The Equalizer Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

To date, the CBS action-drama series "The Equalizer" has been revived twice since leaving the airwaves in 1989. It served as the inspiration for two feature films, both starring Denzel Washington, and most recently generated a reboot starring Queen Latifah as a single mom-turned-vigilante. What was it about the Emmy-nominated and Edgar-winning original series, which starred British actor Edward Woodward, that has earned such enduring popularity?

"The Equalizer" concerned a former spy (played by Woodward) who decided to atone for crimes he may have committed while undercover by offering his services to individuals in need that couldn't get help from the police or other means. Woodward's steely presence, and the character's strong moral core, added complexity to what might have played as a simple revenge story. The series also featured strong writing, plenty of action, and an impressive, eclectic cast of recurring and guest performances that included early appearances by Sam Rockwell, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Vincent D'Onofrio, Christian Slater, and William H. Macy. 

The recent remakes and reboots have spurred many viewers to track down the original "Equalizer" in syndication and on home video. Those joining McCall for the first time may note that many of the cast and guest stars are still active on screen, while others have died. Below is a list of notable regular and guest actors from "The Equalizer" who you may not know passed away.

Please note: spoilers may follow.

Brit actor Edward Woodward was an unlikely US TV star

Though an established, award-winning actor in his native England, Edward Woodward was not quite a household name in the United States in the mid-1980s, save for those who saw his performances in "The Wicker Man" and the powerful Australian drama "Breaker Morant." But his turn as spy turned vigilante-for-hire Robert McCall on "The Equalizer" changed his Stateside profile overnight. Woodward's forceful performance netted a Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations, though his tenure as a Hollywood star proved short-lived.

When "Equalizer" ran its course in 1989, Woodward appeared in a handful of notable TV features, including a celebrated 1985 adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" with George C. Scott, but his return to series work with "Over My Dead Body" in 1990 lasted less than a season. If the downward turn bothered Woodward, he didn't show it: he returned to England and starred in numerous series, including the BAFTA-nominated "Common as Muck," and the occasional feature, most notably Edgar Wright's "Hot Fuzz," which cast him as neighborhood watch captain Tom Weaver. Woodward died at the age of 79 at his home in Cornwall, England, on November 16, 2009.

TV vet Robert Lansing was in Control

Though Robert McCall answered to no one in his equalizing business, he did receive missions from "Control," a shadowy figure who was McCall's former supervisor at the Company. The pair shared a tense but cooperative relationship — Control tapped McCall's expertise at problem-solving, and looked the other way when McCall reached out to other operatives to help him with difficult cases. Their relationship was marked by a sense of mutual suspicion but respect.

Actor Robert Lansing wore Control's trademark bowties for 29 episodes of "The Equalizer." A veteran of the small screen who starred in two popular '60s series — the police drama "87th Precinct" and the WWII action series "12 O'Clock High" — Lansing was also a frequent guest star on other programs, including "The Twilight Zone," "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" and "Star Trek," where he played Gary Seven in the Original Series episode (and planned spin-off) "Assignment Earth." Lansing reunited with "Equalizer" executive producer Michael Sloan for "Kung Fu: The Legend Continues," but his tenure on the show was cut short; cancer claimed Lansing's life at the age of 66 on October 23, 1994.

Richard Jordan took over as The Equalizer for nine episodes

When Edward Woodward suffered a heart attack during the third season of "The Equalizer," the producers brought in actor Richard Jordan to serve as his temporary replacement for nine episodes. Cast as fellow company vet Harley Gage, Jordan made his debut in the Season 3 two-parter "Mission: McCall." In the episodes William Zabka (the current "Cobra Kai" star, who played McCall's son, Scott) mounted a search for his missing father, who had been abducted (and shot) by the KGB. Eventually, Gage took over the vengeance business for McCall while he recuperated, and wrapped out his tenure in Season 3's "Something Green."

A talented, Emmy-nominated actor with a knack for playing morally ambiguous characters, Jordan was best remembered for co-starring roles in "Logan's Run" and David Lynch's "Dune," as well as "The Secret of My Success" and "The Hunt for Red October." His most memorable turn was most likely as the diabolically clever serial killer who haunts reporter Kurt Russell in the 1985 thriller "The Mean Season." Jordan made his final screen appearance in the Civil War miniseries "Gettysburg" in 1993; he was diagnosed with brain cancer that same year and died at the age of 56 on August 30, 1993.

