June 26, 2015

Patrick Macnee, R.I.P.

Mrs. Peel may have gotten all the attention (and for good reason), but for my money John Steed was the irreplaceable member of The Avengers.  He was suave, sophisticated, stylish - oh, how he had style! Look up the word in the dictionary and you'll see John Steed's picture - and witty.  He would have made anyone an Anglophile.

The thing about John Steed, though - and there's always a thing - is that he didn't get where he was by accident.  One doesn't become a survivor in British intelligence by being a pushover.  Throughout the show's run, and particularly in the early years, there was a menace to Steed's manner that made it abundantly clear that this was not a man to be trifled with.  It was that edge, that constant threat of danger implied, that made the "Avenger" part of The Avengers ring true.

Yes, while Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson and even Joanna Lumley came and went*, there was one constant to The Avengers - Patrick Macnee.  And if John Steed was The Avengers and Patrick Macnee was John Steed - well, you see where I'm going there.

*And also Ian Hendry and Julie Stevens and Jon Rollason and Gareth Hunt, but the those four were the ones most remembered. 

Macnee was a veteran of stage and screen even before becoming John Steed, of course - look for his small but memorable role in Alistar Sims' version of A Christmas Carol, for instance - and he continued to work well after the end of The Avengers, but when people think of him they'll always go back to the man in the bowler who carried the umbrella and got to work with these incredible babes.  And while there are some heroes whose sex appeal escapes the viewer, you were never left wondering how it was that Steed was able to attract these incredible women.  He had every quality a woman would want, from a sense of humor to an indomitable self-assuredness.  He always took his work seriously, but not necessarily how he did it.  He truly was the man that every woman wanted and every man wanted to be like.  This article from The Telegraph tells you everything you'd need to know about how that made The Avengers work.

Macnee was the kind of actor you looked for as a guest star in other series, and when you ran across the name you made sure to watch the episode, even if you weren't a fan of the show itself.  He was a ship's captain in Columbo and a man who thought he was Sherlock Holmes in Magnum, P.I., and lent his voice to the Cylon leader in the original Battlestar Galactica (as well as doing the voiceover to the opening credits).  Whether playing the hero or the villain, he was a wonderful presence on screen, one that forced you to watch him.

And maybe that's why Patrick Macnee's death yesterday at the age of 93 stings.  Not because of death itself; anyone who lives to the ripe old age of 93 can be said to have had a good run.  Not because he won't be playing Steed anymore; thanks to modern technology those performances will be with us forever.  No, the reason his death creates an emptiness is because it quite literally leaves a void.  Think about it for a moment: who, today, could play the suave Steed?  Not Ray Fiennes, who tried in the movie version and failed.  Is there anyone out there with the blend of humor and menace, the smoothness without smarminess, the confidence without arrogance (not too much, anyway), the charm and sophistication?  Anyone?

I think not, but then the qualities that Patrick Macnee exemplified in the guise of John Steed, the qualities of his own personality that shone through his various roles over the years, is out of fashion everywhere.  Grunge and snark and slouching are in, while chivalry and manliness are yesterday's news.  And yet I prefer to think that there will always be a place for someone like John Steed; the question is, is there anyone out there up to the task?

To coin a phrase from The Avengers, one of its most famous:  Mr. Macnee, you're needed.


  1. Wonderful tribute, Mitchell. This year's holiday screening of "Too Many Christmas Trees" will be a bit more bittersweet.

  2. Patrick Macnee, during the period that he was doing The Avengers, commuted between Britain and California - he had held alien resident status (AKA the "green card") since the late '50s. Much of his early career was in live TV in New York, and film shows (including Westerns) in Hollywood.
    Think of it - the elegant British Gentleman was a Malibu beachcomber at heart ... and in fact.
    Macnee ultimately became a US citizen in 1982, celebrating the event with an appearance on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.
    He'd just wrapped The New Avengers, and told how he'd "lost" the Steed character - until he happened to see Benny Hill's take-off on his own show, and then realized what he should be doing.
    Macnee later wrote a memoir about The Avengers, in which he saluted Hill (who had since passed on) for his help, however unintended, with the work.

    By the way:

    That was Ralph Fiennes in the movie.
    For some reason, the British pronounce the name "Ralph" as "Rafe".
    Don't ask; I still can't figure out how they get "Fines" from "Fiennes".


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!