Soon after leaving RADA, John Thaw made his formal stage début in A Shred of Evidence at the Liverpool Playhouse and was awarded a contract with the theatre. His first film role was a bit part in the adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) starring Tom Courtenay and he also acted on-stage opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Semi-Detached (1962) by David Turner. He appeared in several episodes of the BBC police series Z-Cars in 1963–64 as a detective constable. Between 1964 and 1966, he starred in two series of the ABC Weekend Television/ITV production Redcap, playing the hard-nosed military policeman Sergeant John Mann. He was also a guest star in an early episode of The Avengers. In 1967 he appeared in Bat Out of Hell. In 1967 he appeared in the Granada TV/ITV series, Inheritance, alongside James Bolam and Michael Goodliffe, as well as appearing in TV plays such as The Talking Head and episodes of series such as Budgie, where he played against type (opposite Adam Faith) as the son of an elderly prostitute Budgie is “noncing” for: an effeminate failed playwright with a full beard and a Welsh accent.
Thaw will perhaps be best remembered for two television roles: the hard-bitten, tough-talking Flying Squaddetective Jack Regan in The Sweeney (1975–1978), and the quietly spoken, introspective, well-educated and bitter Detective Chief Inspector Endeavour Morse in Inspector Morse (1987–93, with later specials until 2000). His role as Regan in the Thames Television/ITV series, along with two film spin-offs, established him as a major star in the United Kingdom. Thaw was only 32 when he was cast in The Sweeney, although many viewers thought he was older.
Alongside his put-upon Detective Sergeant Robert “Robbie” Lewis (Kevin Whately), Morse became a high-profile character—”a cognitive curmudgeon with his love of classical music, his drinking, his classic Jaguar and spates of melancholy”. According to The Guardian, “Thaw was the definitive Morse, grumpy, crossword-fixated, drunk, slightly anti-feminist, and pedantic about grammar.” Inspector Morse became one of the UK’s most loved TV series; at its peak in the mid-90’s, ratings hit 18 million people, about one third of the British population. He won “Most Popular Actor” at the 1999 National Television Awards and won two BAFTA awards for his role as Morse.
He subsequently played liberal working-class Lancastrian barrister James Kavanagh in Kavanagh QC (1995–99, and a special in 2001). Thaw also appeared in two sitcoms—Thick as Thieves (London Weekend/ITV, 1974) with Bob Hoskins and Home to Roost (Yorkshire/ITV, 1985–90). Thaw is mainly known in America for the Morse series, as well as the BBC series A Year in Provence (1993) with Lindsay Duncan.
He appeared in a number of films for director Richard Attenborough, including Cry Freedom, where he portrayed the conservative South African justice minister Jimmy Kruger (for which he received a BAFTA nomination for Best Supporting Actor), and Chaplin alongside Robert Downey Jr.
Thaw also appeared in the TV adaptation of the Michelle Magorian book Goodnight Mister Tom (Carlton Television/ITV). It won “Most Popular Drama” at the National Television Awards, 1999.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Thaw appeared in productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre. He was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1981 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrewsin the foyer of the National Theatre in London
John Thaw died in 2002 at the age of 60.