Patrick McGoohan, who died on January 13 aged 80, starred in two of the most memorable British television series of the 1960s, Danger Man and The Prisoner.
If Danger Man was somewhat typical of 1960s espionage drama and derring-do, The Prisoner was a more cerebral affair in which McGoohan played a character known only as Number Six. The series, which was made in Britain and drew on elements of science fiction, concerned a former spy who was incarcerated in a small enclave called The Village. Attempts to escape were consistently frustrated by the mysterious Number One. It was McGoohan himself who came up with the idea for the show, and he himself directed several episodes. Indeed, many aspects of the series were based on his own life: for example, the birth date of Number Six, revealed in one episode, was the same as his own.
Patrick McGoohan was born in the Queens district of New York on March 19 1928, the son of Irish Roman Catholics who three years earlier had emigrated to the United States. The family returned to Ireland when Patrick was an infant, but their attempts to make a living on the land proved fruitless, and in 1938 they decided to move to Britain.
They settled in Sheffield, and Patrick was educated at Ratcliffe College, in Leicestershire — it was there that he discovered his talent for boxing, a skill which would stand him in good stead throughout his career as an all-action hero.
After leaving school he worked in a factory, a bank, and finally at a chicken farm, although an allergy to feathers reactivated the asthma from which he had suffered in childhood.
In his spare time he tried acting, and he was taken on by the repertory company at Sheffield’s Playhouse theatre. Cycling to and from work and earning Ł2 a week, he had to turn his hand to every job in the trade, sweeping the stage and deploying carpentry skills to knock up sets. But within months he was getting walk-on parts and replacing absent actors. In 1949 he joined the theatre’s company as a professional, now making Ł6 a week.
In the late 1940s he met a young actress, Joan Drummond, and they married in 1951. She and McGoohan had three daughters, and he sought work with other companies, eventually appearing in several productions in London’s West End. He was praised for his performance in the Orson Welles production of Moby Dick (Welles was to call him “one of the big actors of his generation, tremendous, with all the required attributes, looks, intensity, unquestionable acting ability and a twinkle in his eye”). Then, in 1959, he won an award for his portrayal of a tortured priest in Ibsen’s Brand, which was also screened by the BBC.
During the 1950s McGoohan appeared in television costume dramas and in various action/adventure series. He had bit parts in films such as The Dam Busters (1954) and Passage Home (1955), bringing him a contract with the Rank Organisation, for which he made several films, including The Gypsy and the Gentleman (1957).
By now he had come to the notice of the television mogul Lew Grade, who signed him for ATV’s new spy show Danger Man, which ran — with breaks — from 1960 to 1966.
McGoohan’s character, John Drake, worked for the British Secret Service and spoke in clipped tones. His (then-novel) gadgets included tie pins equipped with cameras, cherries containing microphones and electric shavers that doubled as tape recorders. McGoohan was eventually earning Ł2,000 a week, making him Britain’s highest paid actor. His stock was so high that he was offered the roles of James Bond and Simon Templar (The Saint). He turned both down.
He was not always easy to work with. He decided that he wanted to direct Danger Man, then said he wanted to produce it; on one occasion, he asked to rewrite the music for one of the episodes. Nor did his demands end there. He once 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.”
Eventually, however, McGoohan grew tired of the role of Drake, and moved on to create his own enigmatic work, The Prisoner (1967), a series still screened regularly around the world and discussed at length. It was the progenitor over the years of a host of other shows, such as Twin Peaks and Lost, and is currently being remade. The exteriors for the programme were filmed at Portmeirion, Wales, where there is an annual fan club convention.
When it was first screened The Prisoner did not enjoy wide critical acclaim, or popular approval, leading to McGoohan’s leaving Britain. After a spell in Switzerland, he moved to the United States, where he lived for the rest of his life.
He had a big break with Ice Station Zebra (1968), in which he appeared alongside Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine. This picture, about a conspiracy involving a nuclear submarine, was Howard Hughes’s favourite film, and was watched by him almost 100 times. During filming, McGoohan had to be rescued from a flooded chamber by a diver who freed his trapped foot, saving his life.
McGoohan then landed some good roles in films such as The Moonshine War (1970) and Silver Streak (1976), as well as making his directorial debut with Catch My Soul (1974), a rock adaptation of the successful Jack Good stage musical.
Also during the 1970s McGoohan took on various costume screen drama roles, mostly for television, including Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), The Man in the Iron Mask (1976) and Jamaica Inn (1982). In these, the actor sometimes did his own stunts, including one risky cliff-top sword fight.
But it was still The Prisoner that attracted most interest. He appeared on ITV in 1982 in the nostalgia show Greatest Hits, talking on a mocked-up Prisoner set, and also collaborated on Channel 4’s 1983 documentary Six into One: The Prisoner File.
At that time the actor even made his own quirky “documentary” about the cult series, although the material was never screened.
He won two Emmys for his guest appearances in Columbo, the detective series starring 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.”
Despite such plaudits, some in showbusiness continued to find him difficult. Not only was he fiercely protective of his private life, but his religious beliefs, rejection of the material world and condemnation of sexual liberalism sometimes chimed with the stern-minded roles in which he was cast. He turned in a chilling performance as the warden in Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and a cold portrayal of a strict father in Trespasses (1987), shot in New Zealand.
By that time he had given up on theatre, turning in his last stage performance in 1985, during a Broadway run of Pack of Lies, a spy drama.
Other films in which McGoohan appeared included Hysteria (1998), A Time to Kill (1996), based on the book by John Grisham, and Braveheart (1995), in which McGoohan’s played Edward I to Mel Gibson’s William Wallace. In 1996 he appeared in The Phantom, a cinema adaptation of the comic strip, as the father of the title character played by Billy Zane.
McGoohan detested publicity, once observing: “I abhor the word 'star’. It makes the hair on the back of my neck want to curl up.”
New versions of The Prisoner were repeatedly mooted, but none came to anything, and McGoohan never returned to Portmeirion. He was, however, fond of repeating his memorable catchphrase from the show: “Be seeing you.”