered by Anthony Andrews (who in 1981 would go on to find fame as Sebastian Flyte in the adaptation of Brideshead Revisited). After three days of shooting, Clemens decided that the pair did not have the required undercurrent of menace to carry off the concept.

He decided to keep the bubble-permed Shaw, who had established himself on stage at the National Theatre and elsewhere (in 1974 even playing Stanley Kowalski, the part made famous by Marlon Brando, in A Streetcar Named Desire). Casting around for a foil, Clemens thought of Collins, who had played opposite Shaw in an episode of The New Avengers. The producer remembered that the two actors had not got on well, and guessed that their tetchy relationship might develop into the abrasive on-screen pairing he was looking for.

In fact, when they met again, Shaw and Collins became friends. That chemistry carried to the screen, where – though they were very different personalities – their two characters are essentially devoted to one another.

A potent cocktail of violence, guns, girls and gangsters, The Professionals saw Bodie and Doyle operate in a seedy world of backstreet deals and silver Ford Capris, a mise-en-scene which lent their efforts an alluring sense of reality, no matter how fanciful the plot. When not disarming a Middle Eastern explosives kingpin, for example, the two were likely to be moaning about their lack of overtime pay, or their sore heads from the previous night's boozing.

It was a mixture of glamour and grime that proved highly successful, if bruising. Collins and Shaw always did their own stunts and between them sustained three broken ankles and a fractured collarbone. Those who, like Mary Whitehouse, criticised the show for its excessive violence only added to its notoriety.

Towards the end of its run, however, all concerned accepted that the formula was becoming stale. Even so, Collins hoped that Doyle's uncompromising persona might lead him to still greater heights. After The Professionals ended, he auditioned for the role of another secret operative: James Bond.

Lewis Collins was born on May 27, 1946 at Bidston, Wirral, and left Grange Secondary School in Birkenhead to train as a hairdresser at the Andre Bernard salon in Liverpool. But in the mid-Sixties he changed career to become a professional musician, and after stints with bands including The Eyes and The Georgians joined The Mojos, for whom he briefly played bass guitar.

The experience kindled an interest in the stage, and Collins enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before going into rep. He worked at Chesterfield and Glasgow, and toured with the Prospect Theatre Company before graduating to London's West End with stage roles in City Sugar and The Threepenny Opera.

While appearing in The Farm, directed by Lindsay Anderson at the Royal Court, Collins was noticed by television producers. His early television work included roles in popular series such as Z Cars (1974) and a recurring role as the lodger in the ITV sitcom The Cuckoo Waltz (1975-77). Crucially, he broke with his light-hearted image to be cast as a hitman in a 1976 episode of The New Avengers with Martin Shaw – they were working together again less than a year later.

Apart from The Professionals, Collins was best known for playing the SAS officer Capt Peter Skellen in the 1982 film Who Dares Wins. He even applied to join 23 SAS – a Territorial unit – in real life, passing the entrance tests but being rejected on the grounds of his fame. As well as harbouring a lifelong interest in guns, he was trained in martial arts, including karate, and held a black belt in ju-jitsu.

Roles in other action films followed, including Code Name Wild Geese (1984), and Kommando Leopard (1985) and The Commander (1988), both with Klaus Kinski.

His audition for Bond came in 1986. Collins had hoped to re-create the original, hard-nosed character of Ian Fleming's books, rather than the suave Lothario portrayed by Sean Connery. "He's not over-handsome, over-tall," Collins noted of Bond. "He's about my age and has got my attitudes." The producer Cubby Broccoli, however, considered him "too aggressive" for the part.

Collins's last British appearance was in a cameo role in The Bill in 2002.

More recently he moved to Los Angeles, where he took a two-year break from acting and trained as a director-writer at the UCLA Film School. He also qualified as a pilot.

Early last year Collins was cast to play Earl Godwin in the historically-based film about 1066, but reportedly withdrew from the production.

He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2008. Lewis Collins married, in 1992, Michelle Larrett, a teacher, with whom he had three sons.

Sunday Independent

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