John Wood: Blue Heelers

John Wood spent 12 years playing Sergeant Tom Croydon on Blue Heelers. To celebrate the release of his autobiography “How I Clawed My Way to the MiddleTV Flashback caught up with John to find out about his time on one of Australia’s most loved dramas…

1) How did you become involved with Blue Heelers?

I was told it was happening and I was sent some audition scripts, which I learned, and went along to a place in Richmond and did the auditions. I’d had the success of Rafferty’s Rules a few years previously, and I thought I was quite a television person by then. I went along and met Hal McElroy, who you know is a great guy. I really liked Hal a lot. He was to produce the show, and the casting agent was Faith Martin, who had been my first agent when I came out of NIDA. Faith was the only person who, funnily enough, had any faith in me.

When you graduate from NIDA, you do a series of auditions and bits and pieces for producers and agencies and things, and I did all that along with everybody else. And everybody else got agents, but nobody was interested in me [laughs]. I went around with my cap in my hand begging, basically, and I met Faith and she took me on as one of her people. I think I was the fourteenth person on her books. She was the same age as me, roughly, and we had much in common I suppose. She became my agent, we had a great relationship, and as it turned out, she was the casting agent on Blue Heelers.

I thought “oh, this is nice, maybe it will work out,” and it seemed to be going all right. From the network itself, from Channel Seven, the head of marketing and programming was a guy named Glen Kinging, who was quite legendary in his ability to cast shows and pick the shows that were going to work, and he actually was of the opinion that nobody would accept me as a police sergeant. They would think I was a magistrate, and I thought that was fairly wrong-headed. I thought, you know, I’m just an actor, I can act as being a police sergeant just as well as I acted as being a magistrate. They’re different types of people and they’re not me, really. They’re aspects of me, obviously, but if I pretend I’m a police sergeant, then people will believe I’m a police sergeant. And as it turned out, I was right. Thankfully [laughs].

I could have just as easily fallen on my arse, you know. I think luck has a lot to do with all the decisions you make. You’re given choices all the way through your life and career, and you make decisions based on how you feel at the time. I was quite sure that I would be all right as Tom Croydon. Partly because I grew up in Croydon – I thought there’s something working in the ether here – and my father-in-law’s name was Tom, my grandfather’s name was Tom, and I found out later my own father’s name was Tom, but he changed the names around and called himself Leslie Thomas Wood. His actual name was Thomas Leslie, I believe. So I thought you know, I’m destined to play this character Tom Croydon. It’s in the stars.

It was touch and go there for awhile, but I got it, and you have to say that the highlight of my career was to do 12 years in a show that had that level of popularity and pure love from the audience. People still, today, have such a love for the show. And for the characters in it. What an amazing array of actors they were, that original cast. People who came into the show over the years were also extraordinary, but that first group of actors that was cast… Myself, and Lisa McCune, who was just Australia’s sweetheart. She was just an amazing talent. She is an amazing talent, still. William – I mean, my God – what an extraordinary actor that guy is. Martin Sacks, Grant Bowler. They all had such amazing personalities. Julie Nihill, of course, as Chris Riley the barkeeper.

We developed an amazing family out of quite a disparate group of people. We were all very different, with different backgrounds, and people just took us to their hearts. For which I will forever be grateful.

2) The cast certainly clicked didn’t they?

There’s just something about it, everything clicked. There was something about the positioning of the show that just clicked, as well. I don’t know what it was that the audience picked up on, but I think it had to do with being a country town, of course, and I think there was a level of nostalgia associated with it. I think certainly people of my generation, what they loved about it, was the bucolic nature of Mt. Thomas. It reminded them of the time when they grew up and people didn’t have locks on their doors, people just wandered in and out of each other’s houses, and they’d love to be able to do that today.

People had a different attitude to each other, I think, and that is something that the audience picked up on. They had a longing for that sort of bucolic Australian past. I could be totally wrong, God knows why they liked it. But I’m glad they did.

3) A lot of people seem to think it comes down to the characters and the casting?

There’s certainly no doubt that the characters and the casting were sensationally good. They were an extraordinary collection of people. Of course at the time, I was the only one who had any sort of television profile I think. Martin had been in a show about the assassination of President Kennedy, but his approach to television and to work is much more Hollywood than mine, or in fact most of the cast. I’m still just staggered at the casting of Lisa McCune. Nobody would have known, nobody would have imagined, that the audience would take her to their hearts the way they did. She’s just extraordinary. I can’t think of the word. Of course later, there were other people like Damian Walshe-Howling and Jane Allsop that came in, and were equally loved by the audience. Well nobody on television, except perhaps for Anne Tenney in A Country Practice, nobody on television has ever been loved the way that Lisa was loved. The only other person that comes close was Graham Kennedy.

