Actor best known as John Steed, bowler-hatted hero of The Avengers
Thursday 25 June 2015
Despite a long and diverse career in the theatre and cinema, Patrick Macnee, who has died aged 93, will be remembered as John Steed, the umbrella-twirling, bowler-hatted hero of the stylish derring-do TV series The Avengers. The programme, written and presented in “swinging” 1960s London, was thrilling and dynamic, and it made a star of Macnee and his sidekicks Honor Blackman (as Cathy Gale) and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel).
In 1960, the series Police Surgeon, produced by ABC with Ian Hendry as its star, had come to an end. The writer Brian Clemens was asked to devise a show on similar lines, but more light-hearted, and came up with The Avengers, in which Hendry would be a doctor, David Keel, being helped in his search for revenge on the drug-dealer killers of his lover by a shady and enigmatic man, John Steed, from some mysterious intelligence service.
The show was immediately popular, with Hendry and Macnee investigating assassinations, lethal radioactivity, missing scientists and political extremists. Macnee was told to develop the character of Steed in any way he fancied. “They were very sweet people and they just gave me the name,” he recalled. “They said: ‘Have you read the James Bond books? Go away and make up a character.’”
When Hendry left the show after the first series, the emphasis shifted towards the flamboyant Steed. From the time the series took root in 1961 until 1969 when it was wound up, and by which time a third female sidekick, Tara King (played by Linda Thorson) had joined him, Macnee as Steed was the constant factor.
He reprised the role in 1976 when Clemens launched The New Avengers, which partnered Macnee with Gareth Hunt (as Mike Gambit) and Joanna Lumley (as Purdey), and ran for two series. Macnee claimed that Steed was based on his own ironic approach to life. During the second world war, many of his friends had been killed, he said, and he had acquired a “wry detachment” which he liked to think he had infused into The Avengers.
Macnee was born in London, the son of Daniel, a racehorse trainer at Lambourn, Berkshire, and his wife, Dorothea (nee Hastings), a niece of the Earl of Huntingdon. Macnee claimed that his family life had been chaotic and was dominated by a “tight group of women”. He was sent to boarding school – Summerfields, Oxford – at the age of five and then to Eton, where he recalled being whipped. While at Eton, he opened a betting book, helped by the racing tips passed on to him by his father. He also raced his own greyhound at the dog track in nearby Slough.
Macnee later said that he felt that first school and then the armed forces (in 1942 he went into the Royal Navy and commanded a motor torpedo boat) stifled his emotions. It was to escape this psychological straitjacket that his thoughts turned to the stage. He won a place at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, London, and became a leading man at Windsor Rep.
Unimpressed by the overall prospects in post-war Britain, he went off to Canada, where there were opportunities for young actors on TV. He sent much of his earnings back to his wife, the actor Barbara Douglas, whom he had married in 1942. He also took parts in many US TV shows and stage productions. In 1949 he appeared in a TV version of Macbeth and in 1953 was in Othello. In 1951 he played the young Jacob Marley in the film of Scrooge (A Christmas Carol in the US). He was working in London in a rare production role, on the documentary series Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years, when he was offered the part in The Avengers.
He appeared in more than 150 stage plays from his 20s to his 70s, including the Broadway production of Sleuth in the early 1970s and the leading role in Killing Jessica in the West End of London in 1986-87. He played both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson several times. A memorable big-screen part was as Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This Is Spinal Tap (1984). He was also in The Howling (1981) and the Bond film A View to a Kill (1985).
The cult status of The Avengers continued to grow, and in 1990 a recording of Kinky Boots made by Macnee and Blackman and first released by Decca in February 1964, which at the time had failed to reach the charts, made the UK top 10. In 1998 a film version of The Avengers, starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman as Emma Peel, featured Macnee as the voice of Invisible Jones. The following year he appeared with his former New Avengers co-star Lumley in a TV adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher’s Nancherrow (1999).
Macnee’s first marriage ended in divorce, as did his second, to the actor Kate Woodville. His third wife, Baba Sekely, died in 2007. He is survived by the two children of his first marriage, Rupert and Jenny.
• Daniel Patrick Macnee, actor, born 6 February 1922; died 25 June 2015
(6th February 1922 – 25 th June 2015)
Daniel Patrick Macnee died a natural death at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, at age 93, with his family at his bedside, according to his son, Rupert.
Macnee was best known for playing the internationally recognized, charmingly elegant, quintessentially English, and slightly mysterious character of John Steed in the 1960s’ British television series, The Avengers. Patrick Macnee, along with co-stars Ian Hendry, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley, and Gareth Hunt, created a unique identity that has reverberated for nearly half a century. The pioneering television series aired throughout the 1960s, and The Avengers became known for its progressive approach to feminism, the female stars being more than a match for Steed…and a plethora of “diabolical master minds.” The programme was also known for its creative team’s interest in stories about cutting-edge technology,
Patrick spent his early life in Lambourn, Berkshire, England, where his father, Daniel Macnee, was a racehorse trainer, and his mother, Dorothea Henry, was awarded a British Empire Medal for her work with military families. 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. Patrick trained at London’s Webber-Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, where he met and married Barbara Douglas. Macnee served in the coastal forces of the Royal Navy during World War II. When de-mobbed, 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 also accepted some minor film roles, including that of Young Marley in Alastair Sim’s classic version of A Christmas Carol. But when the call came from David Greene, a director friend at CBC in Toronto, he left England within 48 hours and spent much of his adult life in Canada and the United States. He returned to the U.K. in the 1960s when production of The Avengers began in London.