Friday, June 26, 2015

Au Revoir, Oh Trusty Steed

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers.

There’s nothing like a good obituary, and this one in The New York Times honoring British-born actor Patrick Macnee begins thusly:
Patrick Macnee, who wielded a lethal umbrella and sharp repartee as the dapper secret agent John Steed on the 1960s television series “The Avengers,” died on Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He was 93.

His son, Rupert, confirmed his death.

Mr. Macnee faced off against an assortment of evildoers, armed with understated wit and a traditionalist British fashion sense that made him look less like a spy in the Bond mold than “a junior cabinet minister,” as he once put it, although his tightly rolled umbrella concealed a sword and other crime-fighting gadgets, and his bowler hat, lined with a steel plate, could stop bullets and, when thrown, fell an opponent.

He was paired with a comely female sidekick, initially Honor Blackman (who left the series to play Pussy Galore in the James Bond film “Goldfinger”) but most famously Diana Rigg, stylish in a leather cat suit and every bit his equal in the wit and hand-to-hand-combat departments.

In many scenes he was content to observe, an eyebrow cocked, as Emma--whom he always referred to as Mrs. Peel--unleashed her martial arts expertise on a hapless foe. He would often summon her to action with the words “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed.” Steed carried no gun. Aplomb and sang-froid were his weapons. In one episode, his back to the wall and facing a firing squad, he was asked if he had a last request. “Would you cancel my milk?” he said.
This Associated Press obit observes that John Steed “appeared in all but two episodes [of The Avengers], accompanied by a string of beautiful women who were his sidekicks.” It goes on:
“We were in our own mad, crazy world,” Macnee told the Wichita Eagle in 2003 when “The New Avengers” [1976-1977] was being issued on DVD. “We were the TV Beatles. We even filmed in the same studio.”

But while he made his name internationally playing a smart, debonair British secret agent, Macnee was never a fan of the James Bond movies.

“I think their stories aren’t that realistic,” he told Salt Lake City’s Deseret News in 1999. “I think the sadism in them is horrifying. ... On the other hand, the books--the James Bond books--were fascinating.”
Macnee eventually appeared in one of the Bond films himself: 1985’s A View to a Kill, starring Roger Moore, in which he portrayed a Bond ally, Sir Godfrey Tibbett, who was ultimately murdered by the evil “superwoman,” May Day (Grace Jones). Macnee had also featured opposite Moore seven years before that, playing Doctor John H. Watson in the under-rated 1976 teleflick Sherlock Holmes in New York. Wikipedia notes that Macnee filled the role of Watson “twice [more] with Christopher Lee, first in Incident at Victoria Falls (1991) and then in Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1992). He played Holmes in another TV film, The Hound of London (1993). He is thus one of only a very small number of actors to have portrayed both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on screen.”

The fact is, while many people remember Macnee best as the quintessential English gentleman spy and leading man in The Avengers, he was more often included in films and on television in standalone appearances or as a secondary character. “Macnee was the kind of actor you looked for as a guest star in other series,” writes It’s About TV’s Mitchell Hadley, “and when you ran across the name you made sure to watch the episode, even if you weren’t a fan of the show itself. He was a ship’s captain in Columbo and a man who thought he was Sherlock Holmes in Magnum, P.I., and lent his voice to the Cylon leader in the original Battlestar Galactica (as well as doing the voice-over to the opening credits). Whether playing the hero or the villain, he was a wonderful presence on screen, one that forced you to watch him.”

Macnee’s résumé included roles on Alias Smith and Jones, Diagnosis: Murder, Family Law, Hart to Hart, Murder, She Wrote, and Frasier. He did a turn as an unusually versatile travel agent in Robert Urich’s 1982-1983 TV series, Gavilin, and featured in Dennis Weaver’s 1989 one-off McCloud sequel, The Return of Sam McCloud. In addition, Macnee--who’d begun training as a stage performer before joining the Royal Navy during World War II--can be seen in motion pictures such as Scrooge (1951), The Sea Wolves (1980), and This Is Spinal Tap (1984).

For all of the wonderful words being said about Patrick Macnee in the wake of his demise, two of the most interesting things I learned about him are these: he was “expelled from Eton College for running a sports book and selling pornography,” to again quote The New York Times; and as The Telegraph explains, “he became an active member of a nudist colony in the mid-1970s.” As his one-time New Avengers co-star, Joanna Lumley, quipped: “He was the best-dressed man on television and a nudist in real life.”

It’s such ironic gems that make reading obituaries worthwhile.

READ MORE: Mr. Steed, You’re Needed: Remembering Patrick Macnee and The Avengers,” by Terence Towles Canote (A Shroud of Thoughts); “Good-bye, John Steed,” by Dick Lochte (Burning Daylight); “Diana Rigg on The Avengers, Mrs. Peel, Game of Thrones, and Matchmaking for Vincent Price,” by Stephen Bowie (A.V. Club); “Patrick Macnee: The Essence of a Gentleman,” by Robert Lloyd (Los Angeles Times).

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