STAR OF 'THE NEW AVENGERS' TELLS HIS REMARKABLE STORY
PATRICK MACNEE raised an eyebrow in greeting. "It's nice to be back," he said languidly. "It's almost as though I've never been away." And millions of his fans feel the same, for he's now doing another "Avengers" series on television as John Steed, special agent extraordinary.
The last series was seven years ago, but there was no mistaking the rakish angle of his snappy brimmed bowler, the neatly-rolled umbrella, and long-waisted jacket. His immaculate trousers, too, still look as if he has been poured into them.
I'd spotted Pat sitting inside a Jaguar racing saloon car on the film set, sipping coffee from a plastic cup to keep out the autumn chill, writes Rex King. He's now 54, but you'd swear he's in his mid-forties with his neatly-cut hair showing hardly any traces of grey, and his tanned face has few crease marks.
Unable to suppress my curiosity, I asked him how he managed to maintain such an impression of youth. He looked at me with good-natured tolerance. "It's a case of re-educating my stomach, and it works wonders," he said. "Basically, it means no smoking, and cutting out all meat, fish, alcohol, sugar and tea. They are all really poisonous to the body.
"Instead, I live on raw vegetables and fruit, put together in a liquidiser. I have this once a day." Pat downs this concoction last thing at night before going to bed, and for the rest of the day he has nothing except for sips of coffee. Such a diet would have no attraction to most people, but it seems to suit him. "It's my own recipe for a healthy life," he told me, "and I haven't had an alcoholic drink in twenty months. I stopped that when I realised just what I was doing to myself."
It was his 24-year-old daughter, Jenny, who helped him to stop drinking. He was making an episode of the TV series, "Columbo" on board a cruise ship. Drink was flowing like water. A temptation Pat couldn't resist. But when he arrived home, his horrified daughter took one look at him and groaned. The look on her face was enough, Pat hasn't touched a drop of alcohol since. Not only that, he spends quite a bit of time exercising. He reckons to walk eight or nine miles a day.
"That sounds a lot," he told me, "but when you think about it, that's only a couple of hours. And I get a great deal of fun from it, too." Until a couple of years ago he was living an idyllic existence at Malibu Beach with a flat practically on the shore line. He spent his days lying in the sun, writing, reading or playing tennis. However, he gave all this up because Jenny was being seriously troubled by asthma.
"Basically the atmosphere at the beach was too damp, so I moved to the desert area of Palm Springs. As a result of the dryness, combined with the fresh food diet Jenny eats, the asthma has more or less vanished."
Jenny still stays with her father, but his son, Rupert, is a documentary director in Canada. However, he often sees his father and their relationship is first-class. Although Pat was born in Stirling, he spent his early, very comfortable years in Lambourn, Berkshire, where his father, Daniel "Shrimp" Macnee, used to breed and race horses. As his father was only 5ft. 3in., Pat assumed he would be the same size, and had visions of riding a horse to victory in the Derby. Nature though, had other ideas and as he grew to 6ft. 1in., Pat's dreams of being a jockey receded.
Instead he decided to become an actor. And, at 17, after leaving Eton, went to a drama school in London, then spent the war years as a motor torpedo boat commander in the North Sea. It was there he had the traditional adventurer's luck by being ill - his only night off sick during the war - when the boat was blown up with heavy casualties. After the war it was back to the stage. He appeared in dozens of TV productions as the service grew in the post-war years.
His height, plus his dark brown hair, hazel eyes and bearing made him a handsome, dashing figure much in demand for romantic roles. And his film career blossomed when he made "The Elusive Pimpernel" with his cousin David Niven. In 1952, Pat went to Canada where he did everything from riding horses for Westerns to classic plays and popular films, including "The Battle of the River Plate" and "The Sinking of the Titanic."
But despite his success in the States, he never renounced his nationality, and always kept his eye on what was happening over here in case any chances presented themselves. Just such a chance resulted in the biggest plum of his whole career falling right into his lap. It was at a dinner in London with his friend Sidney Newman, who used to be head of television in Toronto, Canada.
Sidney asked him if he would like to do a television series. "Not bad," said Pat laconically. "Right," replied Sidney, and the deal was clinched. Pat accepted the role without even seeing the scripts. He just took it on trust. And that was "the Avengers" - a series that was to run nine years and make him an international star. The role of Steed was created specially for Pat and was developed around his own background and personality. It's astonishing just how much of McNee(sic) is there in Steed.
Although many of his tastes, habits of dress and speech are fiction, others are the dream projections of Macnee, of a romantic who would have enjoyed the life of a Regency buck at the time of King George III. Pat put his stamp of individuality on the character by designing his own clothes. From the immaculate sweep of his coat to the velvet collar, it's all his own idea. Pat first heard about plans to bring back "The Avengers" for this latest series, when he was in Detroit, appearing in the play "Absurd Third Person Singular." Some actors will never consider "coming back." But Pat was delighted. "It's great to work in Britain again," he said.
"Whenever I'm out of the place I miss the grass and the trees - even the rain." But many TV viewers in California don't even know that Pat stopped making "The Avengers" seven years ago. Over there the series is still being shown and the programmes have become a cult for youngsters between 11 and 17. And now the new series promises to develop that still further. But it is a little ironic that despite the success, and adulation he now enjoys, Pat's own love life should not have been smoother.
He's had two marriages and two divorces. But, ask about them and he'll deny they were failures. "I am lucky to have had two good marriages," he maintains stoutly. Pat's first marriage was to actress Barbara Douglas, who is the mother of their two children, Rupert, 27, and Jenny, 24. His second marriage was to actress Catherine Woodville and this lasted only a years. Would he marry again - I asked. Pat thinks not. Some years ago he had several psycho-analysis sessions and these told him that basically he is a lonely person and difficult to live with.
"So it seems my ideal state is living alone," he says. "And I'm quite content to leave it at that."
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