Friday, June 26, 2015

Death of a Top Professional: The Late Great Patrick Macnee

In the Sixties television stars did not get any bigger than Patrick Macnee. He played superspy John Steed on the wildly successful TV show The Avengers. The show was a veritable phenomenon in its country of origin, the United Kingdom. It developed a large and intensely loyal cult following in Canada and the United States. By 1969 The Avengers had aired in over 90 countries. Short of Doctor Who, it is arguably the most popular British TV series of all time.

Of course, Patrick Macnee had a career that pre-dated his starring role on The Avengers by many years and his career would last long after the show ended its run in 1969. Before The Avengers he had appeared in such films as The Elusive Pimpernel (1950) and A Christmas Carol (1951), and he had starred in the Canadian TV series Tales of Adventure. He made frequent guest appearances on American television in such shows as The Alcoa Hour, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Following The Avengers he appeared in the movies The Howling (1981) and A View to a Kill (1985), and appeared as Dr. Watson in three television movies (one with Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes, the others with Sir Christopher Lee in the role). Patrick Macnee had a long and rewarding career that endeared him to his many fans. Sadly, Patrick Macnee died yesterday at the age of 93.

Patrick Macnee was born Daniel Patrick Macnee on February 6 1922 in Paddington, London. His father, Daniel Macnee, was a racehorse trainer. His mother, Dorothea, was a niece of the Earl of Huntingdon and the family claimed descent from Robin Hood. Dorthea also received a British Empire Medal for her work with military families. He spent much of  his early life in Lambourn, Berkshire. His parents separated while Patrick Macnee was very young. His father went to India. His mother would eventually move to Wiltshire where they lived with his mother's lover, a woman young Patrick called "Uncle Evelyn". He attended Summer Fields preparatory school near Oxford, where one of the other students was Sir Christopher Lee. The two of them appeared together in a production of Henry V.

Afterwards Patrick Macnee attended Eton. He continued to act at Eton, where he was active in the school's dramatic society. He also established himself as the school's foremost bookie and pornographer, something which ultimately got him expelled from the school. Fortunately in 1941 he won a scholarship to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. That same year he made his professional debut in a small part in a stage production of Little Women. He made his film debut as an extra in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943).

During World War II Patrick Macnee served in the Royal Navy as as a navigator on torpedo boats in the English Channel and North Sea. He received both the Atlantic Medal and the Long Service Medal. Patrick Macnee returned to acting after he was demobilised. He appeared on stage, at The Windsor Repertory Theatre in London’s West End, as well as on tours of the United States and Canada. In the late Forties he appeared in television productions of Morning Departure, Arms and the Man, Hamlet, and Wuthering Heights. He appeared in the films The Fatal Night (1948), Hamlet (1948), All Over the Town (1949), The Girl Is Mine (1950), Dick Barton at Bay (1950), and  The Elusive Pimpernel (1950).

In the early Fifties Patrick Macnee made a memorable appearance as young Jacob Marley in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (also known as Scrooge). Much of his career in the Fifties would be spent between Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He starred in the Canadian TV series Tales of Adventure. He guest starred on such TV shows as BBC Sunday-Night Theatre, CBC Summer Theatre, Producers' Showcase, Armstrong Circle Theatre, The Alcoa Hour, Suspicion, Kraft Theatre, Studio One, One Step Beyond, Rawhide, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and Encounter. He appeared in the films Three Cases of Murder (1955), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and Les Girls (1957). He made his Broadway debut in 1954 in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

It was in 1961 that Patrick Macnee made his debut in the role of John Steed on The Avengers. As hard as it is to believe now, Patrick Macnee was not originally the star of The Avengers. Instead the star was Ian Hendry, who played Dr. David Keel, a surgeon who comes to assist Steed on cases following the murder of his  fiancée. While Steed was originally a secondary character, however, as the first series passed he played an increasingly more and more important role on the show and even had entire episodes devoted to him. When Ian Hendry left it was only natural that Patrick Macnee as John Steed was promoted as the star of the show and received new partners. Among the new partners was Mrs. Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman).  An anthropologist skilled in judo and other forms of hand to hand combat, Mrs. Gale was a woman who almost never needed to be rescued. The team of Steed and Mrs. Gale turned The Avengers into a phenomenon in Britain and soon it was among the most successful shows on the air. Honor Blackman would eventually leave the show, whereupon Steed received a new partner in the form of Emma Peel (played by Dame Diana Rigg). It was with Emma Peel as Steed's new partner that The Avengers finally aired in the United States. The show proved to be a success in the U.S. as well, where it has maintained a cult following ever since.

