The essence of a gen­tle­man


The ac­tor Pa­trick Mac­nee died Thurs­day at 93, af­ter a long ca­reer that re­solves it­self into a sin­gle, yet long- run­ning and highly mem­o­rable, pop- cul­tur­ally res­o­nant role. In­deed, among the fic­tional se­cret agents of the 1960s and ’ 70s, there are above all James Bond, whose wa­ter has been car­ried by many ac­tors, with many more un­doubt­edly to come, and John Steed, who was only ever and ever will be Pa­trick Mac­nee.

( It’s true that Ralph Fi­ennes played him in a movie. The state­ment holds.)

Be­fore and af­ter “The

Avengers” made him a star around the time he turned 40, Mac­nee was a pres­ence, if not a con­stant pres­ence, on screen, ap­pear­ances that as a fan I would note with a cer­tain affectionate sat­is­fac­tion. It still comes as some­thing of a sur­prise to see him as the young Ja­cob Mar­ley in the 1951 Alis­tair Sim “A Christ­mas Carol,” even though it’s a film I watch ev­ery year, and in “This Is Spinal Tap” ( as record ex­ec­u­tive Sir De­nis Eton- Hogg).

He played Dr. Wat­son op­po­site Roger Moore in the 1976 “Sher­lock Holmes in New York” ( with whom he also teamed in the 1985 Bond f ilm “A View to a Kill”) and op­po­site Christo­pher Lee in a pair of 1992 Holmes-themed TV movies. He played Holmes him­self a year later in the Cana­dian “The Hound of Lon­don.” It would be f lat­ter­ing to call some of his later ve­hi­cles undis­tin­guished, though more fa­mous ac­tors did worse work in their late ca­reers.

And he left us Steed.

Wit and cool

At some point in the life of the pop­u­lar cul­ture, it be­came the thing to psy­chol­o­gize our he­roes; to film them up with mo­ti­va­tion, to an­a­lyze the in­ter­nal costs of their ac­tions — to ev­ery tri­umph its trauma. There is none of that with Steed. Although by comb­ing care­fully through the se­ries, one can gather a few facts about his up­bring­ing, they are all ba­si­cally be­side the point.

Steed is an essence, a col­lec­tion of at­ti­tudes, a way of dress­ing, of walk­ing, an “air of ca­sual el­e­gance,” to bor­row Steed’s own, lightly mock­ing de­scrip­tion of him­self. The de­tails of his em- ploy­ment are sketchy at best; other than to get to the bot­tom of what­ever thing needs its bot­tom got to, his mis­sion is vague.

He was a gent, but he wasn’t posh; the char­ac­ter was able to mix with aris­to­crats and with trades­men, to pass as what­ever the mo­ment re­quired with no ad­just­ment of his be­ing or change in his dress, which, when he was out of his f lat, con­sisted ex­clu­sively of three- piece tai­lored suits ( Pierre Cardin got a screen credit) and a bowler hat. An um­brella with a sword in its han­dle was his trade­mark ac­ces­sory.

Steed’s hall­marks were wit and cool. He might be­tray at times a kind of stern con­cern, but he did not anger, and he didn’t panic. Pos­si­bly, if you watched “The Avengers” from be­gin­ning to end, you might f ind the trickle of per­spi­ra­tion, the odd bead of sweat. But sav­ing the world — which is to say Eng­land — was al­ways fun­da­men­tally a lark, how­ever many bod­ies piled up around him.

Part of Mac­nee’s bril­liance in the role was the easy, com­ple­men­tary and ap­par­ently ego­less way he worked with a suc­ces­sion of fe­male costars — never side­kicks, al­ways part­ners — from Honor Blackman to Diana Rigg to Linda Thor­son in the orig­i­nal se­ries, which ran from 1961 to 1969, and f in­ally to Joanna Lum­ley in “The New Avengers,” a mid-’ 70s re­vival that saw Steed kicked up­stairs and Gareth Hunt brought in to do the heavy lift­ing and leg work.

That Mac­nee was older, and Steed the thread that held the se­ries to­gether from first to last, could make him seem at first glance the se­nior — be­cause, lit­er­ally, he was. But “The Avengers” was the most sex­u­ally eq­ui­table of se­ries, and some­thing of a re­buke to the ob­jec­ti­fy­ing misog­yny of the Bond se­ries and the se­ries it inspired. With some ex­cep­tions ( in­clud­ing “Avengers” vet Blackman’s part in “Goldfin­ger”), “Bond girls” were lib­er­ated only in the sense that they were avail­able for sex. “The Avengers” could be “sexy,” but it was not sex­ist.

Strong in­di­vid­u­als

And though there was a cer­tain un­avoid­able flir­ta­tion be­tween the part­ners, there was never the sort of sex­ual ten­sion that now pow­ers most ev­ery f ilm or TV show in which a man and a woman in­ves­ti­gate mys­ter­ies to­gether. Ques­tions of “Will they or they won’t they?” or “Do they or don’t they?,” though they may have been en­ter­tained by some view­ers, were never se­ri­ously ad­dressed by the se­ries it­self.

One episode, in which a cou­pled pair of vil­lains swaps brains with Steed and Emma, lets view­ers see Mac­nee and Rigg in ro­man­tic poses, but that’s as close as it ever got. If any­thing, the se­ries stands as a paean to the way strong in­di­vid­u­als can team up with­out sac­rif ic­ing an iota of their in­di­vid­u­al­ity.

What do we say of the ac­tor so iden­ti­fied with a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter that we don’t know where one be­gins and the other ends? Of the star whose other work we need to work to call to mind?

We might haz­ard that their ca­reer was all their craft could han­dle; but though Steed was not called upon to ex­press a wide range of emo­tions, those lim­i­ta­tions were writ­ten into the role. Mac­nee had been a work­ing ac­tor for many years; he was f lex­i­ble. We might say he was type­cast af­ter­ward, and there is some truth in that.

Above all, we should say, as is true of all ac­tors ev­ery­where, that he was for­tu­nate — for­tu­nate to f ind the part that res­onated with him, and within him, in an al­most acous­ti­cal sense. The role that made him big­ger, and that he made big­ger and in­deli­ble. Per­fec­tion is al­ways a mat­ter of the stars align­ing, and they were lucky for us as well, when Mac­nee met Steed.

DIANA RIGG and Pa­trick Mac­nee make a mem­o­rable Emma Peel and John Steed in “The Avengers.”

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