Patrick Macnee RIP
A tribute to the unique talent who played John Steed in The Avengers
The UK launched the screen careers of two iconic superspies in the ’ 60s. One – James Bond – has been played by a conveyor belt of actors with wildly different interpretations. The other, John Steed, was, is and always will be Patrick Macnee. Which, ironically, Ralph Fiennes proved – rather than disproved – in the 1998 The Avengers movie remake.
The part of Steed fitted Macnee as perfectly as one of the bowler- hatted spy’s immaculate three- piece Pierre Cardin suits. Both were marvellous anachronisms. In the ’ 60s, when his city gent attitude and attire should have been the height of uncool for an increasingly groovy generation, Steed was as effortlessly hip as Paisley pantaloons.
Macnee, meanwhile, was a cherishable rarity – an ego- less lead actor. Steed was not a character so much as a collection of traits. We never learn much about his past or his private life. He seemed to pop into existence each week purely for the purpose of solving the crime. His emotional range was usually limited to mid- spectrum – from mildly perturbed to mildly amused. Yet over seven series of the original show, then the New Avengers revival, Macnee made Steed warm, loveable and believable. Other actors would have demanded progression, motivation, friction. Macnee simply read the lines and made them sing.
He was also the perfect gentleman, happy to let his co- stars shine. He was introduced in the first series as a supporting character for Dr David Keel, but when actor Ian Hendry left the show, Steed was promoted, nominally, at least. But Macnee never hogged the spotlight as he partnered a revolving door of crime- fighting allies. Instead he was happy to provide a framework that let his female co- stars – Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale, Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, Linda Thorson as Tara King ( and occasional others) – shine. “It made them delight in the awareness that they could get out there and do it all, fight men, take on villains…” he said in his final interview in 2014 for The Lady. “I’m very proud of what we achieved for women with The Avengers.”
Born in London, Macnee, the son of a racehorse owner, grew up in Berkshire and was educated at Summer Fields Preparatory School – where he appeared alongside Christopher Lee in a production of Henry V – and Eton. He served in the Royal Navy during World War Two, then played a number of smaller roles – including one in Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version of Hamlet – before being cast as Steed. His other films included This Is Spinal Tap, The Sea Wolves and Roger Moore’s final Bond, A View To A Kill.
Patrick Macnee became a United States citizen in 1959, and married three times. He had two children, a son and a daughter, with his first wife Barbara Douglas, as well as one grandson. He died peacefully at his home in California on 25 June 2015, aged 93.
He was the perfect gentleman, happy to let his co- stars shine