The original 'Avenger'
When Patrick Macnee first talked to the American press about the must-see British TV hit that had made him and Diana Rigg stars back home, “I’d explain that it was about a man in a bowler hat and a woman who threw men over her shoulder. They’d look at us as if we were mad.”
Three decades later, man-tossing women aren’t so uncommon, but The Avengers‘ John Steed remains the haberdasher’s superspy exception. Macnee is still proud of the character he transformed “as I went along” from the trench-coated cliche of the show’s early years to the dapper gent who didn’t carry a gun.
“He didn’t need one,” explains Macnee, 76. “He relied on his wits. I fought in World War II—I saw friends blown to bits. When you’ve seen that, you feel very differently about guns.”
Macnee is flattered that Ralph Fiennes is re-creating Steed—with bowler, sans gun—in the August film adaptation, in which he has a cameo. But he sympathetically avers that Uma Thurman will have a tough time topping the first Mrs. Peel.
“Di Rigg was unique. We used to rewrite whole scenes over lunch hour. I say we? She rewrote them. I was her stenographer. We were extraordinarily in synch right from the start.”
The rapport, he says, was strictly platonic, as it was with his other fetching Avengers costars, Honor Blackman, Linda Thorson, and Joanna Lumley. That brings a chuckle from Thorson. “He always says that he never fancied any of us,” she says. “I think he fancied us all.”
“I did fancy them,” Macnee admits. “But I didn’t do anything with them. I went out of my way not to. Once you go to bed with a costar, it’s over.”
Post-Avengers, Macnee divided his time between theater (Sleuth on Broadway), film (The Howling, A View to a Kill), and many TV guest spots. Recently, the actor, who lives in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with wife Baba, has been the host of The Sci-Fi Channel’s Mysteries, Magic & Miracles, penned a memoir, The Avengers and Me, and kept busy narrating audio books: “I’ve done nine Jack Higgins novels.”
But to most people he’ll always be Steed, which doesn’t bother Macnee a bit. When he enters a room, impeccably tailored, carrying a cane (for his arthritis) instead of an umbrella, he may not be recognized—until he speaks. “Even when people don’t recognize me, they recognize my voice. I have a loud one. On the street, on an airplane, they’ll suddenly turn and say, ‘Steed!’ I’ve gotten to know more people that way.”