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Patrick McGoohan: The spy who started it all

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The 2014 Art Directors Guild Film Society Series kicks off Sunday with an examination of "The Prisoner."
Patrick McGoohan and his groundbreaking show "The Prisoner" will be celebrated Sunday at the Egyptian Theatre.

There's never been a TV series quite like "The Prisoner," which premiered in England in 1967 and debuted in the U.S. the summer of 1968 on CBS.

Best described as James Bond meets George Orwell filtered through Franz Kafka, the cult series revolved around a British secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) who wants to resign from the service. Deemed too dangerous to retire, they kidnap him and send him to an idyllic, though completely isolated, seaside resort called the Village.

There residents are assigned numbers instead of names and their every movement is followed by monitoring systems and security forces. And if someone tries to escape, they encounter a mysterious white balloon called Rover.

For 17 brilliant, surreal episodes, McGoohan's No. 6 was in constant battle with No. 2, a revolving door of henchmen who did the bidding for the unseen leader, who is naturally No. 1.

 "At the time, it was so original and unique," said McGoohan's daughter, actress Catherine McGoohan. "It completely took the secret agent spy story to a different level."

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Graphic designer and Oscar-winning documentarian ("Genocide") Arnold Schwartzman, who worked in British TV and advertising at the time, said the series was memorable but admitted that "I don't know if I really understood it."

McGoohan, who died in 2009, wasn't the only star of "The Prisoner." The coastal Welsh village of Portmeirion, which is a resort, served as the location of the series' gorgeous but deadly prison.

On Sunday, the American Cinematheque and the Art Directors Guild Film Society will kick off its 2014 Art Directors Guild Film Society Series at the Egyptian Theatre with an examination of the groundbreaking series.

Besides Catherine McGoohan, the panel will include production designer and ADG Film Society co-founder John Muto ("Home Alone"), who will moderate the program, production designer Alex McDowell ("Fight Club," "Man of Steel') and Schwartzman.

McGoohan had become a star in England playing no-nonsense spy John Drake on "Danger Man," which premiered in 1960 — a year before the popular spy series "The Avengers" and two years before the first James Bond film, "Dr. No," was released. The series, which continued until 1968, also was a success in the U.S. when CBS premiered the show in 1965 as "Secret Agent."

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Muto will be screening a 10-minute reel of the black-and-white early episodes of "Danger Man," which he describes as more of a film noir detective series than a spy thriller.

After doing about 95 episodes, Catherine McGoohan said, her father was burned out and "probably bored" with playing John Drake. So he pitched the idea of a spy who wanted to get out of the game to Lew Grade, who was running ITV.

"He had already worked with my father on 'Danger Man' and had developed a unique relationship, which was based on a hand shake," said Catherine McGoohan, who just made her first visit to Portmeirion in 46 years for the annual convention. "Lew Grade basically gave him complete freedom."

Patrick McGoohan didn't have to look far to find The Village. He was familiar with Portmeirion, having shot a 1960 episode of "Danger Man" there.

"My father needed a place that was like another world," McGoohan said. "It needed to be almost like a figment of your imagination."

Besides starring and executive producing "The Prisoner," Patrick McGoohan also wrote and directed several episodes.

 "I watched all 17 episodes again and his hand print is on every episode," his daughter said. "He didn't write all the episodes. But he wanted to make sure that the story and the intent of what the series was about was carried through each episode."

susan.king@latimes.com

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'The Prisoner'

Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $11

Information: http://www.americancinematheque.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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