Patrick Macnee, debonair actor in the TV series ‘The Avengers,’ dies at 93

The Avengers

Patrick Macnee, who starred as the droll, dapper and debonair John Steed in the British television spy series “The Avengers,” which retained a devoted following long after it was first broadcast in the 1960s, died June 25 at his home in Rancho Mirage, California. He was 93.

His son, Rupert Macnee, confirmed his death to the media. The cause was not disclosed.

“The Avengers” premiered in Britain in 1961 with Macnee in second billing after actor Ian Hendry. By the next season, Hendry was gone and the show was built around Macnee’s character.

With a plummy upper-class English accent, Macnee played Steed with one eyebrow arched quizzically beneath the brim of his bowler hat. He was often called on to unsheathe a sword from his umbrella, battling forces of international evil without creasing his Savile Row suits or spilling his champagne.

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“The Avengers” became known for its wry, sophisticated dialogue and for the obvious sexual tension between Macnee and his sharp-witted, swift-kicking female sidekicks. His first partner in solving crime was Honor Blackman, who played Cathy Gale from 1962 to 1964.

“She was the most beautiful of them all,” Macnee told Britain’s Express newspaper in 2010. “It was great to see Honor Blackman tie a man up or throw him over her shoulder using jujitsu.”

From 1965 to 1968, Macnee’s feminine foil was Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. Rigg’s smoldering allure — and her tightly zippered leather outfits — helped win the show a loyal audience, particularly after “The Avengers” began a three-year run in the United States on ABC in 1966.

During the show’s final season in 1968-1969, the female lead, Tara King, was played by Linda Thorson. Since then, “The Avengers” has been in syndication almost continually, with Macnee earning 2.5 percent of the show’s royalties.

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The full name of Macnee’s character was John Wickham Gascoyne Berresford Steed, who, like the actor himself, was educated at England’s exclusive Eton boys’ school. Steed was something of a counterpart to James Bond, the British secret agent played on film by Sean Connery during the same years.

Steed’s only weapons were his umbrella and his bowler, which contained a steel plate, and he never killed anyone during the show’s eight-year run.

The show’s producers wanted to provide Steed with a gun, but Macnee — who commanded torpedo boats during World War II as a British naval officer — refused.

“When they said, ‘You’ve got to carry a gun,’ ” he told the Winston-Salem (North Carolina) Journal in 2002, “I said, ‘I’ve been carrying a gun for five years; I’ve killed more people than you . . . and I won’t carry a gun.”

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Daniel Patrick Macnee was born Feb. 6, 1922, in London. His father was a horse trainer and his mother was descended from a noble family. Both were eccentric in the extreme.

“My mother was a reefer-smoking, lesbian feminist,” Macnee told London’s Daily Mail newspaper. “When I was 4 my mother walked out to live with an heiress called Evelyn, who I had to call ‘Uncle.’ “

Macnee was the only male in the household, and he said “Uncle Evelyn” wanted him to dress in skirts.

“As a compromise,” he said, “my mother suggested I wear kilts instead.”

Macnee was sent off to boarding school at Eton, where he was reprimanded for running a bookmaking pool and dealing in pornographic pictures.

He was 8 when he began acting in school plays with his childhood friend Christopher Lee, who died June 7 at 93.

Macnee began to appear in films in the 1940s, including a nonspeaking part in Laurence Olivier’s version of “Hamlet” (1948). He moved to Canada in the early 1950s and acted in several TV series. He was producing a documentary series based on Winston Churchill’s diary when he was cast in ‘The Avengers.”

After “The Avengers,” Macnee appeared on Broadway in the early 1970s as a cuckolded mystery writer who plots his revenge in the Anthony Shaffer play “Sleuth.” He also played the financier Sir Denis Eton-Hogg in the 1984 rock-and-roll mock documentary “This Is Spinal Tap.”

He played Sherlock Holmes in a 1993 TV movie and twice played Holmes’s sidekick, Dr. Watson. In the 1985 Bond film starring Roger Moore, “A View to a Kill,” Macnee played Bond’s driver.

Macnee made a series of commercials for Sterling cars in the 1980s that featured the theme music from the Bond films. When he opened the door, he said, “I suppose you were expecting someone else.”

His marriages to Barbara Douglas and actress Catherine Woodville ended in divorce. His third wife, Baba Majos de Nagyzsenye, died in 2007 after a 19-year marriage. Survivors include two children from his first marriage.

Macnee published an autobiography, “Blind in One Ear,” in 1988, and several books about “The Avengers.”

In the mid-1970s, a sequel called “The New Avengers” premiered in Britain, with Macnee playing an older version of John Steed. In 1998, when “The Avengers” was remade as a feature film starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman, Macnee had an offscreen part as a narrator.

Asked to explain the continuing fascination with “The Avengers,” Macnee told Utah’s Deseret News in 1999: “It’s a very simple reason: It’s extremely good. I feel very justified and delighted in seeing after all these years that the show works.”