The Equalizer is an American crime drama television series, originally airing on CBS from fall 1985 until late spring 1989. It starred Edward Woodward as a retired intelligence agent with a mysterious past, who uses the skills from his former career to exact justice on behalf of innocent people who are trapped in dangerous circumstances. The series combined elements of the spy, private investigator/police procedural, and vigilante genres.
The series featured British actor Edward Woodward as Robert McCall, a former covert operations officer of an unnamed US government intelligence organization, which was often referred to simply as “The Agency” or “The Company”, who tried to atone for his past by offering, usually free of charge, his services as a troubleshooter, a protector, and an investigator.
People in need found him through a newspaper classified ad: “Got a problem? Odds against you? Call the Equalizer: 212 555 4200.” When he began this business in the pilot episode, it was revealed the nickname “Equalizer” was bestowed on him by an operative named “Brahms”, played by Jerry Stiller.
Aided by a group of sometimes-mysterious contacts, some of whom dated back to his spying days, McCall traversed the streets of New York City, delivered justice upon bullies, corrupt police and politicians, hoodlums, mobsters, rapists, racists, murderers, kidnappers, drug dealers, and other “truly deserving” people. “Please do not do anything you will never live to regret,” he chides to a villain.
His contacts were also prone to human foibles, that ranged from egoism to domestic problems.
Many episodes focused on McCall interacting with “Control” (played by Robert Lansing), the unnamed head of the Manhattan office of the secret organization which McCall used to work for. As a general rule, however, the people answering the newspaper ad were unremarkable, average, and unknown.
McCall’s car, weapons, and other gadgetry at times featured significantly as elements in the plot.
- Edward Woodward as Robert McCall: A veteran operative of The Company who becomes disillusioned with sacrificing ordinary people for the perceived greater good. He quits and takes out a newspaper advert offering his services to those who need it as The Equalizer. McCall himself is divorced, a “lost dad” long estranged from his son, Scott (William Zabka). Scott comes back into his life as a young adult who is at first bitterly critical of his father’s world, but then becomes drawn into that world to the dismay of both of his parents. McCall also lost a woman he was in love with, a fellow operative named Manon Brevard, and discovers that she had secretly given birth to his daughter Yvette. McCall appears to be independently wealthy, as although he almost never takes payment for his work, he owns a high-end apartment, is always well dressed and drives a Jaguar XJ6 car (registered 5809-AUG). He enjoys classical music (playing the piano himself), fine wine and dining and is occasionally seen dating and trying to live a “normal” life, only for work or his past to get in the way. His father, William, was a British Army officer; he was killed in Egypt in 1952 when McCall was 19 and also an army officer. His mother was American, a working class entertainer and his father was disinherited by his family and shunned by his regiment for seen to be marrying beneath himself. Woodward was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Drama series four years in a row for his performance, but never won.
- Keith Szarabajka as Mickey Kostmayer (Also starring, 56 episodes): A former Navy SEAL, who was in the brig for a crime he didn’t commit until McCall cleared him and recommended he join The Company. Often seen surveilling suspects or protecting witnesses. Always laconic, very little of his personal life is given away although he is seen to enjoy fishing in his free time. His brother is a priest, also in the city, and needs the help of McCall and Mickey in one episode. While McCall is almost always dressed in a suit, Mickey is usually seen in jeans and wearing a watch cap and army overcoat. A black Dodge van is his usual mode of transport.
- Robert Lansing as Control (29 episodes). A contemporary of McCall’s in The Company who has risen to a senior rank; he and McCall are usually friendly, although at times Control’s focus on the mission causes friction with McCall’s desire to avoid collateral damage. Although McCall does not always agree with Control’s methods, he usually helps his old friend when younger and even more ruthless agents try to force him out. For his part Control allows McCall to utilize Company men like Mickey, Jimmy and Sterno provided they are not on assignment.
- Mark Margolis as Jimmy (16 episodes). Another company veteran and an expert in surveillance. Usually brought in by McCall when high tech bugs or wiretaps are required. He is divorced and almost always has a story about his ex-wife to tell McCall.
- William Zabka as Scott McCall (12 episodes). McCall’s estranged son when the series begins, their growing relationship is one of the recurring themes throughout the series. Scott is an accomplished musician but is drawn more and more deeply in to his Father’s world as the series progresses. Scott also knows of the kinship between himself, Yvette, and their father…although McCall has sworn him to secrecy.
- Chad Redding as Sgt. Alice Shepard (11 episodes). An NYPD detective who often assists McCall, recognizing that he can take action where she cannot.
- Richard Jordan as Harley Gage (10 episodes). Another disillusioned Company veteran, Gage was brought in by Richard Dyson (played by Robert Mitchum) to track down McCall when he goes missing in Mission McCall, and ends up staying on and helping people with McCall. This was done to lighten the load on Woodward after he suffered a heart attack, although strangely Keith Szarabajka was rarely featured in episodes with Jordan.
- Maureen Anderman as Pete O’Phelan (9 episodes). The widow of a former colleague of McCall’s, and a former operative herself. She owns a bar that McCall and Mickey frequent, and also helps out with their missions from time to time.
