OBITUARY

TV spy who didn't look it

As dapper secret agent John Steed (with actress Linda Thorson), The Avengers actor Patrick Macnee (above) fought villains with understated wit and a traditionalist British fashion sense.
As dapper secret agent John Steed (with actress Linda Thorson), The Avengers actor Patrick Macnee (above) fought villains with understated wit and a traditionalist British fashion sense.PHOTO: CAMERA PRESS

Actor Patrick Macnee, who played secret agent John Steed on 1960s series The Avengers, died on Thursday

New York - Patrick Macnee, who wielded a lethal umbrella and sharp repartee as the dapper secret agent John Steed on the 1960s television series The Avengers, died on Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 93. His son Rupert confirmed his death.

Macnee faced off against an assortment of evildoers, armed with understated wit and a traditionalist British fashion sense that made him look less like a spy in the Bond mould than "a junior Cabinet minister", as he once put it, although his tightly rolled umbrella concealed a sword and other crime-fighting gadgets and his bowler hat, lined with a steel plate, could stop bullets and, when thrown, fell an opponent.

He was paired with a comely female partner, initially Honor Blackman but most famously Diana Rigg, stylish in a leather cat suit and every bit his equal in the wit and hand-to-hand-combat departments.


As dapper secret agent John Steed (above, with actress Linda Thorson), The Avengers actor Patrick Macnee fought villains with understated wit and a traditionalist British fashion sense. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

In many scenes, he was content to observe as Rigg, playing Emma Peel, unleashed her martial arts expertise on a hapless foe. He would often summon her to action with the words "Mrs Peel, we're needed".

Steed carried no gun. Aplomb and sangfroid were his weapons. In one episode, his back to the wall and facing a firing squad, he was asked if he had a last request. "Would you cancel my milk?" he said.

Born Daniel Patrick Macnee in London, he was expelled from Eton College for running a sports book and selling pornography. His father was a horse trainer and Macnee claimed that his mother, the former Dorothea Hastings, was a direct descendant of Robin Hood. After Hastings divorced his father for another woman, Macnee moved in with the two women.

His career of mostly supporting roles in plays and films led to what would become his most famous part. When Ian Hendry, star of The Avengers, left what was a gritty, black-and-white spy series about a year after it started, co-star Macnee took over the lead and helped turn it into a glossy, cult programme that became a hit worldwide.

It became known for the interaction, often humorous, between Steed and his various - often leather-clad - partners who also included Blackman's Cathy Gale and Linda Thorson's Tara King.

He said in 2010: "It was the first show that put its leading man and leading lady on an equal footing, and showed a woman fighting and kicking and throwing men around. That was a radical departure in its time."

The show ran till 1969, and was revived in 1976 as The New Avengers with Joanna Lumley as Steed's female partner. In all its time on the air, it was never entirely clear whom Steed worked for.

Macnee ultimately joined forces with his peer in dapper British espionage: He played a fellow Secret Service agent in A View To A Kill (1985) starring Roger Moore as James Bond. He also played Watson to Moore's Sherlock Holmes in a TV movie before eventually moving up to the main role himself in the 1993 TV movie The Hound Of London. He appeared in cult films such as This Is Spinal Tap (1984) and The Howling (1981).

He also appeared with the familiar suit and umbrella in a video for the Oasis song Don't Look Back In Anger in 1996 and contributed an off-screen voice in the poorly received 1998 film of The Avengers, in which Ralph Fiennes played Steed and Uma Thurman played Mrs Peel.

His first two marriages ended in divorce. His second wife was actress Katherine Woodville, who played a murder victim on the first episode of The Avengers. His third wife, author Baba Majos de Nagyzsenye, died in 2007. He is also survived by a daughter. New York Times, Bloomberg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline 'Obituary TV spy who didn't look it'. Print Edition | Subscribe