BREAKING NEWS: Patrick MacGoohan has died (1928-2009)
I’m stunned. I’m speechless. The biggest of my three role models from sixties – in many ways, my model of how to behave politically – has died.
Owing to bad planning on the part of his Irish parents, MacGoohan was actually born in New York, during a brief and ill-conceived attempt to improve their lot in life. It failed, and they moved back to Ireland shortly thereafter. Some years later, they moved to Ireland. After University, he got in to acting as a trade.
An unlikely leading man, MacGoohan was simultaneously rough-hewn and smooth, handsome and yet kind of awkward and gangly, a man of unconventional looks and a thoughtful delivery who seemed brooding and thoughtful even when playing happy roles. He was a guy who seemed to have a lot going on behind his eyes at all times, and from all accounts, he actually was. Orson Wells considered him one of the best stage actors of his generation, feeling he had an odd gravity unlike most of his peers.
He first came to prominence when he won the role of John Drake in “Danger Man,” the first in the soon-to-be-ubiquitous genre of sixties spy shows. It was, however, unlike any of its eventual imitators: A serious show, with a fairly high degree of logic and attention to plausible spy procedures. Echoing the actor who played him, Drake was a deeply moral man who opposed bloodshed, and avoided violence whenever possible. Unique among all spy shows, Drake almost never carried a gun, and when he did it was with great reluctance and he frequently went the extra mile to try and find ways to avoid it. It was also unique in that occasionally its protagonist failed, and they had to send in a ‘cleaner’ to fix the mess.
The show was a modest success at the time, but when it ended it had brought MacGoohan to the attention of Albert Brocoloi who was in the early stages of casting and preproduction for the first Bond film. The first person they offered the role to was Cary Grant, who rather famously turned it down feeling that this ‘Bond’ fellow was a horrible person. The next person they offered the part to was Patrick MacGoohan, who had similar objections to the nature of the character: A man who uses women illicitly, kills people indiscriminately, yet is portrayed as a good guy was not someone MacGoohan wanted to be associated with. He was merely a thug, a brutish, loutish, oversexed, thug.
“Oh. Well, can you suggest anyone who might be interested in playing the part?” Brocoli asked in desperation.
“Oh, yes, have you thought about Sean Connery? He’d be perfect for the part.”
In 1964, after the Bond films ended up becoming a cultural phenomenon, “Danger Man” was revived on TV in a slightly different format, and with a new theme song. In the ‘States, where the original series was all-but-unknown, it was renamed “Secret Agent” and given the famous Johnny Rivers theme song. The show started out strong, though somewhat less brooding and more conventional than in its original two seasons, but ultimately it went the way of all mid-sixties spy shows (and the Bond Franchise itself) by descending in to camp and self-parody. Early on in the fourth season, MacGoohan simply quit.
The show was a huge and lucrative hit at the time, and a massive focus of media speculation and gossip was the question of “Why did he quit?”
MacGoohan was fascinated with people’s fascination for his motivations, and though he already had another idea for a series he was working on, he decided to incorporate that question in to it as one of the fundamental hooks of the show: “Why did you resign?” That show, of course, was “The Prisoner,” conceived of as televisions’ first miniseries, it was to ask the question of what happens to spies when they want out of the game. Conceived of as a final farewell for the John Drake character, they were unable to use that name as the rights were controlled by a rival studio. Thus, in the words from the song, “They’ve given you a number and taken away your name,” Drake became “Number Six” and the show actually probably benefited from this. Drake’s relation to “6” became akin to the Charlton Comics character’s relations to “The Watchmen” – identical, but oddly not the same, and just as “Watchmen” transcended the superhero comic book genre and format, redefining and perfecting it in the process, so “The Prisoner” completely transcended and completed the spy genre: there is simply nothing left to say about it, or do in the genre anymore; everything else is simply variations on a theme.
Though all spy shows eventually wandered in to Science Fiction territory, “The Prisoner” started out there by design, and became, in the process, the most thought provoking, relevant, socially aware, science fiction series of all time; a show so good that despite the frequent use of clones, artificial life forms, virtual reality, rocket ships, technological resurrection of life, and mind control, most people don’t even recognize it as being SF. Rather it staked out a part of the genre that Philip K. Dick and the late Thomas Disch would have been comfortable with: The death (or myth) of privacy, What is human? What is the nature of one’s responsibility to society? What is the nature of societies’ responsibility to the individual? Is there such a thing as a just revolution, or are all these damn hippies just jerking around? Can a leader ever be anything other than an Antichrist? And so on. It’s a heady show to watch, even today. In fact, Disch himself later wrote a novel based on it.
Following the end of the series, he moved back to the US and lived there most of the time up until his death. Following the George Lazenby debacle, he was apparently offered the Bond role again, and he again turned it down for the same reasons as before. Apocryphally, he’s said to have suggested Roger Moore for them, this time.
In the forty-odd years since it ended, The Prisoner has affected every aspect of Science Fiction – “6” on the new Galactica is named after him, there are numerous nods to the show on Babylon 5, reflections of the series in “Lost” and elsewhere. Even the non-genre world has been influence by it, in shows like “Fantasy Island” and even “The Simpsons.”
Though continuing to act here and there – some TV appearances, and most notably playing the bad guy in “The Silver Streak” and a memorable role in “Scanners” – MacGoohan increasingly turned to behind-the-camera pursuits. After striking up a lifelong friendship with Peter Falk, Peter asked him to contribute more and more to “Columbo,” writing, directing, and acting in dozens of episodes of the series. Falk openly stated that much of the success of Columbo rested on MacGoohan’s ability to handle the character. He also was an active stage director and occasional actor, he was still on a short list of senior English thespians aggressively sought for high-profile projects. Mel Gibson jumped at the chance to give him his last great screen role as Edward Longshanks in “Braveheart.” Even so, in his later years, MacGoohan became known almost as much for roles he didn’t take as the ones he did, as you can see from his page on “Not Staring.Com” here http://www.notstarring.com/actors/mcgoohan-patrick He had also agreed to take the part of the Psicop Alfred Bester from Babylon 5, but had a heart attack shortly before filming was about to begin. Walter Koenig stepped in to the role as a personal favor at the last minute. I, personally, have always felt cheated by that. As great as Koenig was in the part, MacGoohan would have chewed the scenes and mopped the floor on that show. Having become close friends on “Braveheart,” Gibson and MacGoohan spent much of the late-90s trying to make a cinematic continuation of “The Prisoner,” in which he would have reprised his role as 6. Alas, this fell apart when financing couldn’t be found.
Surprisingly foul-mouthed in interview, but always a deeply religious man, he took his Catholicism seriously, and was a devoted husband and father for fifty-eight years. Though never evangelical about his beliefs, he never shied away from including obvious Christian allegory in The Prisoner when possible, and he proved that a man can have a strong sense of right and wrong and still make it in Hollywood while holding on to those values; but more than that, the focus of his most famous work was the notion that the individual drives society, and not the other way ‘round. He was an uncommon man who had the grounding to name his production company “Everyman Films.”
Goodbye, Mister MacGoohan: our prayers go with you, and your family. You will be missed. Goodbye, and thank you for all you’ve given us.
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