TV Spy Series Star Brought Complex Programming to U.S.

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Patrick McGoohan, 80, a dashing actor who brought originality to early TV spy series such as "The Prisoner" and "Secret Agent" in the 1960s and who later won two Emmy Awards for his guest appearances on the detective program "Columbo," died Jan. 13 in Los Angeles. The family declined to provide the exact cause of death.

Raised in England, Mr. McGoohan appeared in several British stage and film productions, including the terrific action film about rival truckers, "Hell Drivers" (1957), and a reworking of "Othello" set in a contemporary jazz setting, "All Night Long" (1962), which also featured musicians Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus.

Mr. McGoohan's film career was sporadic, including supporting roles as the warden opposite Clint Eastwood in "Escape From Alcatraz" (1979) and the cruel king to Mel Gibson's warrior in "Braveheart" (1995). Instead he focused on a prolific television career as an actor, writer and director.

He gained wide notice for his leading role in the British series "Danger Man" (1960), which aired on CBS as "Secret Agent" in the mid-1960s to capitalize on Ian Fleming's James Bond franchise.

Mr. McGoohan played John Drake, a British security investigator who offers his services to governments around the world. Johnny Rivers popularized the show's theme song, "Secret Agent Man," with lyrics that begin:

"There's a man who leads a life of danger

To everyone he meets he stays a stranger."

The music captured the sleek hero, who shared an interest with Bond in sporty cars, exotic locations and concealed gadgetry and introduced himself as "Drake, John Drake."

The comparison stopped there, because Mr. McGoohan, a married and devout Catholic, insisted on avoiding Bond's womanizing or cold violence.

"When Drake fights, he fights clean," Mr. McGoohan once explained. "He abhors bloodshed. He carries a gun, but doesn't use it unless necessary -- and then he doesn't shoot to kill. He prefers to use his wits. He is a person with a sophisticated background and a philosophy. I want Drake to be in the heroic mould, like the classic Western hero -- which means he has to be a good man."

Mr. McGoohan also reportedly refused the movie role of Bond, which went to his "Hell Drivers" co-actor Sean Connery.

While making "Danger Man," an episode was filmed at the Portmeirion resort in North Wales. He was so struck by the architecture, which blended several incongruous styles, that he made it the background for "The Prisoner," an allegorical mystery-adventure series that he helped create and that aired in England in 1967 and on CBS in 1968 and 1969. He also wrote many of the episodes under pseudonyms.

There was unconfirmed speculation that his "Prisoner" character, renamed "Number 6," was in fact a retired Drake put to pasture in a mysterious village where he struggles to retain control of his wits while trying to escape his elusive captors.

The show's meaning remains a source of debate. Some viewers saw the drama, which aired at a peak moment of the 1960s counterculture movement, as a critique of establishment power over the individual. The unnamed hero proclaims at one point, "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own."

"The Prisoner" attracted devoted fans at the time, but not enough. Although short-lived, it was credited with setting a thematic, at times surreal template for such films as "The Truman Show" (1998) with Jim Carrey and the current ABC series "Lost."

Robert J. Thompson, founding director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, said of "The Prisoner" that it "was an early taste of really complex, literate, thematically dense programming" at a time when most Americans were used to talking horses, genies as hapless homemakers and courtroom shows where Perry Mason wins every case.

Mr. McGoohan would later distinguish himself as a television director and continue his acting career through recent years, but his breakthrough in popular culture would always remain "The Prisoner" -- an ironic turn of events given the show's theme of an inescapable destiny.

He seemed to take this fate good-naturedly. He reprised, by voice, the role of Number 6 in an episode of "The Simpsons" in 2000 in which Homer Simpson declares, "I am not a number! I am a man! Oh wait. . . . I'm Number Five. Ha-ha! In your face, Number Six."

The son of Irish immigrants, Patrick Joseph McGoohan was born March 19, 1928, in the New York borough of Queens. Six months later, the family moved to a farm in Ireland and later to Sheffield, England, where Mr. McGoohan was mostly raised.

In the late 1940s, he became stage manager of a repertory acting company in Sheffield. He turned to acting and in 1951 married a fellow cast member, Joan Drummond. She survives, along with three daughters, including actress Catherine McGoohan; three sisters; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Mr. McGoohan made his London stage debut in 1955 in a West End production called "Serious Charge" as a priest accused of homosexuality. His work impressed Orson Welles, who cast him as Starbuck in the staging of "Moby Dick Rehearsed."

Mr. McGoohan won a London critics honor for his work in the title role of a 1959 stage production of Henrik Ibsen's play "Brand." This led to his offer of the leading role in "Danger Man," which made him one of the highest-paid actors on British television.

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