The Fascinating Patrick McGoohan

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Patrick McGoohan (1928-2009) was born on March 19. He is easily one of the weirdest figures to come out of modern show business.

He started at a provincial English repertory theatre as a stage manager and crossed over into acting when one of the players became ill. By the 1950s he had broke into the West End and television. From 1964 through 1967 he starred in the smash hit British series Danger Man, which was called Secret Agent in its U.S. syndication. He famously turned down the role of James Bond, because he felt the character’s womanizing was against his Catholic principles. (This is one of the reasons I call him weird. Do you know anyone THAT Catholic? Well sure, but they don’t usually become actors).

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From here of course he went on to what became the lion’s share of his legacy, his  absurdist, Beckettesque spy series The Prisoner (1967-68), which McGoohan created, starred in, executive produced, and occasionally wrote and directed. I go just so far in my enthusiasm for this series, which is without a doubt awesome. But dissertations, entire book length monographs by rather shallow scholars have been written on the “meaning” of this show. I assure you it had none beyond the obvious, and I’m sure Mr. McGoohan would back me up. It is a diverting, intelligent entertainment, roughly as deep and complex as, oh, a cool, heady rock album. It is neither literature, nor theatre, nor even cinema. I was about to disparage it as “mere television”, but I realize that dates me. In the past few years, television has proven that it no longer rates an automatic presumption that it is a “lesser art”. Too much of quality has sprung into existence. Free of the commercial strangehold of the defunct triopoly it has finally begun to discover its own possibilities.

At any rate, far greater than my enthusiasm for The Prisoner is my frank ardor for McGoohan himself, whom I think I can say without exaggeration is the  most mesmerizing actor of my life time. It is not “truth” that he accomplishes per se, but performance. Through some weird sleight of hand he absolutely demands your attention. He could do anything — I mean ANYTHING — lift a glass to drink from it, flip a coin, comb his hair, and it is like watching a ballet dancer or a race horse, or a hypnotist. Such is his own intensity and focus that you are right there with him. Orson Welles was a fan of his too and its easy to see why; he was just his kind of actor.

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Sadly, The Prisoner was his big moment. Plenty followed, but one thinks of all he MIGHT have done. More series? Tons and tons of classical roles on stage and screen; historical costume dramas? For whatever reason, he seemed content to play villains in film and on TV, but even those not too frequently. In the 70s he moved to L.A. He became one of Peter Falk’s most frequent collaborators on Columbo, guest starring in, writing and directing several of the most memorable (and weirdest) episodes. Notable roles included bad guys in the film Silver Streak (1976),  Escape from a Alcatraz (1979, he’s the warden but still the villain), Scanners (1981) and Braveheart (1995, he’s the King but he still throws a guy out a window, hence, villain). In 1977 he starred in his own series Rafferty, which lasted only 13 episodes. I’m eager to check this out — can’t remember if I watched any of it back in the day.

Here’s a Prisoner-centric interview from around that time – -and a suitably weird one. Ah, Canadian television. What’s up with that host? Is this his first show ever? And this small, sinister audience of about eight people. It looks like a Prisoner episode itself! He rarely spoke about his thinking behind the show; this is a very cool peek into his head. It’s wild…he’s coming from a very conservative place…but the old fashioned kind of conservative, a Tory,  Catholic kind of place. Much like T.S. Eliot he HATES the modern world, and yet is inescapably a modern artist. Contemporary show biz would be vastly more interesting if there were at least a few more characters like him around in prominent places.

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