Patrick McGoohan: Actor who created and starred in the cult 1960s television series 'The Prisoner'
Friday 16 January 2009
As the star of Danger Man and The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan was the face of British cult television in the 1960s and the highest paid TV actor of his time. Orson Welles once said of McGoohan that he could have been one of the major stars of his generation: he had the looks and the intensity and painted most of the roles he played with a wryness and a satirical edge that made him a compelling actor to watch. Yet this complicated man, highly-strung, unpredictable and irascibly enigmatic, seemingly threw away his career while at the height of his fame and influence and was never again to fully recapture it.
McGoohan was born in 1928 in Astoria, Long Island, New York. His parents, Thomas McGoohan and Rose Fitzpatrick, were Irish farmers who had emigrated to the U S to look for work. Hardship forced them back to Ireland, and when McGoohan was eight the family moved to Sheffield, where he attended local schools before winning a scholarship to Ratcliffe College, Leicester. He found it difficult to fit in with the restrictive regime and upon leaving at 16 contemplated a career as a priest, inspired by his strong Catholic upbringing. Instead, he opted for a succession of menial jobs – factory worker, chicken farmer, bank clerk – while spending his spare time with numerous local amateur dramatic societies.
In 1947 McGoohan was taken on by the Sheffield Playhouse as a general backstage dogsbody, slowly graduating to small roles before eventually becoming the company's lead player. He later described his years at the Sheffield Playhouse as "the happiest period of my life". He was to meet his wife there, too, the actress Joan Drummond. The pair married in 1951, 18 months after their first date and Drummond happily sacrificed her own career for the sake of family life.
After eight years in rep, including a stint at the Bristol Old Vic, McGoohan finally made his West End début in 1954. He was talent-spotted by Orson Welles, who cast him as Starbuck opposite his Ahab in the well-received theatrical production of Moby Dick. Limited stage success led to some exposure in the cinema: a handful of walk-on parts in films included The Dam Busters (1955).
When McGoohan substituted for Dirk Bogarde during an actress's screen test, Rank was so impressed that the actress was forgotten and McGoohan was offered a five-year contract. But he proved a predictable misfit in the studio's "charm-school" system and barely made two good films for them: the Victor Mature actioner Zarak (1956) and the rough-edged British thriller Hell Drivers (1957), where he appeared alongside another unknown Celtic actor waiting for his big break – Sean Connery. McGoohan's Rank contract was dissolved early.
After Rank he moved to television, working on one-off live plays, and winning the "TV Actor of the Year" award in 1959. It was on television that McGoohan was spotted by Lew Grade, the man who would change his life. The chairman of ATV was looking for a charismatic leading man to play secret agent John Drake in a new action-adventure series, Danger Man. It proved to be the perfect showcase for McGoohan's special brand of acting in which he created around him an aura of potential eruption, like a caged wild animal that could pounce at any moment. McGoohan confessed that he deliberately acted with a certain abrasive edginess to keep himself and others on their toes.
McGoohan starred in 86 episodes of Danger Man, rocketing to international stardom and becoming Britain's highest-paid TV actor into the bargain, on a reputed £2,000 per week. By then the father of three daughters, McGoohan reacted against what he considered to be a moral lapse on television by refusing to allow his TV hero to use a gun (unless absolutely necessary) or be involved in sexual dalliances with his leading lady. He gave similar reasons for twice turning down the chance to play James Bond in 1962.
The success of Danger Man – it was the first British show to break into the burgeoning American television market, paving the way for others like The Avengers and The Saint – gave McGoohan creative carte blanche to pursue his own project, a startlingly original, and costly, series about a retired spy (known as Number Six) living in a quaint village from which he cannot escape.
Filmed in Portmeirion, the Italianate village in north Wales designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, The Prisoner was an intended plea by McGoohan for the liberty of the individual, something he placed great store by in his own life. Broadcast between September 1967 and March 1968, each of the 17 hour-long episodes was met with mass incredulity by the public, the final installment leaving more questions than answers. Television station switchboards were flooded with angry and perplexed callers, while the press besieged McGoohan's home in London.
McGoohan, an intensely private man, found this hard to cope with. Despising even the merest hint of media intrusion into his home life he fled with his family, first to Switzerland, then to Mexico, before finally settling to live in California.
He was never interested in the ancillary aspects of acting, of stardom and having his name up in lights. What drove McGoohan was total involvement in first-class projects. Although first and foremost an actor, during his Danger Man/Prisoner days he had also involved himself heavily in scripting and production and he continued these interests in America. He directed the film Catch My Soul (1974), a rock version of Othello, and directed and guest-starred in a number of episodes of the popular television detective series Columbo, winning an Emmy Award for one performance. He also began to write poetry and novels, supplementing such pursuits by taking supporting roles in big Hollywood movies including the Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor comedy hit Silver Streak (1976) and Clint Eastwood's Escape from Alcatraz (1979).
One thing McGoohan did refrain from doing a lot of was speaking to the press, which only served to foster the popular image of him as something of a recluse. He was also burdened with problems from the British tax authorities and had a reputation as a heavy drinker. In his heyday he could drink his friend Richard Burton under the table. But after a second drink-driving offence in California he succeeded in giving up the booze completely.
It was then that The Prisoner re-entered his life. Since its controversial first showing, this most surreal and allegorical of television dramas – thanks to re-runs and video – had acquired a colossal cult following world-wide: fan clubs formed and university courses were set up to study the show's hidden meanings. McGoohan was rather bemused by its popularity and, if anything, retreated even further into the safe cocoon of family life. The 1980s were notable only for a series of sporadic and poorly chosen film projects and an appearance on the Broadway stage in Hugh Whitmore's Pack of Lies, 25 years after his previous theatre role.
In 1990 McGoohan reunited with Peter Falk to direct and star in a Columbo television movie, and won another Emmy Award for his performance. After a life-threatening colon operation which put him in a coma for several weeks (he had the last rites read to him twice) he made a triumphant return to the big screen as the tyrannical King Edward Longshanks in the Mel Gibson blockbuster Braveheart (1995).
His final two roles were in animation: he lampooned his Prisoner persona in an episode of The Simpsons in 2000 and in his last film he gave voice to the character of Billy Bones in the Disney adventure Treasure Planet (2002).
But it will be for The Prisoner, the series that ended up being both the pinnacle of his career and a cross to bear, that McGoohan will be forever remembered. His links with the show were reinvigorated in 2001, when he became executive producer on an intended big-budget movie version to be directed by Simon West of Con Air fame and scripted by The Usual Suspects writer Christopher McQuarrie. It was irony indeed, and perhaps a tragedy, that McGoohan became almost a prisoner himself to the success of his best-known show.
Patrick Joseph McGoohan, actor, writer and director: born New York 19 March 1928; married 1951 Joan Drummond (three daughters); died Los Angeles 13 January 2009.
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