He was every mother’s son; the boy next door. My mother adored Graham. She just adored him, and eventually, I got to work with him. I was quite ill during a period at school and I remember sitting at home one day when Graham was still on the radio back then, and I remember he played a song over and over one day. He played Rock Around the Clock. Bill Haley. He was great on the radio before he was great on the telly. I remember listening to Rock Around the Clock many times during the weeks I was ill. My mother, as I said, adored him. She loved him.

4) Did you do any research for the role?

I did go out. I can’t remember when, but I live out in the Yarra Valley, which is where I was living then. I went to a couple of local police stations, just to see what it was like in a rural town to be a police sergeant. I remember going to Warburton and over to Yarra Glen. The thing about Yarra Glen that interested me was that they wore dark blue shirts, not the pale blue shirts we ended up wearing, because they were a snow area. So they were slightly differently dressed. I went out to Warburton and they were the same, I went over to Healesville, and the police sergeant took me into his office and we chatted. His office was quite different to Tom’s, and I said to the designers and the producers that this place I went to, he had calfskin rugs on the floor, a sofa, and a couple of impressionist paintings on the walls. Stuff like that. He said “I just like people to feel comfortable, I’m not dealing with criminals, I’m dealing with locals who have got themselves in a bit of strife, and I try to help them out.” That was the sort of thing I always tried for with Tom after that. Just trying to help out locals. Tom’s office was much more public service than this guy in Healesville [laughs] but you know, I still try to keep that basic tenet behind it: that I’m just trying to help locals who were in a bit of strife.

5) Well the speech you gave to newcomers was that country policing is about people, right?

That essentially was the idea. Who was to know that it would go on to become the crime capital of the Southern Hemisphere. Little Mt. Thomas. We dealt with so much crime over the years. It wasn’t the safe bucolic place that everybody hankered for. It was something a bit different. But it was a great show to do, and I enjoyed every minute of my life on it. We had a great relationship with the crew, the cast had a great relationship with each other, and we had a great relationship with the public.

6) Do you still keep in contact with the cast and crew?

No, not as such. I still run into people occasionally. I still see Lisa every now and again, but it’s like everything in the entertainment industry. You sort of swear undying love for each other, and swear to keep in touch, but you go off and do other things. Everybody goes off and does something else that they have to make a huge commitment to, and you just don’t have time to get back together again with people. It would be lovely to have a big reunion one day, but you know, you just don’t get the opportunity in this business. You move from one thing to the next, and you’ve got to be as committed to the next thing as were to the one you’ve just finished. Everybody in the next show becomes your whole new family, and you swear undying love, and you move on again to another new family. It’s just the way it goes.

7) People have praised your guidance on set and your knowledge of the scripts. Did you feel it was your responsibility to know each page of the script, and help actors on set?

Absolutely. A show like Blue Heelers, or like any television show, everybody has to be comfortable. It’s very easy for the people who work together week after week to become comfortable with each other, but you’ve got to give people who come into the show and they only come in once. They come in for a week, and then they go, but they’ve got to feel as comfortable in the environment as you do so that they can give themselves to the role and give over everything to the acting. If they don’t feel comfortable, they can end up looking very bad. It’s no good for the show if anybody looks bad, so it’s something we had on Rafferty’s Rules, for example. The main cast had a great camaraderie, but we also came from all sorts of different backgrounds. We knew different people who came in from week to week, so it was always a very happy atmosphere on set. I really hoped we could recreate it on Blue Heelers.

As I’ve said, you’ve got to make the guest stars feel very welcome. They’ve got to be part of it. When I was a young actor I’d often do things like Homicide and Division Four, and they all knew each other very well and had shortcuts and ways of talking to each other that they were very aware of. But if you came in, if you flew in from Sydney to do a week on that, you had no idea of the shortcuts they were taking, or the way they were talking to each other. They knew about police procedure, and you didn’t. You had no idea, coming in. So I always tried to make people feel that they had as much knowledge or investment in the show as I did.

I think that’s the only way you can work with shows like that.

8) What were your thoughts on the live episode? What do you feel you got out of it?

The live episode was great fun. I don’t think anybody’s done it since either. It was a bit crazy. The funniest thing that happened was walking into Marty’s dressing room, or he walked into mine, and we were both doing voice exercises. Which is what you do when you’re working in the theatre, because you actually have to project your voice, but working in television you have microphones all around the place that pick up the slightest noise, so you don’t need to do those exercises. That was just a sign of how nervous we both were. But it was terrific.

The only thing that went wrong the whole night, I think, was the gun didn’t go off [laughs]. Somebody had a rifle or a shotgun in the pub that didn’t go off, but that was the only thing that went drastically wrong. Basically working our way around set, getting from one point to another, all worked okay. That was to do with Aarne Neeme, who came in. Aarne was a theatre director mainly, and he did a lot of television work. Towards the end of Blue Heelers, he did several episodes. Aarne actually choreographed the actors around the various sets, and helped them with their performances.

