The Canadian Avenger
Just 20, Toronto's Linda Thorson has hit the big-time as co-star in a TV series that's shown in 62 countries.
Everybody else on the set of 'The Avengers' was sitting at ease, but Patrick Macnee, paying the penalty of stardom, stood hour after weary hour to protect the immaculate crease in his trousers. "Mustn't wrinkle them, old boy," he sighed, and to take his mind off the tedious procedure of shooting new title sequences for the series, he recalled his debt to Canada.
Macnee is a rarity among actors, a fellow with a minimum of ego and a strange penchant for giving credit where it is due. As the star of one of the most successful of all television series - it is shown in 62 countries - he might be forgiven a bit for preening but he is more apt to mention that he was once a bum in California and returning there as a celebrity appeals to his sense of humor.
On this morning at the studios Macnee had good reason for concentrating on Canada. The new titles were intended to mark the debut of Linda Thorson (Tara King), 20, of Toronto, as his fourth co-star in seven years. She a surprise choice for the plum role, fresh out of drama school and starting at the top. Macnee could have wished she had more experience but he was impressed with her looks and 'guts' and there was the rapport he always felt with Canadians.
We stood there watching the self-possessed Miss Thorson rehearse, undulating across the scene. "She's got the same measurements as Sophia Loren," murmured an admiring onlooker. Another remarked that Linda was not the least delirious about a show business break of the first magnitude. To step from the classroom to certain international fame, if the talent is there, happens only rarely even in the better story books.
Yet instead of exulting, Miss Thorson was mildly regretful that the series had cost her a chance to play in a revival of the musical Guys and Dolls, at a provincial repertory theatre!
"Such great songs," she said, humming 'I've Never Been In Love Before'. Then she moved off again with the flowing walk of a trained dancer and Macnee studied her with a curiously speculative look in his eyes.
"I don't know enough about her yet," he explained, "so I watch her. I want us to have the same easy, friendly relations I had with Ian Hendry, with whom I started the series, and then with Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg who succeeded him. We're going to have to spend a large part of our working lives together and I'd like it to be happy for both our sakes."
He said he had been worried for a while about a screen romance of sorts, even a light-hearted and kissless one, with a girl in the same age bracket as his daughter, but he had been out dancing the night before with his new co-star and now he felt her youth would be contagious. "She dances divinely, old boy, divinely." I took his word for it: the girl has prizes for that very thing.
Macnee, a handsome 46-year old, is a cousin of David Niven and a descendent on his mother's side from the Earls of Huntington - who claim Robin Hood as an ancestor. He achieved modest success late in his career and values it the more. And he said it might never have come to pass if he had not had a share in 'the golden age' of TV in Canada.
"I was a tight English actor," he said, "getting fair roles but noting spectacular after the war (he was a torpedo boat commander and the only night he was away from his boat it was blown up with heavy casualties). I played in about 30 or 40 TV plays and a few films and then I got a call from an old friend, David Green, who was a TV director in Canada.
"He asked me to come over to star in a TV series. The Moonstone. It was the first real break of my career. The years 1952 to 1955 were a wonderful time for TV in Canada. We opened the station in Toronto and did practically everything. So the tight English actor evolved into a reasonably good actor.
"Sidney Newman was head of the studio. Silvio Marizzano, who made the film 'Georgy Girl', was there. So was Norman Jewison who later filmed 'In The Heat Of The Night'. Arthur Hiller who did 'The Americanization of Emily' and others.
'I played in radio all day to pay the rent and I was in the first play at the Crest Theatre, 'Richard of Bordeaux'. In retrospect, I was a very bad actor before Canada, very insular, very English. Radio helped my voice production and the roles I got on TV broadened my technique. I played with Lorne Greene and Christopher Plummer in Othello and with Lloyd Bochner in Hamlet.
"Sidney Newman later became a TV executive here and in 1960 when they were planning The Avengers he remembered me. And only just in time. I hadn't been able to get a role for nine months and I was working as a producer on the London end of the Winston Churchill TV series. In the first episode of The Avengers I was bareheaded and Newman said: "This is terrible, we must do something about those clothes." We went back to the 18th century - flowery language and flowery clothes, an up-dated version of Sir Percy Blakeney in The Scarlet Pimpernel."
The idea was that Macnee would help Hendry track down the slayers of his wife. The role of the wife was played by Catherine Woodville who, although she was killed in the opening episode, lived on in Macnee's real life affections. She became his second wife in 1965. Miss Woodville spends most of her time in American TV, based at Macnee's home in Malibu Beach, Cal.
After the first season Hendry checked out of the series and Macnee got the first of his trio of highly publicised co-starts, Honor Blackman, a leading lady who had never quite reached film stardom. Miss Blackman became a TV star, decked out in black leather, judoing her male opponents without disturbing a hair on her blonde head. Macnee adores her.
"Honor," he said, "is one of the most feminine women I know and we are still the closest of friends four years after she left the show. She is 40 now but still one of the most beautiful women in films."
Miss Blackman ascended to a James Bond film and was followed by Diana Rigg, 29, one of the most talented actresses of The Royal Shakespeare Company. Her lanky, loose-limbed good looks and acting ability made her a great favourite before she, too, moved on to feature films.
"I never got on the same close basis with Diana," Macnee said, "but she has the best sense of humour I have ever known in a woman and in my opinion she is the best comedienne we've had in Britain since the late Kay Kendall."
Miss Rigg used to disable the villains with a ballet version of judo, very graceful and effective on the screen; where the stunt men have their orders, but not recommended against a thug in a dark alley.
Miss Thorson now made her reappearance for another shot and, taking a deep breath, remarked unnecessarily that speech training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts had expanded her ribs three inches. "They taught me to breathe in England," she revealed. They also taught her how to diet and she is now 14 pounds under what she considers her best weight.
"The girls get most of the attention and that's fine with me," Macnee said. "You can't blame an audience for wanting to see a girl in a bikini instead of Patrick Macnee, but some people must tune in just for me."
This is modesty. Some time ago Macnee threatened to quit over salary and a production executive, since departed, said that was all right with him - they would simply find a replacement. They couldn't and didn't and a quick reading of the industry pulse revealed the show would not have the same acceptance without Macnee. He got the raise.
"Macnee is the only indispensable character in The Avengers," said producer Brian Clemens. "We can't change him but we can change the girls - we've done it."
Macnee was delighted when this conversation was reported to him.
"I used to be a terrible masochist," he said, "always telling myself 'I can't do it'. I spent a year in analysis and since then I've had much more confidence. Linda has an amazing amount for a girl just starting out."
Despite a broken-marriage Linda is well-adjusted, indeed, professionally. She credits the solid groundwork she got at the Royal Academy.
"Everybody seems to have a good word to say for Canada," she remarked. "After I left school I was auditioned by John Huston for a film. I was too tall for his leading man (she is five foot nine) but when he heard I was a Canadian he said Toronto was his favourite city. He went on and on about it. I thought he was pulling my leg but he meant it. Definitely."
From: The Toronto Star Weekend Magazine, Canada, March 1968.
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