Mr. Woodward, hoarse and rheumy from a cold, was preparing for the final scene in an episode of ''The Equalizer,'' a new action series produced in New York City that began last night on CBS. As Robert McCall, a debonair former government intelligence agent turned avenger-for-hire, Mr. Woodward has won critical plaudits for a crisp performance that is by turns angry and enigmatic.
Yet the 55-year-old Mr. Woodward seems to defy the tradition of the youthful and muscular television crime fighter. He is British. His hair is gray. He has a paunch. He huffs a bit after the chase has ended. He even rebuffs - reluctantly, one surmises - overtures from beautiful women, who are quite mad about him.
The sex appeal, in fact, helps
explain why CBS agreed to hire him for
the series. Reactions after the showing
of a sample episode of ''The Equalizer''
to selected audiences showed that
''while the concept had inherent appeal
for men, the lead character appealed to
women,'' said David Poltrack, vice
president of research for the CBS
Broadcast Group. ''Women saw him as
strong, virile, in control, someone to
be relied on, but he presented sensitive
qualities that balance the hard edge.''
Appeared on Broadway
A 40-year veteran of stage, film and television in Britain, Mr. Woodward is best known to audiences here as the star of ''Breaker Morant,'' an Australian film released in 1980 about an incident in the Boer War. He lived in New York for three years during the 1960's, when he received rave notices for his starring roles on Broadway in ''Rattle of a Simple Man,'' a comedy by Charles Dyer, and ''High Spirits,'' a musical version of the Noel Coward's ''Blithe Spirit.''
With five episodes of ''The Equalizer'' completed, Mr. Woodward has found significant differences between working in American and British television. ''The pressure of time here is unbelievable,'' he said recently on the set of Robert McCall's newly built apartment cum office filled with contemporary furniture, primitive sculpture, Oriental rugs, and antique English prints.
''We shoot 48 minutes of screen time in seven days,'' Mr. Woodward said. ''The call sheets list 15 scenes a day. You work 17 hours a day.'' The series uses an average of 10 New York City locations each week.
Even on series television in Britain the pace is far more leisurely, said Mr. Woodward, who starred in the British detective series ''Callan.''
''After seven years we had only done
42 episodes,'' he said. On American
commercial television the average
television series yields 22 episodes
Prejudice Against TV Work
The other difference, Mr. Woodward said, is that ''on our side of the water a project is given to a production company and it is totally theirs.'' Here, he said, ''you do get a lot of people with something to say. Sometimes it seems there are 24 producers round every corner.''
Mr. Woodward has also been struck by a prejudice against television work in this country that is nonexistent in Britain, where leading actors routinely glide among roles in television, theater and film.
''I was fascinated coming from a land that is still very class conscious to actually come here and find the most astonishing snobbery within the entertainment business,'' he said. ''Not only is there a seeming bias against television, but what is extraordinary, people who work in the morning on television are struggling to get into the afternoon and people in the afternoon are struggling to get into prime time. Here it seems that acting is judged by the time of day you do it.''
To the producers and directors of
''The Equalizer,'' Mr. Woodward is a
refreshing change from many of his
American counterparts. ''A lot of actors
like to say 'let's rewrite,' '' said
James McAdams, executive producer of the
series. ''He has a respect for the
writers. If he has a concern he'll say
so, and he limits his comments to his
Critical of Vigilantism
Some critics have taken exception to the blatant vigilantism inherent in ''The Equalizer.'' Robert McCall takes the law into his own hands, often with the aid of guns and other violent means.
The program's producers acknowledge the validity of some of the criticism. ''We are trying to take a realistic approach but it is probably subject to some questions,'' said Mr. McAdams. ''Putting an ad in the paper and taking on great odds is something that dances around the realities of law enforcement.''
At the same time, Mr. McAdams contends the character's actions are kept within bounds. ''TV does suggest certain kinds of behavior,'' said Mr. McAdams. ''It is important as we go along that we indicate the Equalizer is a court of last resort, only when other means are exhausted.''
Mr. Woodward said he likes his character because ''I am fascinated by strong men with feet of clay.''
Married to Michelle Dotrice, a daughter of the actor Roy Dotrice, Mr. Woodward is the father of a two-year-old girl - the source of his cold, he ruefully admitted - as well as three grown children by an earlier marriage. Mr. Woodward said he had been ''capitivated'' since his arrival earlier this year by such American television programs as ''Magnum P.I.'' for their ''delineation of character and total reality of individual performances.''
One program he is unlikely to see any time soon, however, is ''The Equalizer.''
''The first time I was in front of a camera I watched the dailies and I cried from the viewing room to the railway station, I was so horrified by what I thought I looked like,'' he said. ''Only in recent years have I been able to watch repeats. Maybe I'll see the show if it's repeated.''