A Rare Find: Star of The Avengers Isn't So Terribly British
Actor acts well, journalist gets curious. They meet. Journalist beats hasty retreat, wondering how to write about boring, vain man who is the creation of good directors and has nary a thought in his empty head. This problem is particularly true among television performers, because networks consume people like abattoirs use meat.
John Steed, that witty man of daring-do on 'The Avengers' has journalist very curious. Steed is portrayed by Patrick Macnee. Journalist and Macnee meet. Journalist makes rare find: an actor even more interesting than the part he plays. But first a few facts...
The Avengers is a British TV series which ABC has for the past several seasons used as a January replacement show. It has consistently pleased the critics, received Emmy nominations and earned respectable though not large ratings. The fall, on Monday nights, The Avengers starts its first full season on American television.
John Steed, the leading Avenger, is terribly British, extremely conservative, impossibly droll, hellishly fashionable and rather hopelessly urbane. The characterization is so strong that even in Malibu one expects to be met at the door by a man with bowler, brolly and velvet collar.
Patrick Macnee, it turns out is British and there the resemblance ends.
"I am, at heart, a Californian. The trouble is, we British burn in the sun rather more easily than we tan," he says immediately after opening the door and seeing a startled journalist. There stands Patrick Macnee, slightly red in the face from the sun.
He is wearing cords and a bright green polo shirt complete with scarf and beads. He is barefoot, and as casual in manner as he is in appearance. That's John Steed?
"If I had my way, Kate and I would be living on a ranch up in Santa Barbara, raising horses and only going into the city when we were working," he said as Mrs. Macnee, an attractive young British actress named Kate Woodville, passed around especially prepared natural grape juice. Steed is an epicurean, but Macnee is a health food fan right now.
"But not totally. Kate is teaching me, and since I've dieted away 25 pounds with it, I'm getting more receptive to the idea. I'm at the stage where I prefer vegetables never to be cooked."
Mrs. Macnee works primarily in Hollywood, while her husband works most of the time in London. When time permits, they prefer their small apartment in Malibu to London. There has been a good deal of commuting during their three-year marriage.
"I don't mind the commuting bit because I'm an Aquarian and I love to be near the water. I dislike London. I think, basically, I'm most of the things that Steed is not. Steed would not be fond of going barefoot and being near the ocean."
No indeed. What made all this so surprising is that Macnee, a consummate actor-craftsman, also invented the character of Steed. Imagination and talent Macnee has.
"When we started the show eight years ago, Sidney Newman, who created 'The Avengers', said to me, 'Play it like George Sanders with a moustache.' Which was very vague and exactly the right thing for him to do, as it all turned out."
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"I opted out on the moustache and based Steed on the Scarlet Pimpernel books and on my father, who was a dandy. Steed is a traditionalist and my lady is futuristic. They both have in common that they live for the moment.
"My partner (currently Linda Thorson, successor to Diana Rigg) and I never use violence to get us out of the predicament.
"I learnt fencing and judo - the violent arts - at an early age. Lately I've gone back to pure, ordinary blows, rather like boxing. As our plots become increasingly mad, I fee I must become increasingly human.
"For instance, I never came on armed and I never pretended to have superman qualities. We're all a bit mad, you know, so I feel obligated to be as human as possible. Steed is a man who likes to think, and he prefers thoughts to violence."
'The Avengers', according to Macnee, "is just in profit after eight years. For a British show we have terribly high production values and a big budget - about $150,000 per episode. Over here you spend about $200,000 each show, so we're still inexpensive."
"We do it quite differently. Often we work on two shows at once, and we spend a minimum of 10 days on each one. In America, they spend at the most seven days, and never start over again. We once threw out a whole show and did it over again.
"I think the show is consistently good because they use good directors and some of the most imaginative writers in Britain. The writing and direction are terribly important in a show like ours."
Macnee, 46, intends to stay with 'The Avengers' as long as it runs, a loyalty rare in television, he has purchased the film rights to 'The Major', a novel by David Hughes, and will star in the project, hopefully late this year.
Dinner time was drawing near, and so was the last improbability of the day. Macnee bounded out on the balcony over the beach and went to work at the barbeque. Steed would be amused at such a quaint native custom.
From: Los Angeles Times, USA, May 8th 1968.
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