Diana Rigg first beguiled baby boomers in the ’60s as Emma Peel on The Avengers. Half a century later she was charming millennials as “Princess Olenna Tyrell” on Game of Thrones. Rigg, who died of cancer September 10 at the age of 82, had not only the ability to transcend generations but genres as well, moving effortlessly from the stage to film and then to television, making those transitions all her life. Respected on the stage, famous on screens large and small, but never troubled by the constraints of celebrity—her private life remained pretty much just that, and she never suffered from overexposure, never wore out her welcome. It’s strange that people ever asked, “What happened to Diana Rigg?” although over five decades the question did arise, and more than once. Strange, because she was there the whole time.
As recently as 2018, she was doing both theater and television at the same time—playing Henry Higgins’ mother in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady and portraying the cunning yet engaging Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones on HBO. In and out of the shadows, on and off stage, she was always turning up in unexpected places, as when she appeared alongside her daughter, Rachael Stirling, in Dr. Who. When it came to television, she always had the fantasy-gamer-science fiction nerds eating from her hand. As for Shakespeare territory, she’d conquered that even before taking on the role of Emma Peel in The Avengers in the mid ’60s. What a Dame!
Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born July 20, 1938 in Doncaster, in Yorkshire. Shortly after her birth, her parents, Louis and Beryl Hilda Rigg, moved to India, where her father worked as a railroad executive. She grew up speaking both English and Hindi. When she was eight, the family moved back to England, where Rigg went off to boarding school and then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1959 she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.
On July 8, 1973, Diana Rigg married Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, and two years later, almost to the minute, the couple split. It was a short lived union, but it bested her own wry prediction: “I have met my match. We fight all the time, but it’s a marvelous, marvelous relationship… I give it a year.” Before her marriage to Gueffen, her attitude was even more cavalier: “Quite honestly, I’d prefer living with someone… It’s a greater discipline than being married, because you know you can go at any time.” This, from the one Bond girl to become Mrs. James Bond, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). The cavalier attitude of youth mellowed, and Rigg married and divorced twice. In 1977, she had a daughter, Rachael, with Archie Stirling, a theatrical producer, and the couple opted for the conventions of marriage in 1982. Rachael Stirling, herself an acclaimed actress, trended toward tradition, marrying and making Rigg a grandmother.
In her role as Emma Peel on the ’60s British television series The Avengers, Rigg became not only a star but a fashion icon famous for her fitted catsuits. Her trademark skintight look launched a thousand secret agents, villains, and superheroines, and endures today as the go-to outfit for badass women. Rigg allegedly created her look for her “Queen of Sin” costume in the controversial “Touch of Brimstone” episode of The Avengers, but there is little if any hard evidence to bolster that claim. The leather catsuits popularized by Mrs. Peel were in fact created by fashion designer John Bates. Hip huggers and short hemlines were also integral to the character’s stylized mod image, and many of the designs were mass produced and sold under the label The Avengerswear. Still, for decades the rumor persisted that Rigg herself not only designed but sewed her own black leather dominatrix outfit.
In the ’60s, a rising star in the Royal Shakespeare Company ran a calculated risk by slumming in television. The medium was still fairly new, and not respected by “serious” actors. But Rigg took small parts, and while acting in the two mediums is very different, she ably straddled both, along the way adding film to the mix. In 1965, Honor Blackman left The Avengers and without ever having watched the show, Rigg auditioned for the role of John Steed’s sidekick, which she got in part because the show’s male lead, Patrick MacNee, lobbied strongly for her. MacNee’s hunch proved correct: He and Rigg synced, and with similarly droll senses of humor, the two started writing witty scenes about encountering dead bodies—an ongoing scenario that the show’s writers hadn’t thought to envelope in humor.
After the first season, Rigg was so loved by audiences that she had the traction to fight the wage disparity between herself and MacNee. Her 90 pounds to his 400 was ghastly, as some members of the crew were paid better than she was. So she threatened to quit, and was massaged back into the fold with her salary doubled. The gap wasn’t closed, but such battles were hard-won for women working in the ’60s.
Tired of being treated like a sex symbol in the press, weary of having her privacy invaded by fans, and eager to act on the stage again, Rigg left The Avengers in 1968. But it was not an altogether easy decision to go, because by then she and MacNee had developed the Peel and Steed characters so thoroughly to their mutual liking, so much so that fans speculated about the characters’ backstory and whether or not they had been lovers.
The Avengers worked, because Steed’s assistants—Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, and Tara King—were television’s first keenly aware, capable, and beguiling female proto-spies. And it was all “quite by accident,” according to Rigg, that Emma Peel “ became this avant-garde woman. Yes, she was ahead of her time. I wish it were as a result of the writers being ahead of their time, but they weren’t. The fact of the matter is that [in the original casting for the show] they had Patrick MacNee and Ian Hendry playing it. Ian Hendry left, all of a sudden, and they cast Honor Blackman—who’s wonderful—in the part and they didn’t change the script, because they didn’t have time. So suddenly Honor has all of these sort of masculine attributes—she was suddenly able to look after herself, handle a gun, fight anything and anybody, and it grew. And it’s not because they were way ahead of their time and clever. It was a very happy accident for which they were eternally grateful and never actually spoke the truth about it.”
Smart cookie, Diana Rigg. In one interview, she talked about the possibility of being typecast: “I think there is a danger, obviously. And it’s up to anybody who is playing something like this to do something completely different if possible, as soon as possible.” Hence her haste to return to theater. “The first thing I did when I stopped doing The Avengers was to go back to the Royal Shakespeare and say, ‘Thank you, now I can sell tickets,’ which I couldn’t before. And it was my way of acknowledging where I had been nurtured.”
Rigg left an indelible mark on theater in the ’70s, first in England through her work with Peter Brook at RSC and subsequently with her first Broadway performance in Abelard and Heloise and two Tom Stoppard plays, Night and Day and Jumpers. These early starring roles pulled her from the television rut and gave her the space she needed to grow as an actress (with the often ambiguous plus of name recognition). Always willing to express gratitude to whoever or whatever got her where she was going, she was always gracious with fans of The Avengers and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service when they showed up at the stage doors waving photographs of Emma Peel and Tracy Bond. About the long shadows of the Bond film and The Avengers, she said, “I have to acknowledge what I owe them, and I do acknowledge it.”
Rigg was nominated for four Tony Awards, most recently for her 2018 Broadway role as Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady, and in 1994, she won the Best Actress Tony for her role in Medea, a role she originated in London in 1992.
In 2013, Rigg began making guest appearances on HBO’s Game of Thrones as Olenna Tyrell, for which she won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2018 appearances. Olenna is sharp, cunning and wise with a quick wit, and she is the power behind the House of Tyrell. The undercurrent theme of tolerance is expressed in her acceptance, albeit not explicitly discussed, of her grandson Loras’ homosexuality, but she was an elder and a steadfast adherent to killing to gain stature. Her last season on the show was 2018, but a younger generation was touched by a character she embodied. The publicity surrounding Olenna Tyrell’s death was so immense that I thought Diana Rigg, the actress had passed away. I am only saddened to know it was her this time. Rest in Peace, Dynamo!