Date of Birth: 6 February 1922, Paddington, London, UK
Birth Name: Daniel Patrick Macnee
Nicknames: Patrick Macnee
Patrick Macnee was cast to perfection as the imperturbable secret agent John Steed in the 1960s television series The Avengers, he brought etonian nonchalance and jaunty eccentricity to the part.
The programme began as unremarkable detective fare, with the raincoated Macnee playing second fiddle to Ian Hendry’s forensic surgeon. When Hendry left after the first season, Steed was pushed to the fore and Macnee threatened with the sack unless he breathed life into the character. Steed re-emerged as a lethal dandy, sporting boutonnière, sword-cane and curly-brimmed bowler. He was indubitably a gentleman and Macnee imbued the part with plenty of his own Etonian nonchalance and jaunty eccentricity.The Avengers became an unlikely farrago of Aleister Crowley and P G Wodehouse, a mix of the surreal and the camp set in an England of village greens and stately homes that concealed murderous marriage bureaus, sinister vicars and scientists over-boiling the white heat of technology. Produced with considerable visual flair, it became synonymous with the “Swinging Sixties” and was one of the first British programmes to do well in America.
Much of its success and enduring appeal lay in its ironic subversion of the conventions of the spy genre. Steed was not averse to fisticuffs, but he had none of Bond’s sadism and he eschewed guns Macnee had experienced too much real violence during the Second World War. The programme was also novel in the status given to Steed’s female partners notably Honor Blackman as the steely Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg as the coolly kittenish Emma Peel. Brought up by women, Macnee was willing to let Steed’s leather-clad partners demonstrate their mental and physical equality. He also thrived on the playful sexual tension between the characters.
The Avengers ran between 1960 and 1969; a lame sequel made in the mid-1970s, The New Avengers, also featured Macnee, but only served to show how charming and how definitive had been his performance the first time round.
Daniel Patrick Macnee was born in London on February 6 1922. His mother, a niece of the 13th Earl of Huntingdon and a rather giddy socialite, went into labour at a party and Macnee never discovered from her whether she reached hospital or if he was born in a carriage half-way down the Bayswater Road.
The rest of his childhood was no less confused. His father was a racehorse trainer, a diminutive man known as “Shrimp” Macnee whose dapper wardrobe his son later recreated for Steed. He had a taste for gin and enlivened his dinner parties by levelling a shotgun at those guests he suspected of pacifist tendencies.
Macnee’s mother took refuge in a circle of friends that included Tallulah Bankhead and the madam Mrs Meyrick, before absconding with a wealthy lesbian, Evelyn. Young Patrick was brought up by the pair and was instructed to call Evelyn “Uncle”. He managed to resist their efforts to dress him as a girl, wearing a kilt as a compromise. His father fled to India, from where he was later expelled for urinating off a balcony on to the heads of the Raj’s elite, gathered below for a race-meeting.
Evelyn financed Macnee’s education, at Summer Fields where he first acted, playing opposite Christopher Lee and then Eton. His corruption began when he was introduced to whisky by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, who had escaped into the garden with a bottle when brought in to consecrate Evelyn’s private chapel. Macnee was then expelled from Eton for running a pornography and bookmaking empire.
He trained as an actor at the Webber-Douglas school and began to get some repertory work. Cast more for his looks than talent, he was due to play his first West End lead opposite Vivien Leigh when he received his call-up papers in 1942. He served in Motor Torpedo Boats until 1946, rising to lieutenant. He caught bronchitis shortly before D-Day; while in hospital his boat and crew were destroyed in action.
Macnee made his film debut in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp in 1943, and after the war landed several other small parts, appearing as a courtier in Olivier’s Hamlet and The Elusive Pimpernel. The latter starred David Niven, whom he mistakenly claimed as a cousin and who consequently found him work. Yet by now he had a family to support, and when promised better roles by the embryonic Canadian Broadcasting Corporation moved to Toronto, while his wife and children remained behind. It was a decision he later bitterly regretted.
For the next eight years Macnee drifted across North America. His breezily crisp accent brought him regular stage and television work, though he also played a sheriff in the Western series Rawhide. He continued to attract the bizarre. Once he rescued some chimpanzees from a fire at an animal trainer’s ranch; while driving them to safety, one monkey clamped its hands over his eyes, almost causing his car to plunge into a ravine. In Toronto itself for The Importance of Being Earnest, he was forced by Dame Edith Evans to strap her to a stretcher and drag her through snow 10 feet deep to her hotel.
In 1960 he returned to England, his marriage over. He decided he was too old not to have a proper job, a conclusion reached when he came home to find he had been replaced in the affections of a much younger girlfriend by a French thief and his team of huskies.
He was producing a television documentary series based on Churchill’s history of the war, The Valiant Years, when he was cast in The Avengers, having literally bumped into the producer in Piccadilly. Although he was a more competent actor than he gave himself credit for, he was content in later years to stroll through a series of unmemorable roles. He believed he might have been offered better parts had he not rejected the lead in Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth when offered it in 1970. He later played the part on Broadway.
Among his less forgettable film appearances were as a record producer in the seminal rock spoof This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and as Bond’s chauffeur in A View To A Kill (1985). He retired to Palm Springs, California, and cheerfully took well-paid cameo roles in American television series, among them the sublimely dreadful Thunder In Paradise, a vehicle for the wrestler Hulk Hogan. In 1996 he appeared in a video for the rock group Oasis.
Macnee made considerable efforts to escape the constraints of his own character and Establishment image. He felt strongly that he had been socially and sexually confused by his upbringing and schooling and found America a less repressed environment; he became an active member of a nudist colony in the mid-1970s.
Although he remained outwardly chirpy and chivalrous, he was prone to depression and guilt, particularly over his infidelities and the severe asthmatic illness of his daughter, which he saw as a punishment for deserting his family for Canada. He also fought lengthy, and ultimately successful, battles against alcohol and mounting weight.
He published a candid autobiography, Blind In One Ear, in 1988.