AS the star of iconic shows Minder and The Sweeney, Dennis Waterman earned a special place in the hearts of millions of TV viewers.

Now fans, friends and colleagues have been paying tribute to the star following his death at the age of 74.

A statement from his family yesterday announced his passing.

It said: "We are deeply saddened to announce that our beloved Dennis, passed away very peacefully in hospital in Spain, on Sunday afternoon, with Pam by his side.

"The family kindly ask that our privacy is respected at this very difficult time."

Waterman first found fame as tough nut cop George Carter in The Sweeney opposite John Thaw in the 1970s, before playing bodyguard Terry McCann opposite wheeler deeler Arthur Daley, played by George Cole.

Waterman also played Gerry Standing in the BBC's New Tricks, and throughout his career other TV roles included ITV's Where The Heart Is, The Canterbury Tales and Moses Jones, both for the BBC.

He also became well-known for singing the theme songs to many of his shows, and was caricatured by David Walliams in Little Britain as a result.

His last film role was in Never Too Late in 2020, which was filmed in Australia.

Born in London, he was educated at the Corona Theatre School, and began his showbiz career at a young age, and following a role for the Children's Film Foundation, was invited to join Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Company.

A role in the BBC's adaptation of the Just William books followed, and the actor would, in his later years, reflect on some of the different parts he played.

In 2009, he reflected on his role in Moses Jones, a part which he said at the time, he enjoyed because it cast him in a different light.

"I really enjoyed it, because it was a very different kind of character - and that's important. On television in Britain, I'm sort of the cheeky chappie, everybody's mate, but I've never played anything like that in the theatre. It's strange that you get cast as different things in different parts of the media," he said then.

His role in 2003's drama New Tricks marked his return to a long-running show for the first time in a decade and saw him star alongside acting stalwarts James Bolam and Alun Armstrong.

His character Gerry was part of the cold case squad, who were often at odds with their detective boss, played by Amanda Redman.

Minder was later revived by Channel 5 in 2009, but Waterman did not return for the new outing.

He had been married several times, including to the actress Rula Lenska until 1998, and his daughter, Hannah, became a TV star in her own right - landing a role in EastEnders as Laura Beale.

Actor and comedian Matt Lucas was among the people paying tribute to Waterman, writing in a tweet: "I grew up watching Dennis Waterman's iconic performances in The Sweeney and Minder.

"His guest appearance in our Little Britain Live show at Hammersmith Apollo - in which he hilariously duetted with David's absurd impersonation of him - remains the absolute highlight of my career."

Fans remembered the actor as "a legend" who was "a treat to watch" and "one of the finest actors to ever grace the TV screen" in online social media tributes.  Another wrote that Waterman was "one of the great character actors of our time".

Film producer Jonathan Sothcott said: "Dennis was one of our biggest TV stars throughout the 70s and 80s, an everyman figure who felt like one of us. A naturalistic, nuanced actor. Terrific in The Sweeney, unforgettable in minder (helluva song too...)They don't make 'em like that anymore."

Waterman's extensive career also included numerous stints on the stage and he played Alfred Doolittle in a Royal National Theatre production of My Fair Lady, as well as starring in a tour production of Don't Dress For Dinner.

He also starred in productions of Twelfth Night, Edward Bond's Saved at the Royal Court Theatre and Sergeant Musgrave's Dance. He had a keen interest in music, recording albums and singles, including songs which charted in Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

He was also part of the popular tour, Friends On Tour, which saw him take to the road alongside Sheena Easton and Gerard Kenny.

Actor and presenter Paddy McGuinness also paid tribute.

He tweeted: "Gutted I never got to meet him, always wanted to be Terry McCann. Another icon from my childhood gone. RIP Dennis Waterman."