Patrick MacNee (1922-2015): A Hero and a Gentleman
Patrick Macnee, known for his role in the sly, visionary British spy series of the 1960’s, The Avengers, passed away at 93. MacNee was a true class act: he seemed to as much of a gentleman in life as his most famous character, John Steed, was. After all, during his prime years, he was considered the “best-dressed man on television” when he did dress (he was also a nudist) but, above all, he was a the very definition of a gentleman in Hollywood. The website, TV Tropes, refers to the character of Steed as a “cultured badass.” How very true.
After serving in World War Two, MacNee cut his teeth in theater and took whatever bit parts he could before landing the role of Steed in the Avengers. The show was quite a far cry from Marvel’s The Avengers, as was a quaint spy show with some sly wit as only the British could manage; it had distinct charm to it, and a lot of class. In this unique series (perhaps the only such “spy-fi” as some call it) Steed had memorable female assistants – most notably the beautiful Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg – who aptly brought their feminine wiles to bear on any case. He also had that distinct suit, the bowlers hat, and that umbrella that he contained within it a sword: MacNee was adamant that his character would never use a gun. Steed could handle most situations with his calm reserve and his charm. MacNee played the role in the original Avengers series in 1961 as well as in The New Avengers in 1976. When Hollywood gambled on a big screen remake of the classic series in the 90’s which featured Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery, MacNee was there to help pass the baton by providing the voice of Invisible Jones. Even with his presence in spirit, as well as having three incredibly huge stars, the movie was one Hollywood’s biggest flops.
MacNee was quite the prolific actor; I remember seeing him in the Roger-Moore era James Bond film A View to a Kill, as Bonds ally, Sir Godfrey Tibbett. He also popped up in This is Spinal Tap as the record mogul in a very funny bit part.
MacNee also worked with his contemporary Christopher Lee, who recently passed away, playing Watson to Lee’s Holmes in Incident at Victoria Falls and Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady, both in the early 90”s. It should also be noted that MacPhee was one of the very few actors who played both Holmes and Watson during his career, as he tackled a version of Holmes in a guest-spot on Magnum, PI. Science fiction fans will know his voice, as it is the one that ominously set the stage at the beginning of every episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series that began in the late 1970’s. Like all Glen A. Larsen television productions, this opening narration made the show seem more profound and important than it actually was: There are those who believe that life here began out there, far across the universe… with tribes of humans… who may have been the forefathers of the Egyptians… or the Toltecs… or the Mayans. Some believe there may yet be brothers of man… who even now fight to survive – somewhere beyond the heavens!
Growing up a generation or two too late to have truly have truly known him for The Avengers, it is the voice of that opening narration that I will truly remember him for. I’ve since been able to find episodes and clips of The Avengers and have come to respect that show a great deal, it had a style and wit to spare and the performances were memorable even when the show’s scope seemed limited, and the show was significant milestone in television as it came into its own as a form of popular entertainment for fans of almost any genre.
MacNee was for portraying a hero and a gentleman, and he maintained those attributes in life as well as on the screen. It’s no easy thing to disappear into a great role, but MacNee made it seem that way. MacNee, along with Ms. Peel, was very much needed, indeed.