Wednesday, January 14, 2009

RIP Patrick McGoohan

The Prisoner was one of those great shows that proved how potent TV could be, one I watched with rapt fascination when it re-aired on I believe PBS in the early 1980s. It's regrettable that McGoohan never turned his keen mind to any other projects in the medium, though The Prisoner and the earlier Secret Agent still ripple in the culture, including his own playful poke at Number Six on The Simpsons. (It'll be interesting, maybe, to see how the upcoming AMC remake of the The Prisoner, with Jim Cavizel and Ian McKellen as Number Six and Number Two, will bring the hall-of-mirrors concept into our era.)

Born in Astoria, Queens, but raised in England and Ireland, which gave him his distinctive, brandy-flavored voice, McGoohan was hard to pin down as a film and TV performer, with gaps in his resume, spurnings (James Bond, Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings cycle and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter pictures), and some quirky judgment calls when he went before the cameras. (His first, and last, Broadway appearance was in 1985's Pack of Lies, for which he received a Drama Desk nomination.)

But there were memorable parts, including 1957's hard-hitting trucker expose Hell Drivers, 1962's All Night Long, a jazz-set Othello, with McGoohan excellent as the Iago figure (look for them on Turner Classic) ;The Quare Fellow (1962), from Brendan Behan's play; his fine Disney pictures, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and The Three Lives of Thomasina (my wife had a cat named Thomasina, from the film); giving a master class on how to handle great chunks of exposition in 1968's Ice Station Zebra; menacing Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976), Clint Eastwood in 1979's Escape from Alcatraz, and Mel Gibson in Braveheart (1995), his last big part; and birthing mutants as a different kind of Dr. Ruth in David Cronenberg's classic Scanners (1981). Columbo never had a finer adversary than McGoohan, who appeared four times on various incarnations of the show and won two Emmys. I would like to see the 1970 Elmore Leonard adaptation The Moonshine War, with Richard Widmark and Alan Alda.

For all this I always thought he might have done more, but perhaps McGoohan (a private, few-interviews kind of person, and not the easiest person to work with) preferred spending time on what appears to have been a settled family life. The 80-year-old actor was married 57 years, no little accomplishment.

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