The violent, dirty, pre-gentrified New York City of The Equalizer (omnipresent graffiti is like a supporting character) certainly cohabitates the same milieu as Death Wish, but the similarities pretty much end there. In fact, The Equalizer is much more like a cross between the classic existential Western series Have Gun - Will Travel (1957-63) and the understated, cynical espionage novels of John le Carré (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy).
At a time when shows like The A-Team, Dynasty, and Murder, She Wrote exemplified 1980s network programming, The Equalizer was a real anomaly: darker, more pessimistic, moodier and, extremely rare for that time, boldly ambiguous. Much of the series is shrouded in mystery about ex-agent Robert McCall's past, his complex relationship with the Company and the head of its New York branch, "Control" (Robert Lansing).
The Equalizer did okay ratings-wise, and those who stumbled upon it appreciated its unusual intelligence. Its success was hampered, however, partly by this general misconception of what the show was all about, as well as CBS's unwise decision to schedule it opposite another unusually smart show, St. Elsewhere. (I regularly watched the latter at the time, catching up on The Equalizer during summer reruns. Why couldn't CBS have put it opposite The Love Boat?) Further, Edward Woodward had a heart attack around the beginning of the third season, causing some major logistical problems that may have cost The Equalizer more viewers. The show recovered by the beginning of its fourth year, but a political battle between production company Universal and CBS over Murder, She Wrote, another Universal series, led to The Equalizer's cancellation, rather than its ratings. But it's still highly regarded, and of course it inspired the new, same-named movie starring Denzel Washington.
The Equalizer: The Complete Collection offers far more than this 30-disc Limited Edition lets on, at least from a cursory glance. In addition to The Equalizer's four-season, 88-episode run, the set includes a second television series starring Woodward, presented in its entirety, CI5: The New Professionals (13 hour shows that originally aired in 1999) plus a feature film, Woodward's last, A Congregation of Ghosts (2009), completed the year he died.
You'd think distributor VEI (via NBC/Universal) would want to emphasize all this tantalizing bonus material, but the extras are barely mentioned on the packaging, which is rather sloppily edited and organized to boot. For instance, the packaging and other text lists everything as being 4:3 standard size when in fact both CI5: The New Professionals and A Congregation of Ghosts are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen. Most of the material makes great use of stereophonic sound, The Equalizer being among the first network shows broadcast in stereo surround, but this too isn't clear from the packaging.
Like Have Gun - Will Travel's hero, whose vaguely-worded business card instructed those desperately in need of a gunman to "Wire Paladin, San Francisco," ex-agent Robert McCall (Woodward) runs a similar newspaper ad: "Odds Against You? Need Help? Call the Equalizer. (212) 555-4200." However, where Paladin was a world-weary, intellectual mercenary whose occupation paid for a luxurious lifestyle, McCall, though equally intelligent, offers his services to atone for past sins during his many years with The Company.
Therefore, much of The Equalizer is about McCall's search for redemption. He generally offers his services for free, mainly to ordinary, often poor New Yorkers threatened or victimized by ruthless gangs, drug lords, kidnappers, corrupt politicians, pimps, and other unsavory characters.
McCall's under-the-police-radar dealings sometimes partner or put him in direct opposition of the Company's own agenda. In one episode, for instance, McCall battles a Thai-American drug lord (Mako) who, to keep his various rackets running smoothly, provides Control with miscellaneous intelligence. McCall's relationship with former associate Control is always interesting. In this same fourth-season episode Lansing has surprised McCall with a birthday dinner. Over wine, they reminisce about colleagues killed in the field. Most have faded from Control's memory, but McCall can't forget a one, even those he disliked. At least one show has him taking about being unable to sleep at night.
In another fine episode, a two-parter guest-starring Telly Savalas, McCall is searching for a serial terrorist (creepily played by William Atherton), his efforts alternately threatened and assisted by a former terrorist-turned-priest (Savalas) aiding intelligence authorities working the case in a parallel investigation. This extremely smart show has McCall loathing the priest, responsible for the death of a colleague years before, and his meddling. McCall dismisses the priest's own search for redemption as pure rubbish. The priest's Macbeth-like efforts to wipe clean the blood from his hands are obviously quite different from McCall's yet they strike a similar chord, unnerving McCall.
Some point to an episode in the middle of the show's first season, "Reign of Terror," written by Coleman Luck and Steve Bello, as the show where The Equalizer finally found its voice. Though its Warriors-like gang terrorizing a free medical clinic is a bit trite and dated, there are also good scenes pairing McCall with another retired (albeit Cuban), equally world-weary agent, played by Tomas Milian. Best of all is the show's surprising conclusion. Denied his pistol, McCall faces the gang in the middle of the street in broad daylight. He calls out to local residents, watching from their windows above, to join him to take their street back without resorting to violence. The gang members initially began beating McCall and the good Samaritans, but eventually are essentially shamed into backing down. That's a world away from Death Wish III.
