Friday, 21 October 2011

In Profile: Patrick McGoohan

 Probably one of the most enigmatic stars of the small screen. Patrick McGoohan was born in America in 1928, before being raised in both Ireland and England. It's easy to forget that this somewhat unconventional star, also wrote and created, some of both his and British TV's most enduring shows.

 His parents had travelled to New York in order to find work, but soon returned to Ireland after Patrick's birth. He spent his early childhood here, before moving to Sheffield, then due to the outbreak of WW2, he was evacuated to Loughborough, where he gained aptitude for both mathematics and boxing.
 He left school at 16, when he returned to Sheffield and worked as a bank clerk, lorry driver and chicken farm manager, whilst which he joined several dramatic societies. He soon managed to become the stage manager at Sheffield Reperatory Theatre. McGoohan acting career was launched when one night, after an actor had fallen ill, he decided to fill in. He soon became the regular leading man for the company, and met his wife Joan Drummond here, they married in 1951.

 He soon moved down to London, where he secured a role at the Garrick Theatre in the play 'Serious Charge', during which he was offered his first film role in 'Passage Home'. He would earn further bit parts in 'I Am A Camera', 'Dark Avenger' and the classic war film 'The Dam Busters'. He eventually secured a 5 year contract with the Rank film studios, the biggest in Europe at the time. This gave him a steady income and a more permanent role in the film industry. He left the organisation a year early and appeared in more plays again, this time these plays were to be transmitted on to television. This provided McGoohan with a greater audience as TVs were becoming very popular in UK households at the time. His role in 'The Greatest Man in the World' earned him an award for best British TV actor.

 It was around this period that legendary media mogul Lew Grade, who owned the TV production company ITC became interested in the actor. It was to see McGoohan cast as an Irish-American Agent working under NATO jurisdiction and performing assignments around the world. The character, John Drake, was designed as a non-violent spy who didn't get too romantically involved with female interests. The character would also be at odds with the ethically practises of his superiors and his missions.
 Due to the Anglo-American interests of the character and the agency, Grade had hoped to crack the American market as well as the European. Despite the series being an instant success across Europe, making McGoohan a household name. In America however, it failed to find an audience and wasn't able to secure further American finance, and so was cancelled after one series.

 After Danger Man had been cancelled in 1962, McGoohan spent some time making more low profile movies as well as made for TV plays. After a two year break Danger Man was brought back, after being resold around the world, and repeat viewings showing a greater demand for more shows, as well as this was the worldwide success of the James Bond films. The programme got financially backed again, and it was revamped.

 Instead of the original 25 minute format, episodes became twice as long. John Drake, also reverted to being a British spy, made less conflicting with his superiors and the show was renamed in America as 'Secret Agent'. Danger Man also utilised new modern, hi-tech spy equipment such as hidden microphones and tape recording electric razors. It was during this run that it started to garner a greater fan following and secure it's reputation as a cult classic. As such McGoohan salary rocketed to £2,000 per week, making him Britain's highest paid television actor.

 McGoohan however was glad to be released of his contract after it's two season run saying, "I would rather do twenty TV series than go through what I went through under that Rank contract I signed a few years ago for which I blame no one but myself." His strict religious standards (a Roman Catholic) also caused clashes with producers on set. He recalled: “When we started Danger Man the producer wanted me to carry a gun and to have an affair with a different girl each week. I refused. I am not against romance on television, but sex is the antithesis of romance. Television is a gargantuan master that all sorts of people watch at all sorts of time, and it has a moral obligation towards its audience.” It was also whilst on Danger Man, that he demanded more creative control over the program, asking to write, direct and even produce episodes as the show evolved.

 It was during this period that McGoohan was offered the role of Simon Templar in The Saint, and even more substantially he was personally offered, by Albert "Chubby" Broccoli, the role of James Bond. He turned them both down, not wanting to be typecast or having to conform to the "playboy" lifestyle of the James Bond character. Many actors would never have opportunities such as the Bond franchise again, but McGoohan, seemed to know what he was doing. Whilst doing Danger Man he fulfilled a 3 film contract with the Walt Disney company, which gave him further international exposure. Including The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and culminating in The Three Lives of Thomasina.

 With his stock at an all time high, he now realised he was able to give himself greater creative control. This gave him an idea for a new character, loosely based on his previous incarnation of John Drake. He was to produce a new form of engimatic protaganist, in an environment that would later influence shows such as Twin Peaks, Lost and films such as The Truman Show. The role was not a name but a number, and the show was The Prisoner.

