In Memory – Patrick Macnee (6 February 1922 – 25 June 2015)
Daniel Patrick Macnee was a British and American actor, best known for his role as the umbrella-twirling, bowler-hatted secret agent John Steed in the TV series The Avengers. We pay tribute to Patrick who has died at the age of 93.
The Avengers started as an idea back in late 1960, developed initially as vehicle for Ian Hendry’s talents after his Police Surgeon series ended. Perhaps few would have foreseen at the time that it would go on to develop into a worldwide cult phenomenon that continues to bring joy to so many people.
Indeed it is a tribute to Patrick, the cast and production team behind the series, that many who were not even born at the time of first transmission have now become die-hard and knowledgeable fans.
The elder of two sons, Macnee was born in London in 1922 to Daniel and Dorothea Mary (née Hastings) Macnee. His father trained race horses in Lambourn. His maternal grandmother was Frances Alice Hastings, who was descended from the Earls of Huntingdon.
His parents divorced after his mother became a lesbian and began to live with her wealthy partner, whom Macnee referred to as “Uncle Evelyn” in the memoirs he dictated to Marie Cameron, Blind In One Ear: The Avenger Returns, and who helped pay for Macnee’s schooling. He was educated at Summer Fields School and Eton College, where he was a member of the Officer Training Corps and was one of the honour guard for King George V at St George’s Chapel in 1936. He was later expelled from Eton for selling pornography and being a bookmaker for his fellow students.
He studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art, but shortly before he was to perform in his first West End leading role, which would have had him acting alongside Vivien Leigh, he was called up for the United Kingdom Armed Forces. He joined the Royal Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1942 and was commissioned a sub-lieutenant in 1943, becoming a navigator on Motor Torpedo Boats in the English Channel and North Sea. He caught bronchitis just before D-Day; while he was recuperating in hospital, his boat and crew were lost in action. He left the Navy in 1946 as a lieutenant.
Unimpressed by the overall prospects in post-war Britain, he went off to Canada, where there were opportunities for young actors on TV. He sent much of his earnings back to his wife, the actor Barbara Douglas, whom he had married in 1942. He also took parts in many US TV shows and stage productions. In 1949 he appeared in a TV version of Macbeth and in 1953 was in Othello. In 1951 he played the young Jacob Marley in the film of Scrooge (A Christmas Carol in the US). He was working in London in a rare production role, on the documentary series Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years, when he was offered the part in The Avengers.
He appeared in more than 150 stage plays from his 20s to his 70s, including the Broadway production of Sleuth in the early 1970s and the leading role in Killing Jessica in the West End of London in 1986-87. He played both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson several times. A memorable big-screen part was as Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in This Is Spinal Tap (1984). He was also in The Howling (1981) and the Bond film A View to a Kill (1985).
Picture: Patrick Macnee as John Steed
Despite a long and diverse career in the theatre and cinema, Patrick Macnee will be best remembered as John Steed. In the first series, the lead part was that of Dr. David Keel, played by Ian Hendry, with John Steed acting as his trusted partner. After Ian Hendry left the series in 1962 to develop his career in films, Patrick’s roled was developed into the lead role and he was to play opposite a succession of glamorous female partners who included Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg and finally Linda Thorson.
Although Macnee evolved in the role as the series progressed, the key elements of Steed’s persona and appearance were there from very early on: the slightly mysterious demeanour and, increasingly, the light, suave, flirting tone with ladies (and always with his female assistants). Finally, from the episodes with Honor Blackman onwards, the trademark bowler hat and umbrella completed the image.
Though it was traditionally associated with London “city gents”, the ensemble of suit, umbrella and bowler had developed in the post-war years as mufti for ex-servicemen attending Armistice Day ceremonies. Macnee, alongside designer Pierre Cardin, adapted the look into a style all his own, and he went on to design several outfits himself for Steed based on the same basic theme. Steed was also the central character of a revival, follow-on series, The New Avengers (1976–77), in which he was teamed with agents named Purdey (Joanna Lumley) and Mike Gambit (Gareth Hunt).
Macnee had two children, Rupert and Jenny, from his first marriage to Barbara Douglas (1942?1956). His second marriage (1965?1969) was to actress Katherine Woodville. His third marriage was to Baba Majos de Nagyzsenye, and it lasted from 1988 to her death in 2007. For the last forty years of his life, Macnee lived in Rancho Mirage, California.
Patrick Macnee + The Avengers – A Lasting Legacy
Whilst we pay tribute to the sad loss of the man who came to personify the series – the quintessential British gentleman Patrick Macnee – we are confident that his memory and that of the series will live on through those who treasure him and The Avengers so dearly.
The Avengers Declassified noted in their tribute to Patrick Macnee, ‘Ian Hendry, when interviewed by TV Times in 1976, acknowledged Patrick’s importance in the history, development and ultimate success of The Avengers’.
“Although I was the first Avenger, Pat will always be Avenger-in-Chief.”
For a fine overview of Patrick Macnee’s life we recommend reading:
Here we remember – in pictures – some moments from the very beginning – when John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Dr. David Keel (Ian Hendry) joined forces for the first time to ‘avenge’ the murder of Keel’s fiancee.
We begin with a touching video clip of when Patrick Macnee is reunited with his original partner on Ian Hendry’s This Is Your Life (1978).
Perhaps – after all these years – the two original members of The Avengers have been reunited once again. We certainly like to think so.
Our heartfelt condolences go to the family, friends and is many fans around the world.
Editor, Official Website of Ian Hendry