Dap­per spy in TV’s ‘ Avengers’

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Dennis McLel­lan news. obits@ latimes. com McLel­lan is a for­mer Times staff writer. Staff writer David Colker con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Pa­trick Mac­nee, the Bri­tish ac­tor whose ’ 60s se­ries was a hit in the U. S., has died at 93.

He played the ur­bane John Steed, the bowler hatwear­ing, um­brella-car­ry­ing Bri­tish se­cret agent who fought and matched wits with as­sorted scoundrels with the help of a suc­ces­sion of smart, tough and sexy fe­male part­ners.

Pa­trick Mac­nee, 93, the dap­per star of the clas­sic 1960s TV se­ries “The Avengers,” died Thurs­day at his home in Ran­cho Mi­rage of nat­u­ral causes, ac­cord­ing to his son, Ru­pert.

Im­ported to the United States in 1966 from Eng­land, where it was launched f ive years ear­lier, “The Avengers” ran on ABC un­til the se­ries ended in 1969.

The show’s pop­u­lar­ity soared in 1962 when Honor Blackman be­came Steed’s part­ner, Mrs. Cathy Gale, a self- as­sured judo ex­pert whose black leather out­fits worn in ac­tion scenes helped set off a fash­ion craze.

“The Avengers,” which would air around the world, was such a hit in Eng­land that ac­tor Peter O’Toole re­port­edly said that only Mrs. Gale could lure him away from the pubs be­fore clos­ing time.

By the time Amer­i­can au­di­ences were in­tro­duced to the se­ries, Blackman had been re­placed by Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel. And when Rigg left the se­ries in 1968, she was re­placed with the younger Linda Thor­son as Miss Tara King.

But the most fa­mous part­ner­ship was be­tween Mr. Steed and Mrs. Peel.

As Los An­ge­les Times TV critic Howard Rosen­berg wrote when old episodes of “The Avengers” resur­faced on ca­ble’s A& E net­work in 1990:

“As Steed- Peel, Mac­neeRigg was ar­guably the best, fresh­est, most- ap­peal­ing evil- f ight­ing pair ever to f ill the small screen, their play­ful­ness ap­proach­ing the blithely care­free and cheeky ban­ter of Wil­liam Pow­ell and Myrna Loy as Dashiell Ham­mett’s Nick and Nora Charles.”

Look­ing back on the se­ries in 2010, Mac­nee told the Lon­don news­pa­per the Ex- press, “We had so much fun, and I worked with such beau­ti­ful women. But I’m not sur­prised ‘ The Avengers’ has such en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity be­cause it was a ground­break­ing se­ries that changed tele­vi­sion.

“It was the first show that put its lead­ing man and lead­ing lady on an equal foot­ing and showed a woman fight­ing and kick­ing and throw­ing men around. That was a rad­i­cal de­par­ture in its time.”

The se­ries was re­vived for a brief 1976- 77 run as “The New Avengers,” this time with two part­ners for Mac­nee’s Steed: Gareth Hunt as Mike Gam­bit and Joanna Lum­ley as Purdey.

“Joanna was a lovely woman, truly gor­geous, but ‘ The New Avengers’ was not a hit,” Mac­nee said in the Ex­press in­ter­view.

“You can’t re­peat a suc­cess. We re­al­ized that too late. And I was too old to be her love in­ter­est.”

Two decades later, Mac­nee supplied the voice of a char­ac­ter called In­vis­i­ble Jones in the 1998 big- screen ver­sion of “The Avengers,” a crit­i­cally drubbed box- of­fice fail­ure star­ring Ralph Fi­ennes and Uma Thur­man as Steed and Peel.

Dur­ing his post-“Avengers” ca­reer, Mac­nee took over the lead role of mys­tery writer An­drew Wyke in “Sleuth” on Broad­way in 1972 and played a se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial who goes un­der­cover as James Bond’s chauf­feur in the 1985 movie “A View to a Kill.”

