Thaw came from a working class background, having been born in Gorton, Manchester, to parents John and Dorothy (nee Ablott). His father was a long distance lorry driver. He had a difficult childhood as his mother left him when he was seven years old and he didn't see her again until twelve years later. He had a younger brother called Ray. He grew up in the Burnage area of the city and attended Ducie Technical High School|Ducie Technical High School for Boys in Manchester. He entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the age of 17, where he was a contemporary of Tom Courtenay.
Soon after leaving Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) he made his 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 1962 adaptation of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner starring Tom Courtenay and he also acted on-stage opposite Sir Laurence Olivier in Semi-Detached (1962). He appeared in several episodes of the seminal BBC police series Z Cars in 1963–64 as a detective constable with a drink problem. Between 1964–66 he appeared as the central role of hard-nosed military policeman, Sgt John Mann, in two series of the Associated British Corporation/ITV production Redcap. He was also a guest star in an early episode of The Avengers. 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 an effeminate failed playwright with a full beard and a Welsh accent.
Thaw will perhaps be best remembered for two roles: the hard-bitten Flying Squad detective Jack Regan in the Thames Television/ITV series (and two films) The Sweeney (1974 – 1978), which established him as a major star in the United Kingdom, and as the quietly-spoken, introspective, well-educated and bitter detective Inspector Morse (1987 – 1993, with specials from 1995 – 1998 and 2000).
He won two British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards for Inspector Morse.
He subsequently played liberal working class Lancashire barrister James Kavanagh in Kavanagh QC (1995 – 1999, and a special in 2001). Thaw also tried his hand at comedy with two sitcoms — Thick as Thieves (London Weekend Television/ITV, 1974) with Bob Hoskins and Home to Roost (Yorkshire Television, 1985 – 1990). Thaw is best known in America for the Morse series, as well as the BBC series A Year in Provence with Lindsay Duncan.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Thaw frequently appeared in productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre. He appeared in a number of films, 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 for director Richard Attenborough.
Thaw also appeared in the TV adaptation of the Michelle Magorian book Goodnight Mister Tom (Carlton Television/ITV) as the title character.
In 1964, Thaw married Sally Alexander, but they divorced four years later. He married actress Sheila Hancock in 1973 and remained with her until his death in 2002.
Thaw had two daughters: Abigail Thaw from his first marriage, and Joanna Thaw from his second. He also adopted Sheila Hancock's daughter Melanie from her first marriage. Abigail has entered the acting profession.
In her 2004 autobiography, The Two of Us: My Life with John Thaw, Hancock, who also starred alongside him in an episode of Kavanagh QC, revealed the extent of Thaw's alcoholism that had started in the late 1970s and caused problems in their marriage and the gaps in Thaw's career in the early 1980s and later 1990s. Thaw was eventually able to get his alcoholism under control a year before his death.
Thaw was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1994.
In September 2006, Thaw was voted by the general public as number 3 in a poll of TV's Greatest Stars.
Thaw had a noticeable peculiarity of gait, his right leg showing evidence of "dorsiflexor paralysis" or foot drop, for which there have been several explanations. Some even speculated that he had a wooden leg below the knee, or that he had contracted polio as a child. Several sources state that it resulted from an accident at the age of 15 when he tripped over a kerb and broke his foot rushing to catch a bus to school. However, in her autobiography, Hancock says that Thaw's grandfather had a withered leg and walked with a limp; Thaw apparently copied him and also walked with a limp all his life. A car accident in his early twenties exacerbated the problem.
A heavy smoker, Thaw was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus in June 2001. He underwent chemotherapy in hope of overcoming the illness. He died eight months later, on Thursday, 21 February 2002, seven weeks after his 60th birthday, having suffered a sudden setback the previous day. At the time of his death, he was living at Sherston, Wiltshire, and was cremated at Westerleigh Crematorium in South Gloucestershire.
- 1962 Nil Carborundum
- 1962 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
- 1963 Five to One
- 1965 Dead Man's Chest
- 1968 The Bofors Gun
- 1970 Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition
- 1970 The Last Grenade
- 1971 The Abominable Dr. Phibes
- 1972 Dr. Phibes Rises Again
- 1976 The Sensible Action of Lieutenant Holst
- 1977 Sweeney!
- 1978 Sweeney 2
- 1978 Dinner at the Sporting Club
- 1981 The Grass is Singing]]
- 1987 Asking for Trouble
- 1987 Business As Usual
- 1987 Cry Freedom
- 1992 Chaplin
- 1960 A Shred of Evidence
- 1961 The Fire Raisers
- 1962 Women Beware Women
- 1962 Semi-Detached (with Sir Laurence Olivier)
- 1964 The Father
- 1969 So What About Love?
- 1970 Random Happenings in the Hebrides by John McGrath
- 1971 The Lady from the Sea
- 1973 Collaborators
- 1976 Absurd Person Singular
- 1978 Night and Day
- 1982 Serjeant Musgrave's Dance
- 1983 Twelfth Night
- 1983 The Time of Your Life
- 1983 Henry VIII
- 1984 Pygmalion
- 1988 All My Sons
- 1993 The Absence of War by David Hare