It was fun to do, it was certainly something I never expected to do. Television hadn’t been live to air for years.

9) Were you surprised when they first mentioned Blue Heelers doing a live episode?

I don’t know about surprised, but I was certainly keen to do it. I thought, “this will be fun.” Hopefully you can always find things within the business or within the shows that will be fun. It’s wonderful moving from one thing to another, and being stretched. Doing things that are a bit out of your comfort zone.

I went into a period there where I was very comfortable as Tom Croydon, and I felt very stable in my life as an actor because of Tom’s stability. It was a really interesting thing to do when the producers decided to send Tom down into the depths of despair with the murder and rape of his wife, and that sort of changed the nature of the whole show. Some people really liked it, and a lot of our rusted-on audience hated it. They hated the fact that Tom went “bad”, as it were.

10) You’re right, after the station bombing a lot of people did feel both the show and Tom Croydon went really dark at that point. Maybe that was the start of the end?

Yes, but it still had a rusted-on audience that stayed with it. It was still rating very well when it was pensioned off. I don’t know whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision to send it in a darker direction, but I guess if it hadn’t gone in a darker direction it might still be going. Who knows.

11) Do you think the show had to change a bit? Maybe not something as drastic as a station bombing, but do you think it needed change?

It probably did. I don’t know, it’s very hard to say because I was so tied up in the middle of it. I wasn’t a viewer, I had no knowledge of how the viewers were taking it. The interesting thing about television is that you lose interest in looking at yourself very quickly. I have no interest in seeing myself doing anything, and I haven’t had for many years. I wasn’t compelled to rush home and watch the show.

In fact, many times I was at the theatre going to opening nights and things like that, so I was often doing something else on the night that Blue Heelers was on. I reckon of the whole 510 episodes, or whatever it was, I may have seen 40 or 50. I’ve never seen the rest. Even though I’ve got a couple of series on DVDs, I haven’t watched them.

12) Is that because you’d be critical of yourself?

I think you’re always critical of yourself. I don’t think many actors like the way they look. They sort of think, “oh God, I wish I hadn’t done that, or I wish I didn’t look like that, or I wish I didn’t have that facial tic or mannerism. I wish my voice sounded better.” I think all actors are unhappy with the way they look and speak, they would prefer it to be better [laughs]. I had no interest in watching myself.

There were times I saw people do something on the set while we were making the show and I thought, “I must make sure I watch the episode to see how that turned out.” The person who was always magnetic, of course, was William. He was extraordinary. He turns it on like a tap, he’s got so much talent. More talent in his little finger than most of us have in our entire bodies. He’s certainly unpredictable, you never know what he’s going to do next. And I love him, I think he’s fantastic, but God he can be difficult to work with [laughs] because he just buggerises around, and when he has to do it, he just does it, bang. Whereas most of us have to gear up to get into it, or find a moment to get our thoughts together before we can do things, William can just drop in and out of it. It’s unbelievable.

13) You also wrote a few episodes of the show over the years. How did that come about?

I’d written quite a lot of television. I wasn’t exactly an old hand, but I wasn’t new at it either. I’d written about 45 hours of television prior to Blue Heelers. I just had an idea for a story, and a friend of mine from the Lighthouse Company that I was with, was a terrific singer, and I just wanted to give her some sort of opportunity on telly as a country and western singer. I just had this idea for a story about it – she was an old school friend of Tom’s, and she had become quite a famous country singer. That was how that episode came about. I don’t remember the others, I didn’t write many episodes of Blue Heelers.

I found it very hard to write for Tom, I found it hard to write his character. I am in fact very different to Tom. Tom’s a can-do sort of person, and he’s a Vietnam vet, which I wasn’t. I was actually anti-Vietnam.

14) Did that make it difficult to play Tom, given your objections to the Vietnam War?

It wasn’t. I always believed that we were wrong to go into Vietnam, as I’ve always believed we were wrong to go into Iraq and Afghanistan, and places like that. Thankfully I’m not a politician, but I was anti-Vietnam. Because Tom had been through it, and we actually had a lot of Vietnam vets come onto the show at various times as extras. Motorcycle gangs, and things like that. I met a lot of Vietnam vets while we were doing the show, and I ended up making speeches on their behalf because they’d been done over by successive Australian governments. They’d been treated appallingly. We didn’t treat the vets from WW2 or Korea all that well either, but the fact that we conscripted these people and sent them to Vietnam and then not given them proper pensions, and not looked after them properly, with their PTSD when they got back, I thought it was just a disgrace. A disgrace on behalf of successive governments. And I was very much on their side.

