Patrick Macnee dies at 93; dapper John Steed in TV’s ‘The Avengers’
He played the urbane John Steed, the bowler hat-wearing, 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 five 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By the time American audiences were introduced to the series, Blackman had been replaced by Diana Rigg as Mrs.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, Macnee-Rigg was arguably the best, freshest, most-appealing evil-fighting pair ever to fill 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 Express, “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 pet 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 film 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 fledgling 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 tracking down the criminals and 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 attractive female costars played in the show’s international 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.
McLellan is a former Times staff writer. Staff writer David Colker contributed to this report.
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