Woodward, nearly playing a continuation of his character from Callan (1967-72), is terrific. His clipped, precise delivery, and gentlemanly demeanor compliment his unshakable resolve and nerves of steel. (In the aforementioned episode, from an apartment rooftop the gang members drop garbage cans at McCall's feet. Woodward, not doubled in this scene, never flinches.) Even shortly before his death Woodward's facial features remained smooth, except around his eyes, where there were deep lines, and the eyes themselves were slightly walleyed. Highly expressive, these eyes seemed to be looking inward as much as outward, perfect for the McCall character, and while perhaps their walleyed-ness made them not exactly piercing, they did alternately provide the actor a general aloofness, which he also used well. I suspect though I've never heard it confirmed that British make-up artist Stuart Freeborn may partly have based the design of Yoda (of the Star Wars universe) on Woodward's eyes. That character was slightly walleyed, too, come to think of it.
Robert Lansing likewise is perfectly cast. The beetle-browed, never-quite-a-star actor in his younger days resembled an older, brooding Steve McQueen, so much so that the same producers of McQueen's early hit The Blob cast Lansing for their follow-up film, The 4D Man. Despite starring roles on a few series, such as 87th Precinct, Lansing is probably better remembered for guest star and semi-regular roles like The Equalizer, particularly Twelve O'Clock High (in which his character was shockingly killed off) and a famous episode of Star Trek that was intended as a pilot for a series that was to have starred Lansing.
As the production was based in New York, The Equalizer drew on Broadway talent more than Hollywood, resulting in many soon-to-be-famous actors making early appearances on the show. Among them: Kevin Spacey, Vincent D'Onofrio, John Goodman, Stanley Tucci, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Laurence Fishburne, Ving Rhames, Cynthia Nixon, Chris Cooper, Oliver Platt, J.T. Walsh, David Alan Grier, Laurie Metcalf, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Moriarty, Amanda Plummer, and many others.
When Woodward suffered a heart attack in England during the hiatus between seasons two and three (but after the season premiere, "Blood & Wine," had already been shot), no less a talent than Robert Mitchum stepped in to temporarily replace him. That two-parter, with McCall apparently kidnapped by Soviet agents for a prisoner swap, and his long-estranged son's efforts to locate him with the help of ex-agent Richard Dyson (Mitchum), has precious little footage of Woodward (all of it obviously shot independently of the first unit) and plays like the basic plot might have been conceived as an ordinary episode then hastily reworked for Mitchum. (Dyson's dialogue sounds a lot like McCall; it's strange to hear it coming from Mitchum.) But even this is a pretty good show. Mitchum is in fine form, despite his age. It also serves to introduce yet another ex-agent, Harley Gage (Richard Jordan), who appeared in a number of subsequent third season episodes, pinch-hitting for Woodward during his long recovery. According to the making-of documentary included in this set, during most of the third season Woodward was restricted to just one (short) shooting day per episode.
Video & Audio
The Equalizer's four seasons each get their own DVD case (with an impressively study box), with six single-sided, dual-layered discs of episodes per season. The 4:3 standard size episodes don't appear time-compressed and include their original Stewart Copeland-composed scores and other original music*. The video transfers are serviceable but could look better. A disingenuous disclaimer insists this is because the elements are old and that the picture quality is basically unavoidable, but that's hogwash. A hundred-year-old silent film can look great if the original film elements existed and the transfer were good. These are simply old masters of the filmed-in-35mm show, possibly dating back to when it was first syndicated. Stereophonic sound for television effectively began in 1984, first introduced on the 26 July episode of The Tonight Show, and slowly permeated the prime-time network shows over the next few years. The Equalizer was among the first stereophonic programs in prime time, and the use of multichannel television sound (MTS) is quite imaginative for the era. It's not at all clear how and when stereo sound was introduced on The Equalizer. I didn't watch episodes, for the purpose of this review, in broadcast order, preferring to bounce around the show's four-season run. From what I can tell, most episodes seem to be stereophonic but scattered others are mono. It may be the stereo elements were lost when the show went into syndication, or that some episodes were produced that way for one reason or another. No subtitles, and the discs are Region 1 encoded.
Supplements include CI5: The New Professionals, a 13-episode series from 1999 starring Woodward. The show was a continuation of The Professionals (1977-83), the hugely and perennially popular British spy series starring Gordon Jackson, Martin Shaw, and Lewis Collins. With Jackson dead, Collins by this point living in America, and Shaw having moved on to bigger and better things, the new series was recast with Woodward in Jackson's role as the head of CI5, with new leads Colin Wells and Kal Weber doing most of the heavy lifting.
