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Just after Christopher Lee’s passing, we have lost another great, Patrick Macnee. The two of them were the last surviving members of Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). I wrote last month about the passing of Christopher Lee because everyone knew him and I wanted to honor him and shed light on lesser-known things about him. I am writing about Patrick MacNee because he is less well-known and I want to honor him by shedding light on this great man and actor.
On June 25th, 2015, Patrick Macnee died of natural causes at his home in Rancho Mirage, California with his family at his bedside, his son Rupert said. He had lived in the US for the last 40 years, and had become a US Citizen. He was 93.
I grew up with Patrick Macnee as the ever-gentlemanly spy, John Steed on BBC’s The Avengers (1961). It is his most iconic role, and honestly ruined me for all other men. He was the epitome of the debonair English gentleman. He wore a suit, and very well, along his dapper bowler hat and distinctive umbrella, which doubled as a sword. He refused to be seen with a gun, saying in later interviews: “I said that I wouldn’t carry one; when they asked me why, I said that I’d just come out of a world war in which I’d seen most of my friends blown to bits.” Macnee became outspoken and, in later years, took every opportunity to express his disapproval of the proliferation of guns in private hands. He was always proper, but with quick wit and great agility. You could say that he is the original Kingsman.
The Avengers (1961) initially focused on Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) and his assistant (Macnee), but Macnee’s famous bowler-hat-wearing, umbrella-wielding intelligence officer became the protagonist when Hendry exited the series. Macnee played the part alongside a succession of strong, female partners, including Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, and Joanna Lumley. The show ran from 1961 and 1969 and was reprised in the 1970s.
This show was groundbreaking, and Macnee had spoke of his pride in how the show paved the way for women to play leading action roles. Of course, it was more than that, as he treated his female partners as equals, unlike how he was originally a side-kick of sorts. The most notable of them was Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg in fashionable outfits and the occasional catsuit. She was nobody’s fool, a speedy sports car driver and martial arts expert; he was suitably impressed, if more staid. The two routinely engaged in witty banter while keeping the world safe from supervillains.
“It made them delight in the awareness that they could get out there and do it all, fight men, take on villains, all the kinds of stuff we showed in The Avengers,” Macnee said during an interview with The Lady Magazine. “I’m very proud of what we achieved for women with The Avengers. I don’t think we knew that we were doing it at the time; it just seemed that a woman would make the ideal foil to my John Steed. And so she did.”
The great thing about Patrick Macnee, however, is that his gentleman qualities went beyond the role and were part of his personality, saying once that it was hardly acting because he grew up that way. As a frequent guest on television talk shows around the world, Macnee was an ambassador for the tradition of the British gentleman, with his special brand of congeniality, humor and intelligence, his remarkable physical agility, and his unfailing good manners, sense of decency, and fair play. His comments and responses to questions were laced with a tongue-in-cheek, somewhat subversive sense of irony, along with a lightning-fast wit.
Daniel Patrick Macnee, professionally known simply as Patrick Macnee, was born on February 6, 1922 in Paddington, London, England into a wealthy and eccentric family, Daniel Macnee (1877-1952) and Dorothea Mary Hastings (1896-1984). His father trained race horses in Lambourn, and was known for his dress sense; he had served as an officer in the Yorkshire Dragoons in the First World War. His maternal grandmother was Frances Alice Hastings (1870-1945), who was the daughter of Vice-Admiral George Fowler Hastings and granddaughter of Hans Francis Hastings, 12th Earl of Huntingdon. His younger brother James, known as Jimmy, was born five years after him.
Macnee’s parents divorced after his mother began to identify as a lesbian. His father later moved to India, and his mother began to live with her wealthy partner, Evelyn Spottswood, whose money came from the Dewar’s whisky business. Macnee referred to her in his autobiography as “Uncle Evelyn”, and she helped pay for his schooling.
He was educated at Summerfields Preparatory School, where he acted in Henry V at the age of 11, with Sir Christopher Lee as the Dauphin; followed by attending Eton College, where comedian and author Michael Bentine became a life-long friend. Macnee first appeared on stage and made his film debut as an extra in Pygmalion (1938). His career was interrupted by World War II, during which he served in the Royal Navy. After military service, Macnee attended the Webber Douglas School of Dramatic Art in London on scholarship—about which he said, “I went to acting school, but only for nine months. If you’re an actor, you know, don’t really need to learn how to do it.”
He trudged the streets of London visiting the casting offices every day, and hung out near the entrances to London’s smarter restaurants and hotels in hope of “running into” a noted producer. There were a few near-misses. He got valuable experience onstage at The Windsor Repertory Theatre, in London’s West End, and on tours in Germany and the United States. He accepted a few minor roles, with bit parts such as Young Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol (1951). Disappointed with his limited roles, Macnee left England for Canada and the United States.
In 1954, he went to Broadway with an Old Vic troupe and later moved on to Hollywood, where he made occasional television and film appearances until returning to England in 1959. Once back home, he took advantage of his producing experience in Canada to become co-producer of the British television series Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years (1960). Shortly thereafter, Macnee landed the role that brought him worldwide fame and popularity in the part of John Steed.
He reprised the role in The New Avengers (1976)—about which he said, “They call it The New Avengers but it’s really the old Avengers with new people except for me, looking rather fat and rather old.” Although popular, it failed to recapture the magic of the original series, and only lasted one year.
He did appear as the voice of Invisible Jones in the sad, failure of a movie adaptation The Avengers (1998), with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman. I will say no more on that.
