Patrick Macnee easily plays a stylish spy in 'The Avengers'

By ancestral tradition and inspiration, Patrick Macnee, star of Britain's comedy spy series, The Avengers, seen Friday nights on Channels 7, 13 and 49, and Thursdays on Channel 2, might have become a Robin Hood (supposedly a maternal ancestor), a portrait painter (his grandfather was  Royal Academician Sir Daniel Macnee), or a jockey (his father, Daniel "Shrimp" Macnee, was a famous trainer).

The small Patrick, who often rode the course with other more celebrated jockeys, dreamed of one day carrying the silks, and grew more bitter in disappointment as he grew taller.

Now, the 6-foot-1, fortyish portrayer of the elegant secret agent, John Steed - the understated swashbuckler with furled umbrella, the connoisseur of tailoring, food, wine, women and fast cards - combines characteristics of all three forebears.  John Steed operates dangerously in the 20th century; his heart is in the stylish highlands of the 18th century.

If, as British commentators have noted, there is a weirdly exact similarity between the upper-crust actor and his upper-crust role, it is because Macnee has formed and colored John Steed as a somewhat wistful version of himself.  "Steed is pretty much me," he confirms.  "I feel I'm satirizing my own class."

It was after the pilot show of the series had been screened that Macnee decided that the larger-than-life figure of John Steed ("a thoroughly professional secret agent; expert at murder, arson, burglary, forgery and the use of explosives, codes and poisons... dedicated, ruthless, unscrupulous") was diminished by an ordinary wardrobe.  He designed for himself an ultra-Edwardian look: curly-brimmed bowler, exquisitely fitted suits, embroidered waistcoats, and a furled umbrella.  This not only made the role; it influenced male fashion.

Descended from earls and knights, educated at Eton, professionally schooled in British Shakespearean repertory, this cousin of David Niven got his TV indoctrination in Hollywood after a bit of bar-tending in a Chicago strip-tease joint, and a bit of beach-combing at Malibu.  In Stetson and spurs, he stirred up dust in Wagon Train, Rawhide and other tumbleweed traumas.  "But that English accent was ridiculous," he clinically comments.

By curious coincidence, it was ABC-TV that rescued him from the Californian corral, and sent him home to London to supervise the production on that side of the Atlantic for the series, Winston Churchill: The Valiant Years.  And then, along came John Steed and The Avengers.

Macnee has been living the role of Steed since January 1961.  The role was created especially for him.  He originally was the second lead of the series.  He portrayed something of a slick axe-man for the main character who had set out to gain revenge against a bad guy who had done him a grievous wrong.

The British viewers didn't care a sixpence for the tribulations of the main character, and began clamoring for more of the urbane and witty henchman.  Steed's role kept growing and taking on new dimension, until he emerged as the lead and the series moved from modest acceptance to a permanent place in the top ten of British programming.

Of Scottish-English ancestry, Macnee was born in London on February 6, 1922, and educated at Eton.  His acting career began there when he played Queen Victoria in the annual school play.  His first professional experience was a year with the Bradford Repertory Company, after which he came to London to play Laurie in "Little Women."  In 1941 he joined the Navy and served in the North Sea sector as commander of a torpedo boat.

When the fighting ended, he returned to the London stage.  He played a courtier in Sir Laurence Olivier's film version of "Hamlet" that won Britain's first Gold Medal for TV drama.

A veteran of post-war TV, he appeared in some 40 plays for the home screen.  His film career also blossomed when he appeared with his cousin, David Niven, in "The Elusive Pimpernel."

Two years in repertory at Windsor were followed by more London stage roles.  A phone call from an old friend, actor David Greene, who had become a leading TV director in Canada, took Macnee to Toronto to star in a TV series, "The Moonstone."  He remained there for two years, 1952-54, a pioneer of Canadian TV and a leading man in theatre productions.

From 1954 to 1959, he commuted between the U.S., Britain and Canada.  He toured this country as Demetrius in the Old Vic production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with Moira Shearer and Sterling Holloway.  He also appeared in the New York TV production of "Caesar and Cleopatra," and later went to Hollywood for four years, appearing in all the major dramatic programs.

In 1960, he returned to Britain to organize and supervise the London interviews for the series about Churchill, The Valiant Years.   It was at this time that he was offered a leading role in the then new TV series, The Avengers, and went on to become its male star.

As for the fact that he is supposedly descended from Robin Hood, his mother is a member of the Hastings family, Earles of Huntingdon, who claim Robin Hood as an ancestor.

Macnee is married to actress Catherine Woodville, a murder victim in the very first Avengers episode, who is now movie-making in Hollywood.  A son by a previous marriage, Rupert, is a student at Princeton.

Although Macnee has little time for leisure, he maintains his own interest in horses and goes riding whenever he can.  He enjoys motoring in his green Jaguar.

From TV News, USA, March 25th 1967.

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