But Mac­nee never tired of be­ing closely iden­ti­fied with the role that made him fa­mous.

“Oh, it’s splen­did,” he said in a 1982 in­ter­view with Ne­w­house News Ser­vice. “With my sort of global ca­reer, as one works here and there, it’s a pass­port to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. That, of course, is just what an ac­tor wants.

“The other op­tion is anonymity. And that is what an ac­tor doesn’t want.”

Born Daniel Pa­trick Mac­nee in Lon­don on Feb. 6, 1922, Mac­nee had an un­con­ven­tional child­hood.

His fa­ther was an al­co­holic race­horse trainer who drank gin at break­fast. At one point, he took off for In­dia, where he landed a job at the Bom­bay race­course.

Mac­nee’s un­pre­dictable mother, a niece of the Earl of Hunt­ing­don, be­came preg­nant by another man and then moved into a stately Tu­dor man­sion with her les­bian lover Eve­lyn, an heiress who dressed like a man and had a mon­key that would perch on her shoul­der.

As re­counted in Mac­nee’s 1988 book “Blind in One Ear: The Avenger Re­turns,” the man- hat­ing Eve­lyn for­bade the 7- year- old Pa­trick to wear trousers in her home and sug­gested he would look bet­ter in a dress.

He ul­ti­mately was al­lowed to wear a kilt. But Mac­nee over­heard “Un­cle” Eve­lyn, as he was re­quired to call her, tell his mother, “Given time, we’ll make a good woman of him.”

Af­ter at­tend­ing a board­ing school in Som­er­set, Mac­nee was sent to the pres­ti­gious Sum­mer Fields prep school, where he fell in love with act­ing. In one school pro­duc­tion, he played the ti­tle role in Shake­speare’s “Henry V” and a class­mate, fu­ture Bri­tish hor­ror f ilm icon Christo­pher Lee, was the Dauphin.

Mac­nee con­tin­ued to act in cam­pus pro­duc­tions as a teenager at Eton Col­lege and then went on to drama school. His f ledgling ca­reer in the theater was in­ter­rupted by his ser­vice as a lieu­tenant in the Royal Navy dur­ing World War II.

Af­ter the war, he moved to Canada in 1952 and spent the rest of the decade work­ing pri­mar­ily in live tele­vi­sion in Toronto, New York and Hol­ly­wood.

When he re­turned to Eng­land in 1960, he had only $ 400 to his name. Af­ter a stint as a pro­ducer of the doc­u­men­tary TV se­ries “Win­ston Churchill: The Valiant Years,” he was of­fered the role of Steed.

“The Avengers” orig­i­nally costarred Ian Hendry as Dr. David Keel, whose fi­ancee is mur­dered by a drug ring hit man. Steed sur­faces to of­fer his as­sis­tance to Keel in aveng­ing his fi­ancee’s death.

But when Hendry left the show to do movies, the pro­duc­ers de­cided to try some­thing new in the sec­ond sea­son.

Mac­nee, who had en­hanced his char­ac­ter by de­vis­ing his own sar­to­ri­ally mem­o­rable wardrobe, was well aware of the cru­cial role his fe­male costars played in the show’s pop­u­lar­ity.

“They were the at­trac­tion,” he wrote in his 1997 book “The Avengers and Me,” writ­ten with Dave Rogers. “They made ‘ The Avengers.’ I love them all, dearly.”

In ad­di­tion to his son, he is sur­vived by a daugh­ter and a grand­son. His wife, Baba Ma­jos de Nagyzsenye, died in 2007. Two pre­vi­ous mar­riages ended in di­vorce.

A MEM­O­RABLE DUO Pa­trick Mac­nee’s John Steed part­nered with Diana Rigg’s Mrs. Emma Peel to be “the best, fresh­est,

most- ap­peal­ing evil- f ight­ing pair ever to f ill the small screen,” a Times critic wrote.

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