"Super Fly" star Ron O'Neal was McCall's cop ally

Even Robert McCall needed help from time to time. In those situations, he fell back on a host of fellow operatives — and on occasion, members of the New York Police Department. Chief among these were Lt. Isadore Smalls, who appeared in seven episodes between Seasons 1 and 2, and Lt. Jefferson Burnett, who served in six episodes beginning with the pilot through Season 1. Ron O'Neal played Smalls, while Steven Williams of "21 Jump Street" and "Supernatural" fame was Burnett.

Steven Williams continues to work on TV, most recently on "All Rise," but O'Neal died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 66 on January 14, 2004. O'Neal rose to fame in the early 1970s as the star of "Super Fly," a low-budget Black action drama about an ambitious cocaine dealer looking to go straight. It was a massive hit, and seemed to signal O'Neal as an up-and-coming star, but the failure of its sequel, "Super Fly T.N.T." (which he also directed) upended his career. O'Neal spent much of the next few decades working as a character actor in features and on TV, most notably as the conflicted Cuban general in "Red Dawn" and Jasmine Guy's wealthy father on "A Different World."

Coen Brothers fave Jon Polito brought menace to four episodes

An duplicitous, explosive figure in dozens of features and television from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, Jon Polito is perhaps best remembered for his collaborations with the Coen Brothers — he's high-hat hating Johnny Caspar in "Miller's Crossing," Hollywood yes-man Lou Breeze in "Barton Fink," and a lingering PI in "The Big Lebowski," among others — and Detective Steve Crosetti in two seasons of "Homicide: Life on the Street." Between these efforts, and countless other series and movies, Polito logged four appearances on "The Equalizer."

In typical fashion, Polito played intense types in his four guest shots: he was a menacing associate of McCall in Season 1's "Unpunished Crime" and a thug threatening McCall's daughter (semi-regular Melissa Sue Anderson) in the Season 2 two-parter "Memories of Manon." Polito worked at a breathless clip for the next three decades, logging recurring roles on "Early Edition," "Ghost Whisperer," "Bunheads," and "Modern Family," in addition to numerous voice-over roles (he voiced Hammerhead on "Ultimate Spider-Man"). Polito died of multiple myeloma at the age of 65 on September 1, 2016.

Frank Adonis rose from "Equalizer" bit player to Scorsese regular

Frank Adonis made four appearances on "The Equalizer," playing essentially the same role in each turn: He was an unnamed limo driver in Season 1's "The Distant Fire," and essayed a similar role in three more episodes, concluding with Season 4's "Past Imperfect." There isn't a great deal of variety in the roles — though Adonis did get to carry out an attempted hit on guest star Hector Elizondo in "Past Imperfect" before catching a bullet for his pains — but Adonis had street authenticity to spare.

That presence made Adonis a go-to for gritty characters in features and TV for nearly four decades. He made his screen debut in an uncredited role in "The French Connection" and continued to log tough guys in Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull," "Goodfellas" and "Casino." Appearances like these helped earn Adonis more screen time in his post- "Equalizer" appearances, and he moved up to supporting roles in "True Romance," "Bad Lieutenant," "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and on "The Sopranos." Adonis, who also wrote and directed independent films, died from what was described as "various health issues" at the age of 83 on December 26, 2018.

Leonardo Cimino disappeared into two "Equalizer" characters

A great character actor can disappear so completely into a role that you forget you're watching a performance. In some cases, they can even make you forget their previous appearances. Such was the case with stage, TV and film actor Leonardo Cimino, who logged three guest shots on "The Equalizer." 

In Season 2's "Counterfire," he played a jailed Mafioso who sends his hot-headed son (Vincent D'Onofrio) to stop a witness from testifying in a case that could extend his prison stay. Two seasons later, Cimino made his first of two appearances as Dr. Molinari, a helpful medico who assisted McCall in a case involving a fatal disease outbreak ("The Visitation") and then again in a string of "angel of death" murders committed by a rogue paramedic in "17 Zebra."