 The setting of Portmerion in Wales, was eerily appropriate, and the mediterranian infrastructure, served to act "The Village" as a character of it's own. Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan), would spend each 50 minute weekly episode, trying to escape "the Village" and it's inhabitants. With the Number 2, regularly being rotated after failing to procure the information as to why Number 6 resigned from his governmental post. It's countercultural, revolutionary and original themes seemed somewhat suited to the period (1967). Considering the profound nature of the show, McGoohan was extremely fortunate to be able to pitch it to then chairman Lew Grade, who gave him his full support, even allowing McGoohan to film the programme in colour. To this day, it remains unclear as to whether Number 6 is infact John Drake himself. In 1985 McGoohan himself dismissed this idea, though other writers on both shows insist they are one and the same. Fans are still divided, with some pointing to many similarities between the shows and certain episodes that make this idea logical.
 Originally McGoohan only wanted to make 7 episodes of The Prisoner, but Grade convinced him, that by doing more shows, they could sell it on to CBS in America. CBS wanted 36 episodes, Grade 26, but McGoohan was able to settle on 17. There is also speculation, that a higher number was originally agreed upon, but the series got cancelled, which forced the final 2 episodes to be written abruptly. The final episode still the cause for much debate amongst fans, and certainly one of the first TV finales to end in such ambiguous circumstances.
 During it's first runs, in both the UK and America, it wasn't received well by critics, though viewing figures in the UK remained solid. It was only on re-runs in the US, that like Secret Agent, it began to grow a large cult following. And as already mentioned it was during this time, where it would influence a lot of future American TV writers. It was because of the lack of popular approval, that McGoohan decided to leave Britain, first to Switzerland, before going onto America. The pressure of making The Prisoner, espescially towards the end of it's run, may also have taken it's toll on McGoohan, with many of his colleagues recalling times of noticeable stress onset.

 It was also at the time of making The Prisoner that he was cast in his biggest role up to this point. He appeared opposite Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine in the cold war adaptation of Alaister MacLean's Ice Station Zebra (1968). The film was reportedly watched 100 times, by America's reclusive mogul Howard Hughes. On set McGoohan also had a brush with death, as his foot became trapped in a flooded chamber, he had to be rescued by a diver.
 In the 70's McGoohan had a steay series of films roles, to keep himself occupied. Most notable were The Moonshine War (1970), The Silver Streak (1976) (below), one of Gene Wilder's and Richard Pryor's greatest collaborations and The Man in the Iron Mask (1977), in which he performed his own stunts.


 As well as these roles, he was also cast in popular US crime series Columbo, where he formed a lifelong friendship with star Peter Falk. He would appear in 4 episodes of the series from 1974-2000, as well as directing 6 of the episodes. His enigmatic demeanour providing the perfect foil to Falk's ever inquisitive detective.


  He won two Emmys for his guest appearances in Columbo, with Peter Falk, who described McGoohan as “the most underrated, under-appreciated talent on the face of the globe. I have never played a scene with another actor who commanded my attention the way Pat did.”

 Towards the end of the 70's that a keen interest of his series The Prisoner revived itself. A number of documentaries about the series began to be screened in America, Canada and the UK, as well as the show receiving further reruns on TV across the world. But talk of reviving the series itself was mooted by McGoohan himself.
 In 1979, he was cast opposite Clint Eastwood as the prison warden in Escape From Alcatraz. His character reflecting his own similar stern moralistic values, in what was another chilling performance, for which the world had now become accustomed to. The 1980's brought somewhat of a lull in Patrick's career, but he would still have notable roles, namely in David Cronenburg's Scanners, TV's Murder She Wrote and an award winning role on stage in Pack of Lies, which was to be his final theatrical role.
 The 90's saw him re-emerge in to more mainstream roles including The Phantom (1996), where he played Billy Zane's father and the southern judge in A Time to Kill (1996), based on the John Grisham bestseller.


 But it was in the Academy Award winning blockbuster Braveheart (1995), directed by and starring Mel Gibson, in which McGoohan gave a new generation of audiences an appreciation of his work. As the cold and evil King Edward "Longshanks", he gave a stark and chilling portrayel opposite Gibson's hero William Wallace.

 His last role was in 2002's animated adventure Treasure Planet. But he was never able to escape the role that seemed to define him, The Prisoner. He was constantly sought by fans and media a like for further documentaries and talk of further episodes or a remake. A remake was eventually put into production and aired after McGoohan died in 2009. He was reportedly asked to be a part of it, but according to his widow "They wanted Patrick to have some part in it, but he adamantly didn't want to be involved. He had already done it." However, the remake's Number 2 Sir Ian Mckellen stated "He was asked to be in the first episode, there being a part that would have been very ironically fitting, but apparently he said that he didn't want to do it unless he was offered the part of Number Two."
 McGoohan himself did in fact reprise his role as Number 6 just one more time in 2000. In a Prisoner-themed episode of hit US comedy The Simpsons, he makes a brief cameo in helping Homer escape from "the Island". McGoohan was very popular with the writers of the show, and they were all pleased to finally get to meet him. He himself was reportedly very pleased with his role in the episode.


 Patrick McGoohan died on January 13th, 2009, leaving behind his wife of 58 years and his 3 children. As a post-script it should be remembered that not only was he responsible in part for reinventing the spy thriller with his character John Drake, but his revolutionary show The Prisoner has served to many, as a blue-print for a new type of science fiction thriller. It is with this where his legacy lies, with The Guardian once calling it "The Citizen Kane of British Television programmes". Though some may question why he never became an even bigger star, it wasn't through lack of offers. He has reportedly turned down three of the biggest film franchises in film history, not only as James Bond, but also as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) trilogy, as well as Professor Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. His also had his own reservations to become a star, once saying: “I abhor the word 'star’. It makes the hair on the back of my neck want to curl up.” An intensly private man, he was never going to be an access all areas star like the celebrities of today. Like his hit show, he was certainly different and went against the mould of other stars. His unique enigmatic persona on screen has never been matched, and though he appeared quite limited in variety, he was always guaranteed to make an impression on the audience with his intensity.


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