1928 – 2009
In 1964 Johnny Rivers sang of him by stating “Odds are you won’t live to see tomorrow.” Sadly, British actor Patrick McGoohan’s tomorrow finally came on January 13th, and the world lost one of the greatest cult television actors of all time, as well as the unsung trendsetter of the secret agent genre.
It may be hard to believe in a genre that has been set in stone for decades, but long before there was even a Bond, Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake, from the British TV series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent in the US), was the first secret agent of the screen. Before Patrick McGoohan there wasn’t anybody to create the popular mold of the secret agent. Nobody at all. Originally the series was intended to be a James Bond television series, but when Bond creator Ian Fleming dropped out early in the production process, a lifeless copycat agent, John Drake, was put in his place. Slated to debut in 1960, virtual unknown Patrick McGoohan was hired to flesh out the character. With an extensive background in theatre, but only a mediocre career in film, Patrick McGoohan was given the unique opportunity to develop the face, personality and attitude of the small screen’s first secret agent. However, never an actor who just did what he was told to, McGoohan would only take the part if a number of his demands were met. First, he demanded that John Drake use his brains, charm and fists before having to use a gun. Secondly, he demanded that when a fist fight occurred, each fight had to be choreographed uniquely from each other to make the fight more memorable, and to avoid the series from being just another run of the mill fist fight. Thirdly, McGoohan said that John Drake, unless it was unavoidable for the sake of the plot, would not kill. And fourthly, and most unconventional, McGoohan demanded that John Drake never have romantic affairs. John Drake would be the secret agent that didn’t kiss. The producers agreed to McGoohan’s demands, and Danger Man aired in the fall of 1960. Becoming an instant hit in the UK, as well as other oversea markets, Danger Man only lasted a single year originally. However, that year proved influential on the face pop culture. McGoohan’s cool and calculating charm, as well as his sense of style created the prototype of the secret agent, which is still being copied today.
McGoohan was so popular in his role as John Drake that he was approached before Sean Connery to play James Bond in 1962′s Dr. No. Reading the script McGoohan turned the role down. The reason? He felt that the script was far too misogynistic. Thus, instead of having the unique experience of locking lips with Eunice Grayson and Ursula Andress, McGoohan stuck to his sense of morality and gave up what would become one of the most successful film franchises of all time. However, Patrick McGoohan’s influence was far from missing in Dr. No, and although Sean Connery put his own unique spin on the secret agent prototype, he basically mimicked Patrick McGoohan’s earlier example. Unfortunately, Sean Connery’s portrayal of James Bond would eclipse the popularity of Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake, and he would eventually become the most popular secret agent in pop culture history, spawning generations of imitators. Sadly, most people don’t realize that Connery was just emulating Patrick McGoohan, thus robbing McGoohan of what was potentially his greatest legacy.
However, with the popularity of the James Bond films, Danger Man was sold to the US market and McGoohan reluctantly returned to the series after a two year hiatus. But by 1967, with the popularity of Bond charging full throttle, TV was littered with spies and secret agents of all sorts. Competing against Simon Templar, John Steed, Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuriakin and even Bill Cosby, the spy game was getting a little too crowded for Patrick McGoohan’s tastes. He suddenly felt that John Drake was no longer relevant, and Danger Man was no longer unique. Thus, after two episodes in from what would be the final series, Patrick McGoohan surprised the world when he announced that he was quitting Danger Man. Yet, he had something incredibly unique up his sleeve. Something so different and memorable that it continues to fascinate and boggle the minds of viewers to this day – Patrick McGoohan’s masterpiece The Prisoner.
Taking the entire Danger Man production team along with him, and acting as creator, producer, writer and star, Patrick McGoohan crafted the story of a nameless former secret agent, which many fans argue is in fact Danger Man’s John Drake, who after quitting his agency in a fit of anger, is kidnapped and wakes up in a mysterious holiday encampment, which is really an elaborate and surreal prison, known only as “The Village.” Known only as Number Six, McGoohan would attempt to escape The Village while engaging in battle in a battle of wits each week with various sinister Number Twos in their quest to break Number Six and gain “information.” What or who Number Six, his captors, or the information that was so valuable was would be a mystery to even the viewer. Originally slated to be a seven part mini-series, ITV asked McGoohan to make 26 episodes in an attempt to sell it to CBS in the US. McGoohan compromised and a total of seventeen episodes were made.
The Prisoner was a truly unique watching experience. Highly surreal and more unconventional then anything that had ever been seen on TV before, The Prisoner went over the heads of the common viewer, and challenged the most intellectual ones. The Prisoner became ‘the thinking man’s” Bond and as a result, a fascination with the series grew, creating a strong and obsessive cult following. Because of its cryptic storytelling The Prisoner has still yet to truly be deciphered, and continues to be studied and reexamined by fans today, spawning itself into documentaries, books and even college courses. However, in 1977 Patrick McGoohan offered his own explanation of the series for CultTV Magazine where he said:
“I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself… I think we’re gonna take good care of this planet shortly… there’s never been a weapon created yet on the face of the Earth that hadn’t been used. We’re run by the Pentagon, we’re run by Madison Avenue, we’re run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don’t revolt we’ll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche… As long as we go out and buy stuff, we’re at their mercy. We’re at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed. We all live in a little Village… Your village may be different from other people’s villages but we are all prisoners.”
After The Prisoner wrapped up in 1968 Patrick McGoohan quit episodic television and returned to the theatre, although he continued to make film and television appearances for the rest of his life, most notably in the Oscar winning film Braveheart in which he place King Edward I. Cleverly, in his attempt never to by typecast, McGoohan never returned to the spy genre. McGoohan officially retired from acting in 2002, with his final projects being voice acting in the role of Billy Bones in Disney’s animated flop Treasure Planet, and by reprising his role as Number Six in an episode of The Simpsons.
Yet despite a long and rich career in theatre, television and film, Patrick McGoohan could never escape the success and popularity of The Prisoner. As a result The Prisoner made him one of the top intellects on the pop culture journey. Starting in the mid 1990′s McGoohan made several ambitious attempts to revive the series in various different forms and with different directors. Unfortunately, none of his efforts ever came to be due to the fact that producers and studios could rarely wrap their brains around the intensity of his ideas. In a Hollywood that rejects complex ideas, Patrick McGoohan was just a little too intelligent for the current pop culture journey. However, a Prisoner revival is currently being rumored featuring Daniel Craig as Number Six and Ian McKellen as Number Two. If this production will be made is yet to be seen, however it is questionable how successful it will be without Patrick McGoohan at the helm. It was his brilliance that made The Prisoner what it was. Unfortunately for us, Patrick McGoohan has finally escaped the Village.
Be seeing you…