R.I.P.

‘Avengers’ Patrick Macnee: Bookie, Actor, Nudist, Spy

He’s best known for playing John Steed in The Avengers, but the oh-so-English actor had a more interesting life than you can imagine.

06.28.15 10:45 AM ET

Patrick Macnee created one of the greatest characters in television history in his role as the secret agent John Steed in The Avengers, which wove together classic English eccentricity, the Swinging Sixties, high camp and surrealism. He died on June 25 at his home at Rancho Mirage, Calif., aged 93.

Opposite a string of strong female leads, beginning with Honor Blackman, then Diana Rigg and latterly Linda Thorson, the bowler-hatted and umbrella-wielding Steed tackled killer robots, miniaturised tigers, assassins masquerading as a dating bureau, and any number of mad scientists improbably dotted around the English countryside. The show, whose run almost exactly coincided with the 1960s, became an international cult hit and, five decades later, is still repeated around the world.

Macnee’s portrayal of Steed, simultaneously the epitome and an affectionate parody of the urbane English gentleman of the Edwardian period, drew in no small measure from his own life. For despite a veneer of upper-middle-class respectability—Macnee’s mother was an Earl’s niece, and he was a public schoolboy and naval officer—his upbringing was in fact highly unconventional. Traces of this remained in his character; in his later life he was a keen nudist.

Daniel Patrick Macnee was born in west London—he was never quite sure where, because his mother had gone into labour during a party—on Feb. 6, 1922. His father, also Daniel, but known as “Shrimp,” was a racehorse trainer, and Patrick at first grew up at Lambourn in Berkshire, an equestrian centre with a reputation for raciness in every sense.

Shrimp Macnee was a great friend to the pub, as well as the racetrack, and liked waving guns around. An attempt to simplify the family name to “Nee” was eventually reversed. Pat’s mother Dorothea’s bohemianism tended rather to the sexual sphere, and she eventually left Shrimp to live with a rich lesbian whom Macnee was instructed to call “Uncle Evelyn.” The pair tried to get him to dress as a girl but settled for a kilt, a garment he wore until he was 11.

“Uncle Evelyn” paid for the boy’s education, first at Summerfields preparatory school, where Christopher Lee, who died two weeks ago, was an exact contemporary. They acted together in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; Lee remembered being “comprehensively outclassed” by Macnee.

Macnee progressed to Eton, foremost of England’s public (i.e., private) schools, where he set up a roaring trade in racing tips gleaned from his father and as a bookmaker. He kept a racing greyhound at the nearby track at Slough. Retailing whisky—to which he had been introduced by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff—and pornography followed; unsurprisingly, he was eventually expelled.

He then trained as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy and got some roles in repertory theatre. But before his West End debut in 1942, in a play opposite Vivien Leigh, he was called up for war service. He joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman, and then a sub-lieutenant, in Motor Torpedo Boats. He missed the D-Day landings, in which his vessel was destroyed and his crew killed, because he was suffering from bronchitis. He was demobilized in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant.

He had some small film roles during the war, including Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and was a spear-carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). He took some TV roles, worked again with Powell and Pressburger in The Fighting Pimpernel (1950), played the young Marley in A Christmas Carol the following year, and got further work through David Niven—the pair seemed under the impression they were cousins, though there was no close family relationship.

By now Macnee had married Barbara Douglas, whom he had met at acting school, and had fathered a son and daughter. Finding roles scarce, he took up the offer of work in Toronto for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, leaving his family in Britain. For the next decade, he toured around Canada and the U.S., taking on stage and film roles; his accent and appearance meant that he had plenty work, but his marriage broke down. Film roles at the time included The Battle of the River Plate and the Cole Porter musical, Les Girls; television brought guest parts in episodes of Rawhide and The Twilight Zone.

He decided to try his hand at producing back in London, but was almost immediately cast as Steed, originally intended to be the sidekick to Ian Hendry as the lead in The Avengers. Hendry’s departure for the big screen near the beginning of the series caused a rethink, however, and Steed came steadily to the fore.

The crucial element in the show’s success, however, was the decision to pair him with a strong female lead. Honor Blackman, in leather catsuit and high-heeled boots, tackled the majority of the gunplay and judo moves; Macnee made the decision that Steed should not carry a gun. He later claimed that he was sick of firearms after “a war in which I’d seen most of my friends blown to pieces.” He was also instrumental in developing Steed’s uniform of suit, bowler hat and umbrella—an outfit which even in the 1960s was becoming anachronistic—to contrast with Blackman’s trendy get-up.

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Honor Blackman’s departure to play Pussy Galore in Goldfinger led to the casting of Diana Rigg. The chemistry between the two leads and the shift to shooting the show on film made this the most successful period for The Avengers. At the same time, the show’s plots became more surreal and its production design more stylish, at times veering into camp.

The series finally concluded in 1969 after six seasons and 161 episodes, by which time Linda Thorson had replaced Rigg and the show was aired in more than 90 countries. Macnee co-wrote two Avengers novels, and later produced a guide to the show. A brief attempt to revive the show, as The New Avengers, with Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley in 1976-77, was generally reckoned a disappointment. The 1998 feature film adaptation with Ralph Fiennes as Steed, for which Macnee supplied a voice cameo as “Invisible Jones,” was reckoned a catastrophe.

He never quite escaped Steed or, in truth, found a part half as good. He was in the Broadway production, and subsequent tour, of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth (1972), a role he regretted having turned down in London; decent roles in The Sea Wolves (1980) and the Bond film A View to a Kill (1985); and cult ones in The Howling (1980) and This is Spinal Tap (1984).

But for the most part, he was content to pop up in cameo roles in an endless succession of television series: Colombo; Hart to Hart; the original Battlestar Galactica; Murder, She Wrote; Frasier; The Love Boat; and Magnum, PI all had him on at one point or another. He even appeared in a pop music video with Oasis.

Despite his persona as the quintessential Englishman, Macnee had in fact become an American citizen in 1959 and lived most of his life in Southern California, where he enjoyed the climate and—having decided his sexual and personal development had been distorted by his childhood—became an enthusiastic nudist. He made frequent trips back to England, clad in Savile Row suits, where he stayed at the Savoy.

In person, Patrick Macnee was charming, gossipy, and extremely generous, and delighted in meeting new people. He liked to describe himself as “a retired British actor.” His first marriage ended in 1956; his second, to Katherine Woodville (1965-68) was also dissolved. He married, for a third time, Baba Majos de Nagyzsenye, in 1988. She died in 2007, and he is survived by his son Rupert and daughter Jenny from his first marriage.