The original Professionals was, atypical for a British series, closely modeled after hit American programs of the period like Hawaii Five-O and Charlie's Angels. The Professionals was a slickly-made imitator, but not much more than that, inferior certainly to grittier, more realistic British programs like The Sweeney. CI5: The New Professionals is a bit more James Bondian, and clearly aiming for a wider international audience, with Weber and Lexa Doig (as the team's female member) both born in Toronto. With the exception of Woodward, they lack the charisma of Shaw and Collins, leading to complaints about these actors, and about the show's production values, which teeter some but not all of the time toward made-for-cable cost-cutting. (One early episode, however, was shot on location in South Africa, and it doesn't look all that cheap to me.) But overall it's really not a bad show nor all that different from the series that inspired it. Woodward, virtually playing a continuation his David Callan and Robert McCall characters, is fun to watch and a more than adequate replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Gordon Jackson. If the show comes off as a little cheesy, it's primarily because it sticks so closely to the ‘70s TV sensibilities of the original.
A Congregation of Ghosts, filmed immediately prior to Woodward's death, is a strange but rewarding little movie, filmed in 2009 but apparently never released in any form, theatrical or otherwise, until it was unceremoniously dumped into this boxed set. Its title misleadingly suggests a period ghost film, which it partly is, but it's also too intelligent and understated to appeal much to contemporary horror film fans.
The film cuts between two parallel stories. In the early 1930s, Reverend Frederick Densham (Woodward) becomes the vicar of Warleggan, a remote Cornish village. A colorful eccentric, Densham immediately clashes with his new flock by refusing to conduct mass (called such in the film, but presumably technically liturgy) and forbidding such sinful pleasures on church grounds as dancing, drinking, and even the playing of cards. Soon he is conducting services to an empty church, eventually fashioning cardboard and scarecrow-like parishioners to preach to. In his loneliness he adopts several dogs, but when they kill a flock of sheep and their owner threatens to shoot the dogs, Densham erects a high barbed wire fence around the church, further alienating the community.
Meanwhile, in the late-1960s, an aspiring, alcoholic writer (Nicholas Gleaves) and his wife (Susannah Doyle) buy Densham's long-abandoned home to facilitate the writer's new novel, but he gradually becomes obsessed with reconstructing Densham's past life, the atheist writer impressed by the fundamentalist Christian's sermons and refusal to acquiesce to his community's wants.
Woodward, minus his usual hairpiece (he was quite bald, it turns out), delivers a memorable performance. Just as The New Professionals sort of brought Callan and McCall full circle, A Congregation of Ghosts recalls Woodward's most famous movie role, as the pious Christian policeman spiritually adrift on an island populated solely by pagans in The Wicker Man (1973). A Congregation of Ghosts is an odd little movie, part historical biography (Rev. Frederick Densham actually existed, though apparently his eccentricities are exaggerated for the film), part ghost story marred somewhat by a weak Twilight Zone-type ending. There are a couple of subtly creepy moments though it's not really a horror film, but rather a character study of a man preaching to an empty house.
The picture and sound quality on CI5 and A Congregation of Ghosts is excellent and, except for the pilot to CI5, are 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen.
"The Story of The Equalizer" is a good, 43-minute featurette covering well most aspects of the show. Bearing a 2012 copyright notice (interviewees speculate about the possibility of an Equalizer movie) it features actors Keith Szarabajka (who played Mickey, McCall's frequent assistant) and William Zabka (as Scott, McCall's son), and writers and co-producers Coleman Luck and Robert Eisele, all of whom have nothing but nice things to say about Woodward. That same disc features an image gallery of negligible value and interest.
Finally, there's a rather thin 10-page booklet, one longing for an insightful essay covering the history of the show and pinpointing its lasting appeal. Instead, it's mostly cast biographies that read like they were cribbed from other sources, and a list of notable guest stars.
Virtually unique among ‘80s American television shows, The Equalizer is a series ripe for rediscovery, and it holds up well today. A DVD Talk Collector Series title.
* Nope. TV historian Stephen Bowie forwards this statement, which he spotted at the invaluable TVShowsonDVD.com: ""Just under 50% of the music for The Equalizer Series had to be replaced, as the licenses for those songs had expired. The cost of renewing them was not feasible, which is one of the reasons why NBCUniversal had to do the same for their Season 1 release, and opted not to release the remaining seasons of the series themselves. A lot of the music whose licenses had expired was replaced with covers of the original tracks, to maintain the authenticity of the series. Note that most of the music which was replaced is 'incidental' music. The still-intact original music on Visual Entertainment's DVD release includes all of the score written by Stewart Copeland." In its defense I didn't notice it on the episodes I watched, and this replacement is nothing like the sledgehammer approach taken on releases like The Odd Couple and the original WKRP DVDs. Thanks, Stephen.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.