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McGoohan, Patrick (1928-2009)

Actor, Writer, Director

Main image of McGoohan, Patrick (1928-2009)

An intense, enigmatic performer, Patrick McGoohan seldom revealed what was going on beneath the surface of the characters he played, his fleeting sideways smile never quite reaching the eyes. It was a quality that defined his most famous roles, the first as an international agent intent on discovering secrets, the second as a very unwilling captive determined to preserve his own.

Born in New York on 19 March 1928, he was moved just months later to his parents' farm in Ireland, relocating again to Sheffield seven years later. Evacuated to Loughborough during WWII, he attended Ratcliffe College, where he developed an interest in boxing. He left school at 16 and took a series of jobs, dabbling in amateur dramatics before becoming stage manager at Sheffield Repertory in 1947; his professional acting career began when he stood in for an ailing company member at the eleventh hour.

More stage work followed at the Bristol Old Vic and in the West End, and in 1955 he signed a contract with the Rank Organisation - a decision he later bitterly regretted. This period saw him typically cast as heavies, notably as the corrupt, bullying Red in the very macho haulage melodrama Hell Drivers (d. Cy Enfield, 1957). Eventually breaking free of Rank, he enjoyed further theatrical success as Ibsen's 'Brand' in 1959; a performance he reprised on the small screen (BBC, tx 11/8/1959).

His first defining television role followed soon after, as NATO troubleshooter John Drake in Danger Man (ITV, 1960-61: 1964-67). His tough but cerebral performance won him new admirers when the series was transmitted in the US as Secret Agent. McGoohan insisted that the character would not typically carry a gun or seduce women, which marked Danger Man out from its contemporaries in the 1960s TV spy boom and evidently irritated the series' American backers, while also explaining why around this time he reportedly turned down offers to play both James Bond and Simon Templer, aka The Saint. Instead, McGoohan himself pitched the idea for The Prisoner (ITV, 1967-8) - about a former agent who wakes to find himself trapped in a mysterious Village - to ITC mogul Lew Grade, who approved the project based on his faith in McGoohan alone.

The Prisoner was driven by the non-conformist McGoohan's belief in individualism; and the actor scripted three episodes and directed four, as well as starring as Number Six, the otherwise nameless protagonist. His weekly mantra, "I am not a number, I am a free man," was the curtain-raiser to a series of often surreal adventures which delighted and baffled audience in equal measure. The series' vision, striking design and sense of playful experiment chimed with the politics and aesthetics of the emerging counterculture with its preoccupation with rebellion, personal liberty and the mutability of identity. Today, The Prisoner retains a loyal, sometimes obsessive fan base and stands alongside its contemporary The Avengers (ITV, 1961-69) among the most stylish and iconic television series of the 1960s.

Running parallel to his television career was a continued presence on the big screen, with successes in Dublin prison drama The Quare Fellow (d. Arthur Dreifuss, 1962) and period adventure Dr Syn Alias the Scarecrow (d. James Neilson, 1963), although the Cold War potboiler Ice Station Zebra (d. John Sturges, 1968) was less well received. Work on the last was completed between episodes of The Prisoner, and the series' bizarre finale prompted such national outcry that he decided to decamp to America. He maintained his profile in films such as The Silver Streak (US, 1976) and Escape from Alcatraz (US, 1978), which saw him cast once again in villainous mould, while on television he made a record four appearances as the guest killer in Columbo (US, 1974-98), also directing several episodes. He was a more ambivalent figure in David Cronenberg's Scanners (Canada, 1981), which exploited both his cult image and aura of inscrutable authority.

In the 1990s he returned to British screens to play George Bernard Shaw in The Best of Friends (d. Alvin Rakoff, 1991), and was a memorable 'Longshanks' - King Edward I - in Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995). By the time of his death in 2009 he had long resigned himself to the fact that he would be remembered primarily for The Prisoner - he even reprised the role for a 2000 episode of The Simpsons (US, 1989-) in which Homer thwarts Six's ultimate escape attempt by stealing his home-made raft. But he had already built up a formidable body of work prior to entering the Village, and his obituaries paid tribute to one of the screen's most original talents.

Richard Hewitt

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