Dennis Waterman, badass TV star of The Sweeney, Minder and New Tricks – obituary
Behind this character, however, was a highly professional actor who had been a seasoned performer before emerging from his teenage years; and this despite a course that conferred no advantage.
Dennis Waterman was born on February 24, 1948 in Clapham, south London, the ninth child of Rose Waterman and her husband Harry, a British Rail ticket collector. His parents were constantly at each other’s throats, but Dennis remembers being “spoiled to death by everyone.”
His brother Peter was a talented boxer who won British and European welterweight titles, and Dennis was introduced to boxing as a child. Yet he also showed an aptitude for acting, and at age seven appeared in a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Southwark Shakespeare Festival.
The following year his family moved to a housing estate in Putney, south-west London; and, after failing his 11+, he was accepted by Corona Academy, an acting school in Ravenscourt Park. Early on, he got paid roles in movies and on TV, avoiding having to produce stipends.
At the age of 11 he starred as the kidnapped diabetic child in the film Night Train for Inverness (1960). A year later he was accepted into the Royal Shakespeare Company and spent nine months in Stratford-upon-Avon.
When he was cast as the lead in the BBC television series William in 1962, he had never heard of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books and deemed the character “a posh moron”. But that led to a role in a series called Fair Exchange, which required her to work in Hollywood.
The director of Corona Academy was his chaperone and each day they were driven to the Desilu Productions studio in a Lincoln Continental. With that experience behind him, and still at just 15, Dennis went back to acting school.
In 1964 he took to the West End stage alongside Sir Ralph Richardson in Graham Greene’s Carving a Statue, then joined the company at the Royal Court, where he appeared in Edward Bond’s controversial play Saved. Around this time, he began living with Penny Dixon, a former drama student who in 1972 would become his first wife.
In 1968, Waterman was seen in his first starring film role, in Up the Junction (1968), based on Nell Dunn’s book. He played Pete, the big badass who lures Chelsea’s daughter Polly into Battersea. The role of Polly was played by (“delightful”) Suzy Kendall, and she and Waterman had an affair, although she was then Dudley Moore’s girlfriend.
After starring alongside Christopher Lee in Scars of Dracula (1970), Waterman made a film with Austrian-born star Romy Schneider, who also became his lover. His marriage to Penny Dixon ended shortly thereafter.
He was a member of the acting company which starred in The Sextet (1972), a BBC 2 series which included Dennis Potter’s drama Follow the Yellow Brick Road, and he later appeared in Potter’s Joe’s Ark (Play for Today, 1974).
The Sweeney first aired in 1974 and made Waterman a household name. Produced by Ted Childs and directed by Tom Clegg, it aimed for a cinema verité style that would appeal to fans of films such as The French Connection.