“Television has some lovely aspects to it—and some ghastly aspects—but the theater itself was a wonderful invention.” —Patrick Macnee.
Macnee also featured as a guest star in dozens of British, American and Australian TV productions.
He appeared in Magnum, P.I. (1984) as a retired but delusional British agent who believed he was Sherlock Holmes, in a season four episode titled “Holmes Is Where the Heart Is.” And he played both Holmes and Dr. Watson on several occasions. He played Watson alongside Roger Moore’s Sherlock Holmes in the TV film, Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976), and twice 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.
Macnee’s other significant roles have included playing Sir Godfrey Tibbett opposite Roger Moore in the James Bond film A View to a Kill (1985), as Major Crossley in The Sea Wolves (again with Moore), guest roles in Encounter, Alias Smith and Jones (with creator Glen Larson), Hart to Hart, Murder, She Wrote, and The Love Boat. Although his best known part was heroic, many of his television appearances were as villains; among them were his roles of both the demonic Count Iblis and his provision of the character voice for the Cylons’s Imperious Leader in Battlestar Galactica (meeting up with Glen Larson again) and the show’s introductory voiceover. He also presented the American paranormal series Mysteries, Magic and Miracles. Macnee made his Broadway debut as the star of Anthony Shaffer’s mystery Sleuth in 1972 and subsequently headlined the national tour of that play.
On television, Macnee made a guest appearance on Columbo in the episode “Troubled Waters” (1975) and played Major Vickers in For the Term of His Natural Life (1983). He had recurring roles in the crime series Gavilan with Robert Urich and in the short-lived satire on big business, Empire (1984), as Dr. Calvin Cromwell. Macnee also narrated the documentary Ian Fleming: 007’s Creator (2000).
He also appeared in several cult films: The Howling (1981), as ‘Dr George Waggner’ (named whimsically after the director of The Wolf Man, 1941) and as Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in the rockumentary comedy This Is Spinal Tap (1984). He played Dr. Stark in The Creature Wasn’t Nice (1981), also called Spaceship and Naked Space.
Macnee played the role of actor David Mathews in the made-for-television movie Rehearsal for Murder (1982), which starred Robert Preston and Lynn Redgrave. The movie was from a script written by Columbo co-creators Richard Levinson and William Link. He took over Leo G. Carroll’s role as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. in The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E: The Fifteen-Years-Later Affair (1983), produced by Michael Sloan. He featured in the science fiction television movie Super Force (1990) as E. B. Hungerford (the series which followed did not feature Macnee), as a supporting character in the parody film Lobster Man From Mars (1989) as Prof. Plocostomos and in The Return of Sam McCloud (1989), a TV film, as Tom Jamison.
He made an appearance in Frasier (2001), and several episodes of the American science-fiction series Nightman as Dr. Walton, a psychiatrist who would advise Johnny/Nightman. Macnee appeared in two episodes of the series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues (1993–94) and was a retired agent in a handful of installments of Spy Game (1997–98).
Macnee made numerous TV commercials including one around 1990 for Swiss Chalet, the Canadian restaurant chain, and a year or so before, a commercial for the Sterling Motor Car Company. Over the James Bond theme, the car duels with a motorcycle assailant at high speed through mountainous territory, ultimately eludes the foe, and reaches its destination. Macnee steps out of the car and greets viewers with a smile, saying, “I suppose you were expecting someone else.” Macnee was the narrator for several “behind-the-scenes” featurettes for the James Bond series of DVDs and recorded numerous audio books, including the releases of many novels by Jack Higgins. He also recorded the children’s books The Musical Life of Gustav Mole and its sequel, The Lost Music (Gustav Mole’s War on Noise), both written by Michael Twinn.
Macnee featured in two pop videos: as Steed in original Avengers footage in the The Pretenders’ video for their song “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (1986) and in the video for Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” (1996), as the band’s driver, a role similar to that which he played in the James Bond film A View To A Kill (1985).
He scored a top 10 hit of his own in 1990, with Kinky Boots—a novelty song recorded with Avengers co-star Honor Blackman—which was championed by Radio 1’s then-breakfast DJ Simon Mayo.
Macnee reunited with Diana Rigg in her short-lived NBC sitcom, Diana (1973) in a single episode.
He dictated his autobiography, which he titled Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Returns (1988), to Marie Cameron.
A tribute on his website said of him: Patrick Macnee was a popular figure in the television industry. He was at home wherever in the world he found himself. He had a knack for making friends, and keeping them. Wherever he went, he left behind a trove of memories and good wishes. Patrick Macnee was known for his unswerving professionalism, his loyalty, his intuitive creativity, his unaffected courtesy, and his understated humanity.
Sir Roger Moore tweeted: “So very sad to hear Pat Macnee has left us. We were mates from 1950s and I have so many happy memories of working with him. A true gent.”
Linda Thorson, who played Tara King in The Avengers alongside him, talked about remembering him as a “paradox” when talking to BBC Radio 4’s Today program. “He was the best-dressed man on television and a nudist in real life. He was always upbeat. He had great stories and great detail and wonderful energy,” she continued. “Patrick [had] a very happy and long life and the most wonderful children who took the greatest of care of him, in the last decade in particular.”
Diana Rigg said, “Patrick was a very dear man and I owe him a great deal.” Macnee was something of a mentor and teacher to Diana Rigg.
Mr. Macnee, you were a true gentleman and I am glad that you were a part of my life. I hope to get you into others lives as well. You were my Steed, and I think all men should strive to be like you.