For much of the Sixties Patrick Macnee would be occupied with playing John Steed on The Avengers, which ultimately turned out to be the longest running spy series on either side of the Atlantic. That having been said, he did guest star on other shows during the decae, among them Thursday Theatre, Love Story, Conflict, Armchair Theatre, and The Virginian. Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg appeaered as a team on the game show Hollywood Squares. He appeared in the film Incense for the Damned (1970).

While The Avengers ended its run in 1969,  in the Seventies Patrick Macnee would return to the role of John Steed in The New Avengers. He was also reunited with co-star Diana Rigg in her American sitcom Diana. On the American sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica he was the opening credit announcer, as well as the voice of the Cylons' Imperious Leader. He also made a guest appearance on the show as Count Iblis. Patrick Macnee guest starred on such shows as Alias Smith and Jones, Night Gallery, Great Mysteries, Dial M for Murder, Columbo, and Matt Helm. He played Dr. Watson opposite Roger Moore as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes in New York. He appeared in the films King Solomon's Treasure (1979) and The Sea Wolves (1980).  From July 3 1972 to October 13 1973 he appeared on Broadway in Sleuth.

In the Eighties Patrick Macnee would make several notable appearances in movies. He played the therapist Dr. George Waggner in The Howling (1981), the Head of Polymer Records Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This is Spinal Tap (1984),  and horse trainer and 007's ally Sir Godfrey Tibbett  in the James Bond movie A View to a Kill (1985). He also appeared in the films The Hot Touch (1981), Young Doctors in Love (1982), Sweet 16 (1983), The Creature Wasn't Nice (1983), Shadey (1985), Waxwork (1988), Transformations (1988), Chill Factor (1989), Lobster Man from Mars (1989), and Masque of the Red Death (1989). He was a regular on the TV series Gavilan, Empire, and Lime Street. He guest starred on such shows as House Calls, Automan, Magnum P. I., Hart to Hart, Love Boat, Blacke's Magic, and Murphy's Law. Mr. Macnee appeared in the TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair and a television adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days.

The Nineties saw Patrick Macnee with regular roles on the TV shows Super Force, Thunder in Paradise, and Night Man. He appeared as Dr. Watson opposite Sir Christopher Lee as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady and Incident at Victoria Falls. He played the great detective himself in the TV movie The Hound of London. He guest starred on the shows Dream On; Murder, She Wrote; Kung Fu: The Legend Continues; Diagnosis Murder; Spy Game; and Family Law. He was the voice of Invisible Jones in the ill-fated 1998 film adaptation of The Avengers. He also appeared in the films Eye of the Widow (1991), Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992), and King B: A Life in the Movies (1993).

In the Naughts Patrick Macnee guest starred on the TV show Fraiser and made his final film appearance in The Low Budget Time Machine (2003).

Patrick Macnee would be remembered if John Steed was the only role he ever played. More so even than such classic characters as Sherlock Holmes and Bulldog Drummond, John Steed was the quintessential English hero. Steed was polite, congenial, witty, and charming, yet he possessed a will of iron that allowed him to survive against countless diabolical masterminds. He could be ruthless when the need arose. In episode after episode of The Avengers he defeated opponents armed only with his bowler, umbrella, superior physical agility, and a healthy sense of irony. Steed rarely carried a gun because he didn't have to.

It was a role well suited to Patrick Macnee, who was in many ways the quintessential English gentleman himself. In interviews Patrick Macnee was always unflappable and possessed of good manners. He had a great sense of humour that was often subversive, but never cruel. He was incredibly witty, and could make the drollest comments off the cuff. There was probably never an actor before or since who was so much like the character he was best known for playing than Patrick Macnee.

Of course, Patrick Macnee played more roles than simply John Steed.  He even played villains on the original Battlestar Galactica--he was the voice of the Imperious Leader and played the sinister Count Iblis on the show as well. While the quality of Battlestar Galactica might be questionable, Patrick Macnee's performance was not; he was as diabolical a Prince of Darkness as there ever was. He had one of the best parts in This is Spinal Tap, playing  Polymer Records head Sir Denis Eton-Hogg.  It was a role as far as from Steed as one could get, the pretentious head of a record label. As Captain John Good in the 1979 version of King Solomon's Mines he played a role much closer to Steed, that of a stalwart British hero. It must also be noted that Mr. Macnee played Dr. Watson three times and Sherlock Holmes himself once.

The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and John Steed is one of my favourite characters. I must say that I am then deeply saddened by Patrick Macnee's death, even though I realise he was very old. In many ways I owe a lot to Patrick Macnee and The Avengers. It not simply a case that the show made me an even bigger Anglophile than I would have been otherwise, but I suspect like many other young men I learned a good deal about being a gentleman from John Steed and Patrick Macnee.

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