“There is a man who leads a life of danger.”
-Johnny Rivers, “Secret Agent Man”
For fans of 1960s TV spy series, hearing the lyric quoted above always heralded the start of an hour watching the adventures of British (formerly NATO) spy John Drake. He travelled the globe on behalf of his government, solving problems which could not be solved by ordinary means. He was calm, cool, intelligent, and charming. Occasionally he’d misstep, but was resourceful enough to recover and win the day. Other times, however, he would find himself having to choose between doing what’s right and doing his duty. As a result, he was one of the most human of the spies ever created for any media. (Take a look at the show’s original, 30-minute opening sequence here). A lot of that can be attributed to the man who portrayed him: Patrick McGoohan. January 13th, 2013, marks the 4th anniversary of the passing of this wonderful actor. To celebrate his life and career, Aurora has graciously allowed me the opportunity to say a few words about him, and to share my memories of this incredibly gifted performer.
Growing up in Canada during the 1970s was a wonderful thing for a TV junkie such as myself. Our channels (the few that we had back then) gave us the opportunity to experience TV shows from both the US and Great Britain. The CBC in particular was a vital source of entertainment from both sides of the pond. Shows like The Saint shared space with Wonderful World of Disney. This latter program, in particular, was a constant source of entertainment for me. It’s also the likely place where I first caught sight of Patrick McGoohan, in his role as Dr. Syn as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. He played the title role of Dr. Syn, vicar by day, smuggler leader The Scarecrow by night. Though my memories of my youth are dim at best, I can certainly see that this is the kind of character that Patrick McGoohan excelled at. His resume is dominated by performances as people living double lives. Spies, in particular, were a McGoohan specialty. Alongside Secret Agent (aka Danger Man), roles in Ice Station Zebra(1968) and Brass Target (1978) add to the list.
And then, of course, there is Number Six.
After he tired of playing John Drake, Patrick McGoohan took on the challenge of creating, writing, directing and starring in his own series for British TV. The result was The Prisoner (1967-78), which stands as one of the most iconic television shows ever made. It’s certainly the McGoohan show which I most remember watching in reruns – take a look at the show’s opening sequence here. McGoohan as Number Six, a newly retired spy who was either physically (or psychologically) trapped in a bizarre world known as The Village, was a tour de force. Over 17 episodes, he explored the character in a way that few other short-lived TV shows ever could. My favourite performance from McGoohan comes in the episode Hammer Into Anvil. Number Two drives another Villager to suicide, and Number Six vows revenge. Number Two vows to break him, and a battle of wills begins. McGoohan is outstanding as he plots the destruction of Number Two, constantly developing new methods of attack, and doing it with the hint of a smile. That, to me, is a far more dangerous individual than someone who shouts and yells in anger. It’s a trait that Patrick McGoohan portrayed exceedingly well.
Which brings us to Columbo.
As iconic a show as The Prisoner was, Columbo was even more so. Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled detective is one that will never be equalled. Watching Columbo match wits with so many great (and not so great) guest murderers is always a delight. Patrick McGoohan’s first appearance came in the October 27th, 1974 episode By Dawn’s Early Light. It would not be his last. McGoohan won an Emmy for his performance as Colonel Rumford, and by all accounts, had a lifelong friendship with Peter Falk. They had such an easy rapport with one another that McGoohan came back to play the murderer 3 more times, more than any other performer. In all his appearances, you rarely saw the two actors angry at each other, instead preferring to verbally joust with one another. McGoohan also worked behind the scenes at Columbo as well, taking directing, producing and writing credits on several episodes. I don’t recall if I ever got to watch Columbo growing up in the 70s, but I well remember watching the later episodes as they aired, and the Patrick McGoohan episodes were always a special event to me. Watching these two wonderful actors play off of each other made for wonderful TV viewing. McGoohan’s last appearance in Columbo was 1998’s Ashes to Ashes, and it was fittingly set in the world of funeral homes. Apart from his work behind the scenes of the second-to-last Columbo, he pretty much retired from performing, with only two more credits to his name before he passed away in 2009.
As a performer, Patrick McGoohan left behind a legacy few people can match. He was the quintessential gentleman spy of the 1960s, a serious man doing a serious job, and yet remaining human. Not satisfied with that, he sought to create his own vision of the spy genre, which resulted in The Prisoner. His hands on approach in that program aided him immeasurably when Columbo came along. For myself, I will always appreciate the work that he’s done in whatever form, and it is in this spirit that I wrote this blog. Every month, dedicated fans of Columbo worldwide get together on Twitter to celebrate it via #ColumboTV tweetalongs, where they all watch and tweet the same episode together (wherever they may be). This month I am delighted to be the host for #ColumboTV, and my choice of episode was By Dawn’s Early Light. The tweetalong begins at 2pm EST on the 13th, and I hope that you’ll join us. If you wish to join, feel free to tweet myself (@GregMcCambley), or the originators of #ColumboTV (@Columbophile and @d3sk).
And now, it just remains for me to say thanks once again to Aurora (@CitizenScreen) for giving me the opportunity to air out my thoughts in her blog. This is my first attempt at blogging, but it hopefully won’t be the last. And I would like to say thank you to all of you out there reading this. This has been a fun, if difficult, thing to do, and I would love to share more thoughts with you. Tweet me what you think. I’d love to hear your feedback.
Be seeing you.