- Ron O’Neal as Lt. Isadore Smalls (7 episodes). An NYPD Detective who assists McCall.
- Irving Metzman as Sterno (6 episodes). Another Company man, specializing in computers and finance. He is often seen eating, particularly fast food, which generally annoys McCall’s more refined tastes.
- Steven Williams as Lt. Jefferson Burnett (5 episodes). An NYPD detective in the first season, who is aware of McCall’s past and is initially distrustful of him.
The show had quite a number of notable guest stars, many of whom became major stars within a few years of their appearances. Eight-year-old Macaulay Culkin appeared in one episode as a kidnap victim. Nine-year-old Melissa Joan Hart appeared as a young girl whom McCall protected from her ex-con father. Christian Slater appeared as a high-school student in the episode “Joyride”. Kevin Spacey played a corrupt police officer. Ed O’Neill played a doctor in the first season episode “The Children’s Song”. John Goodman played a single father who was tricked by co-worker Joe Morton into taking part in a robbery. Goodman’s frequent co-star Steve Buscemi appeared in the same episode, which marks the first time the two were on screen together.
Stewart Copeland, who composed the show’s theme song and much of its music, made a cameo as a pickpocket. Vincent D’Onofrio appeared twice in the series, playing the arsonist son of a mobster in his first appearance, and a mentally-challenged man falsely accused of murder in his second. Adam Ant played a villain in an episode that also featured J.T. Walsh, David Alan Grier, Lori Petty and Luis Guzman.
Adam Horovitz of the Beastie Boys made a rare acting appearance in an episode alongside Alex Winter. Bradley Whitford appeared as a brutal young thug whose terrorizing of a hitch-hiking young couple leads to a siege of the weaponless McCall and his son who are away on a father-son weekend. Melissa Sue Anderson played McCall’s daughter (unbeknownst to herself) by an old girlfriend; in real life, Anderson was, and is the wife of series co-creator Michael Sloan.
Frank Whaley, Sam Rockwell, and Jerry O’Connell appeared in the same episode as members of a teen robbery gang. Shelby Anderson lent her singing ability as a lounge singer in an episode that also involved her giant panda, ZhenZhen. Singer Vitamin C appeared in two episodes under her real name, Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick.
Other well-known stars at the time, as well as future stars, who appeared on the show included Robert Mitchum, Telly Savalas, Maureen Stapleton, E. G. Marshall, Laurence Fishburne, Jane Kaczmarek, Lauren Tom, Patricia Clarkson, Jennifer Grey, Reginald VelJohnson, Quentin Crisp, Laurie Metcalf, Frances Fisher, Oliver Platt, Patricia Richardson, William H. Macy, Robin Curtis, Roma Maffia, Olympia Dukakis, Michael Moriarty, Chris Cooper, Michael Rooker, David Strathairn, Charles S. Dutton, Cynthia Nixon, Bruce Payne, Laura San Giacomo, Kasi Lemmons, Al Leong, Ving Rhames, Amanda Plummer, Daniel Davis, Jon Polito, Jasmine Guy, Mark Linn-Baker, Meat Loaf, Lori Loughlin, Michael Wincott, Tony Shalhoub, Anthony Zerbe, Michael Cerveris, and the singing duo of Ashford and Simpson.
The series also made good use of its New York City filming location/setting by employing actors who were appearing on Broadway in the late 1980s as guest stars. These included Terrence Mann, Frances Ruffelle, Kevin Conway, J. Smith-Cameron, Philip Bosco, Caitlin Clarke, Josef Sommer, Jim Dale, Christine Baranski, and Anne Twomey.
Additionally, several former stage, and screen co-stars of Edward Woodward appeared on the show. These included Brian Bedford, Tammy Grimes (real-life mother of the aforementioned Ms. Plummer), Gwen Verdon, Sandy Dennis, Jenny Agutter, Shirley Knight, and Sylvia Sidney. Harvard-educated Shakespearean theatre, Broadway stage, screen and film actor Richard Jordan appeared as the character Harley Gage in 10 episodes.
Woodward’s second wife, Michele Dotrice, appeared as the central character in the season 2 episode, “Heartstrings”. Her father, Roy Dotrice, also guest-starred on the show in season 4’s “Trial By Ordeal”. Edward Woodward’s son, actor Tim Woodward, appeared as McCall’s father in a flashback scene in the episode “Prisoners of Conscience”, also in season 4.
The show’s theme music was created by composer/performer Stewart Copeland.
Six episodes in the 1988 season were scored by Joseph Conlan.
The show ran for four seasons of 22 episodes each. It was initially renewed for a fifth season (causing Keith Szarabajka to turn down a role on Midnight Caller). However, the show was later canceled due to a row between CBS and Universal Studios over the renewal of Murder, She Wrote.
In The Story of The Equalizer, created for the DVD box set, executive producer Coleman Luck also stated that Universal requested a script for a crossover episode with Magnum, P.I. despite the objections of the crew due to the vastly different tones of the two shows. Ultimately, the crossover did not happen and the episode was re-written as “Beyond Control”.