Cimino, whose career began on stage in the late 1930s, parlayed his unique look — slender, small in stature, but intensely focused — in films and on television from the 1950s to the mid-2000s. His post-"Equalizer" credits are perhaps best summed up by the Scary German Guy in "The Monster Squad," though his long list of credits include "The Freshman," "Moonstruck," "The Seventh Sign," and "Waterworld." Cimino made his final screen appearance opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" in 2007; five years later, he died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the age of 94 on March 3, 2012.

Cult fave Michael Parks turned up in two episodes

Michael Parks enjoyed cult fame for decades — first as the rebellious star of the '70s youthquake series "Then Came Bronson," and then as a member of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith's acting repertory in "From Dusk Till Dawn," "Kill Bill," the utterly bizarre "Tusk" and "Red State." Between these efforts, Parks was featured in dozens of movies and TV series, including two appearances on "The Equalizer." 

Parks' soulful qualities were put to excellent use in his first guest shot in Season 2's "Nocturne, as he played an embittered colleague of McCall's who aids him in assisting a blind woman (Jessica Harper, who co-starred with Parks in the 1979 cult horror film "The Evictors") in tracking down the man who assaulted her.

The actor's second stint at stardom began soon after his "Equalizer" appearances. He was cast as the sinister Jean Renault in "Twin Peaks," which was followed by his first turn as tough Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in "From Dusk Till Dawn." He would reprise the role in both volumes of "Kill Bill" and the Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez anthology "Grindhouse" between high-profile supporting turns in films like "Argo" (as comic book legend Jack Kirby) and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." Smith cast him in major offbeat roles in "Tusk" and "Red State," while Mel Gibson tapped his natural grit for his revenge thriller "Blood Father." Parks died at the age of 77 on May 9, 2017, and was buried privately at sea, per his request.

"Animal House" star Verna Bloom tangled with McCall twice

A feisty presence in features like "High Plains Drifter" and "Animal House," actress Verna Bloom enjoyed prime guest roles in two "Equalizer" episodes. She starred opposite Michael Parks in Season 3's "Target of Choice" and then returned the following year for Season 4's "Race Traitors," with McCall infiltrating a neo-Nazi organization (that counted legendary rocker John Cale of the Velvet Underground among its soldiers).

Bloom, a Massachusetts native, moved into films in the late '60s after drawing positive reviews for her turn in the Broadway run of "Marat/Sade." She held her own opposite a host of tough screen stars, from Clint Eastwood in "High Plains Drifter" and "Honkytonk Man" to Peter Fonda and Warren Oates in the cult Western "The Hired Hand" and Robert Forster in "Medium Cool." A regular TV guest star in series like "Cagney and Lacey" and "The West Wing," Bloom closed her big screen career with roles in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" and "The Last Temptation of Christ"; she died from complications of dementia at the age of 80 on January 9, 2019.

Eurocult hero Tomas Milian played tough in two episodes

If you're a fan of Italian Westerns and action movies from the 1960s and 1970s, Tomas Milian is a familiar face. The Cuban-born actor, who trained at the Actors' Studio in the 1950s, became a star of countless European arthouse and grindhouse films during the heyday of the spaghetti Western. Milian played tough, eccentric heroes and villains in such classics as "The Big Gundown" and "Face to Face," as well as numerous Italian crime thrillers. When the Italian film industry wound down in the late '70s, Milian returned to the United States and found steady work on TV, including two episodes of "The Equalizer."

He played the former head of the Cuban secret police who helps McCall fight a street gang in Season 1's "Reign of Terror," and a Cuban expatriate turned government agent pursuing a U.S. intelligence officer in Season 3's "Shadow Play." Those appearances were followed by a string of major film and TV appearances for Milian in the 1990s and 2000s, including Oliver Stone's "JFK" and Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic," as well as guest shots on "Oz," "Miami Vice," and "Law and Order." Milian died of a stroke at the age of 84 on March 22, 2017.

"The Equalizer" was a stepping stone for Lynne Thigpen

Lynne Thigpen hadn't quite attained stardom by the time she appeared in the Season 3 two-parter "Blood & Wine." Though a stage veteran — she appeared in the pre-Broadway run of "Godspell" and its 1973 film version — she had amassed a handful of film and TV credits prior to her "Equalizer" appearance, most notably as the silky-voiced DJ in "The Warriors," though only her mouth was seen on screen in that classic film. Her "Equalizer" appearance was also somewhat perfunctory — she's a cleaning lady — but within a few years, Thigpen would be a familiar face to millions of viewers.

A featured turn as the mother of an expelled student in "Lean on Me" led to more high-profile roles on "L.A. Law" and Ron Howard's "The Paper," but her real breakout came as The Chief, the pun-loving host/announcer on PBS's "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" as well as iterations of the eponymous game series. The exposure on the children's program and games led to regular and recurring roles on "The District," "All My Children," and "Bear in the Big Blue House," for which she voiced Luna, the Moon. Her feature roles also increased during this period, including Michael Mann's "The Insider" and the Adam Sandler comedy "Anger Management." The latter proved to be Thigpen's final screen role; she died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54 on March 12, 2003.

Broadway legend Gwen Verdon lent McCall a hand

Being a friend of Robert McCall's could be dangerous to your health. Just ask Kelly Sterling, a former operative brought into an investigation of a serial killer targeting single women through a lonely hearts newspaper ad in Season 1's "Unnatural Causes." Sterling — a tough cookie in her own right — signed up to pose as the killer's next intended victim with the belief that McCall would show up to stop the maniac. But when he got tied up with the episode's other storyline — an escort-abusing pimp — he arrived too late to save Kelly.

Portraying Kelly in "Unnatural Causes" was legendary Broadway actress Gwen Verdon, a four-time Tony winner whose life and collaborations with choreographer/director Bob Fosse were the subject of the FX miniseries "Fosse/Verdon." By the time of her appearance on "The Equalizer," Verdon was focused primarily on acting, and drew critical praise for appearances in "Cocoon" and "Marvin's Room," as well as Emmy nominations for "Magnum, PI" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." Verdon, who was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1998, died in her sleep on October 18, 2000. That day, all marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed in her honor.

Character actor Trey Wilson ticked off McCall

Character actor Trey Wilson made a name for himself playing hard-bitten types — the unpainted furniture king Nathan Arizona in the Coen Brothers' "Raising Arizona," industrialist Beetroot McKinley in "Twins," and baseball coach Skip Riggins in "Bull Durham" among them. Most of these characters had a redeeming quality or two, but this wasn't the case for his turn on "Equalizer."

In Season 2's "A Place to Stay," Wilson played Peter Marstand, a magazine publisher with a dark side — namely, child pornography. A thoroughly loathsome character with a prurient interest in his side business, he was exactly the sort of high-profile creep that irked McCall, who promised to make life difficult for Marstand if he weaseled out of any charges.

The Texas-born Wilson was a veteran of independent features and the Broadway stage for a decade prior to scoring his breakout role as Nathan Arizona, which ran in theaters in the same year as his "Equalizer" episode. Critical praise for his comic turn led to supporting roles in a slew of popular movies, including "Married to the Mob" and "Great Balls of Fire!" Wilson was set to reunite with the Coen Brothers to play Leo (the role that eventually went to Albert Finney) in "Miller's Crossing," but died from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 40 on January 16, 1989.

Ray Sharkey was a dangerous date on "The Equalizer"

Award-winning actor Ray Sharkey cultivated a reputation for edginess, both on and off-screen, and put that image to good use in the Season 1 episode "Desperately." Blanche Baker ("Sixteen Candles") starred as a woman who, on a whim, picked up a man (Sharkey) in a bar; upon arrival at a hotel room they found another man there — whom her intended one-night stand then murdered. Reaching out to McCall for protection from Sharkey, Baker was pursued by a man relentless in his determination to silence the only witness to his crime.

Sharkey rose to fame in 1980 on the strength of his performance as a hot-wired music promoter in "The Idolmaker," which earned him a Golden Globe. Though his film career faltered, Sharkey enjoyed a thriving career on television, most notably as the mobster Sonny Steelgrave on "Wiseguy" and as U.S. Attorney Harry Breitel on "Crime Story," both of which aired after his "Equalizer" appearance. But Sharkey's personal struggles undid the popularity afforded by this roles; he struggled with substance addiction throughout his career, which cost him a role on the television series "The Hat Squad." Sharkey died of complications from AIDS at the age of 40 on June 11, 1993.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).