Their families when they got back, they needed help, and I was prepared to help. And if they knocked on my door and asked me to help again, I certainly would.

15) Did you have a favourite episode or storyline?

No, to be honest. When the show went really dark and Tom started drinking heavily, I found that stuff was quite a challenge to play, and I quite enjoyed that, but there were lots and lots of highlights and characters over the years.

I really loved Don Bridges, who came in and out as a character, Charlie the plumber. He was a great character. Michael Isaacs as Clancy, the slightly disabled boy who was killed in the bomb blast. He was a terrific actor, and I loved working with him when he came in. Tony Rickards played a character called Compo Hayes, who was always on the make. He was a terrific character to play with, and I really loved playing with Tony. He was great fun. There were all sorts of highlights over the years.

One of the great highlights for me was a couple of years ago, Julie Nihill and I did a stage play together. We’d never worked on stage together at all before that, and we didn’t really work together a lot on telly, although we were in the pub all the time. Julie and I did a play called Bakersfield Mist, which we toured for the Tasmanian Theatre Company around Victoria and many other places and finished up at the Theatre Royal in Hobart. That was an absolute highlight of my career. That was a terrific play, she was wonderful to work with, and I absolutely adore her. I still see her more often than probably the others, but not enough. We just don’t, in these times. I haven’t seen anybody involved in the theatre since I finished in Sydney just before Easter.

Yeah, so I’m sort of having withdrawal symptoms, I think.

16) You stayed for the entire run, but did leaving ever cross your mind?

Of course it did. When Lisa left, and was written out in such a violent way, and then William went, I always thought “about eight years in, maybe I should go, it’s time I did something else,” and I actually thought that the show would suffer very badly from Tom leaving. If Tom left, the township would not be represented in the show anymore, and I think the police station, and the township, and Tom Croydon, were synonymous with the whole raison d’etre of Blue Heelers, along with the pub, the Imperial. I always thought that it wouldn’t have a local identity anymore if I left, and therefore the show would fold and everybody would lose their jobs. That was my concern, that was my main reason for not leaving. It sounds arrogant to think of myself as being so important, but that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t a personal thing, but I thought “gosh, without Tom Croydon the show has no basis.” That was the main reason I didn’t go. I was quite ready to move on, but I thought “no, I can’t.” 

I thought everybody would be out of work if I left – it didn’t occur to me when the show actually ended that the network would get rid of everybody. They no longer had any requirement for any of the camera crew or sound recordists. It wasn’t just the actors, it was the camera crew. Some of whom had been working there since they left school. All of a sudden there they were, 40, and they were out of a job.

As somebody said to me the other day, it’s a fairly brutal industry. And it is.

17) Were you surprised when the show ended? Was it on your radar?

It had to be on the radar. When they made those big changes, it was obviously having some sort of struggles. Then when it came to, I was surprised when it ended in as much as there were episodes planned for the next several months. The producers tried to talk the network into doing twelve episodes just to wrap up all the loose ends, and reunite Tom with his family. There were other loose ends that I’m not aware of now. They did have things they wanted to resolve.

The Network decided “no.” So it was a strange way to finish it. It’s a pity that it didn’t have the chance to sort of actually say goodbye to its massive audience, because it was still rating about a million people a week.

They’d decided their money was going to go in another direction. Chiefly, towards the broadcasting of the AFL. I don’t blame them for that, or resent them for it in any way. I think that it’s a pity that there’s no commitment to local drama anymore. For the amount of money they paid the AFL for two years worth of footy rights, they could have run Blue Heelers for 75 years. It’s not as if Blue Heelers was expensive by standards of other things, but there you go.

18) What will you treasure most from your time working on Blue Heelers?

The relationship between the actors and the crew. It was a real family. It sounds naff to say it, but there was such a family atmosphere about the whole thing – it was something to do with the original Channel Seven Melbourne being the family station. There was a great camaraderie between us and the people in the offices, too, which unfortunately became a bit flattened out over the time because they started sending people in from Sydney to run the station. It had always been its own station up until then.

The Good Friday appeal was very much the Children’s Hospital Appeal from Melbourne, and was very much run by Channel Seven Melbourne. That all started to dissipate over the years.

The great thing from Blue Heelers was that people got married on the show, and peoples’ parents died while we were doing it, people had babies. Bill had two kids while we were on the show, Lisa got married and had children. It was a big community that cared for each other, and we all liked each other a great deal.

19) Honestly, I think that came across on screen…

That’s good. That’s great.

Thanks to John Wood for a fantastic interview about his time on Blue Heelers. If you want to find out some more about John Wood’s career, make sure you purchase a copy of his autobiography. You can also purchase Blue Heelers on DVD.

You can see John Wood in scenes from Blue Heelers in the video below: