STROLLING THE STATELY GROUNDS of Oxford University's St. John's College, John Thaw finds himself under siege. At least a dozen strangers, nearly all of them middle-aged women, have been beseeching him for his autograph. And how can he refuse? To his British TV fans (and U.S. viewers of PBS and cable's Arts & Entertainment network), Thaw is Inspector Morse, the erudite, irascible police detective who hates the sight of blood but loves the sound of opera and, especially, the company of women. "Yours is the best show on telly," gushes one stout admirer. "All the rest is rubbish." Thaw, 54, smiles politely, but his blue eyes dart furiously, and he looks...trapped.

"He just loathes this," whispers his wife of 22 years, British stage actress Sheila Hancock, 62, who is meeting him for lunch. "He finds it very difficult communicating with people."

He has no problem, though, commanding their attention. The Inspector Morse series, based on mystery novels by Colin Dexter, ended its successful seven-year run on Britain's ITV in 1993 "to give it a rest for a while," says Thaw. He has moved on to Kavanagh QC, another hit British series in which he plays a trial lawyer. But due to unflagging audience support, occasional Inspector Morse TV movies continue to be made; PBS's Mystery! is presenting "Twilight of the Gods," a two-part puzzler (Feb. 15 and 22) about a diva marked for murder.

Having escaped his admirers at St. John's, Thaw relaxes with his wife at a hotel cafe and lets it be known that he and his character are hardly alike. "Morse went to university," says Thaw, a graduate of Manchester's Ducie Technical High School, "and I don't drink at all," he adds, sipping a tomato juice. Nevertheless, Dexter is thrilled with Thaw's work. "He's just an old sod like Morse," says the author. "But he's added vulnerability and a touch of melancholy to the character."

The sadness comes from within. "John's very defensive," Hancock says, "partly because of his childhood. He didn't have an easy time." When Thaw was 6, his mother, Dorothy, a Manchester homemaker, left John and his younger brother Raymond (who lives in Australia) in the care of their father, Jack, now 76 and a retired truck driver. (Thaw spoke to his mother only once after she left; she died in 1981.) Things looked up in high school. Encouraged by his drama teachers, Thaw decided to become an actor. At 16, he was accepted by London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. At 23, he was cast in the cop show Redcap, which led to a role in The Sweeney, an English Starsky and Hutch, which established Thaw as a major TV star. Tapped to play Morse in 1985, he was initially put off by the character. "[In the books] he's very much a chauvinist," says Thaw. "So we made him more likable."

At home, Thaw's route to success has been less direct. His first marriage, to Sally Alexander, now a history professor, lasted five years and produced a daughter, Abigail, now 30 and an actress. In 1969, a year after his divorce, Thaw met Hancock when both were cast in the play So What About Love? "I thought he was a bit of a lout, really," recalls Hancock, then happily married to actor Alec Ross, with whom she had a daughter, Melanie, now 31. But she came to admire Thaw's talent, and a friendship ensued. A year or so after Ross's death from cancer in 1971, Thaw asked her out to dinner. They were wed on Christmas Eve 1973; a year later, Hancock gave birth to their only child, Joanna, who is 21 and a senior at Cambridge.

But this was not a storybook second marriage. In 1988, after Hancock was diagnosed with breast cancer, she-moved out of the couple's London home for a year. "I needed space to rethink where I wanted to be," she says. "I think it was a bit hard on John. But at the same time, he had a hard time dealing with my illness." Thaw avoids discussing their separation, but his wife says, "It was inevitable that we came back together. We're incomplete without each other."

Hancock survived the cancer, but she and Thaw have been unable to shake off new separation rumors. "Like a lot of actors, they have a volatile relationship," says Kevin Whately, who plays Inspector Morse's loyal sidekick Sergeant Lewis, "but there's no truth to what's in the papers." The couple insist all is well. "We're both very much home birds," Thaw says. "I appreciate gardening. It's very relaxing." Adds Hancock: "When John is running around in his socks and shorts in the garden, we often say, 'Good blimey! If they could see you now!' " Morse, for one, would find the prospect appalling.

MICHAEL LIPTON
JOANNE FOWLER in Oxford

  • Contributors:
  • Joanne Fowler.