Blue Heelers: articles

Happy Heeler counts his blessings

When John Wood, 55, looks around at the actors who have come and gone on Blue Heelers, Australia's most enduring drama series, he feels a tinge of pride. Surprisingly, however, there is little envy of the successes some of them have found after they have moved on. "I don't think I have a lot to prove, although there are certainly still a lot of things I want to try," he says. But the things in the latter basket are more artistic challenges rather than career-altering pursuits. He wants to direct an episode or two of Heelers (he has already written a couple of episodes) and then tackle directing for the stage—his most enduring love. Otherwise he is happy to be cruising into his eighth year on Blue Heelers and other artistic passions have no urgency. "To be honest, this sort of job security at my time of life is really rather pleasant," Wood says. "Plus, I am really very lucky that I'm playing a character role (Mt. Thomas station boss Snr-Sgt Tom Croydon) that is also a leading character. I feel extremely blessed."

The success and the durability of Blue Heelers aside, Wood is quick to remind us that "the whole reason I became an actor was because of my love for the theatre". Wood's CV points out he failed his school Leaving Certificate because he was too wrapped up in a school play. "I thought I had destroyed my life," he says. "I'd failed school and I had no future." His chance to 'redeem' himself came when he was accepted into NIDA and, at 21, packed everything he owned into his sports car and took off for Sydney. Not long after he was joined by girlfriend Leslie. They married in 1970 and are now celebrating 30 years of marriage and two adult children, Meg and Lexie. During his two years in Sydney after graduating from NIDA, Wood guest starred in TV shows such as Barrier Reef and he toured country NSW with an STC production of Death of a Salesman. Meanwhile, Leslie went back to University to finish her arts degree and they had their first child, Meg.

Leslie figures prominently in all of Wood's life and career decisions. He is immensely proud of her and her achievements. (She is a career administrator with neighbourhood houses and learning centres.) "She's an incredibly intelligent and forthright woman," he says. "I imagine she sees the potential shallowness of the situation I'm sometimes in. And while she's aware also of the hard work one has to put in, she is not sucked in by the glamour of this world." Leslie had her own intimate taste of John's world during their early years in Sydney. As part of her drama course at university she had to direct a play and, says Wood, she put together a great cast, which included himself, Shane Porteous (A Country Practice), Michael Caton (The Sullivans), Robyn Nevin (later to be STC artistic director) and Lex Marinos (Kingswood Country).

In recent years Wood has been able to return to the theatre for occasional roles. He starred in the MTC production of the hit French play Art, which also featured two thespian mates (William McInnes and Kim Gyngell) and a director (Roger Hodgman), who has also called the shots on episodes of Blue Heelers. "It was wonderful to work with people you know so well," Wood says. "I had five-and-a-half years with William on Heelers—my old friend and nemesis—and I've worked with Kim on and off for 25 years (most recently in The Real Inspector Hound, also for MTC)." Wood speaks affectionately, almost protectively, of all Blue Heelers graduates, such as McInnes, Tasma Walton and, of course, Lisa McCune, who played Croyden's defacto daughter Maggie Doyle. He is particularly proud of McCune and her work in last year's stage production of The Sound Of Music. "She was just fabulous," he says. "It was truly a really good performance."

The question is then whether seeing McInnes and McCune do so well out of uniform (McInnes also saw great success with SeaChange) has given him cause to think about leaving TV and broadening his own, already successful theatre experience. The answer is yes and no. He likes the invigorating aspect of theatre, but also likes the financial security of TV. "I'm at the other end of my career," he says. "Lisa, on the other hand, is about to have a baby and is at the beginning of her life, as well as her career." As Walton, McCune and McInnes moved on from Blue Heelers, it was inevitable the next generation of cops had to come through and subtly change the dynamics of the show. For instance, the arrival of Caroline Craig's Sgt Tess Gallagher split the administrative duties.

But, rather than feel intimidated by the feisty Gallagher, Croydon, as has Wood, seems to have enjoyed the easing of responsibilities. He is acutely aware the show's dynamics are as reliant on the presence of Croydon now as they ever were, no matter how big or small his role in week-to-week storylines. The same goes for Wood's two fellow 'life-termers', Julie Nihill (who plays publican Chris Riley) and Martin Sacks (as Det. Sen-Constable PJ Hasham). These actors have also been with the show since it began, but they have not appeared in every episode. Wood believes the writers have set up Mt. Thomas with Croydon as the patriarch and Riley as the matriarch. In other words, they are the heart and soul of Blue Heelers and that dynamic endures after 300 episodes. It also probably helps explain why the show remains one of our most popular homegrown drama series. "I think it's because we have managed to retain its heart, even though it has lost some of its limbs," Wood says.

Sunday Herald
March 25, 2001