January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan 1928-2009

Actor Patrick McGoohan has passed away at the age of 80 after a short illness. He is best known for bringing the role of John Drake to life in the British TV series Danger Man, which was released in the US as Secret Agent with the popular theme song by Johnny Rivers. McGoohan’s Drake brought a serious edge to Spy TV. Drake was an undercover agent who applied his trade through deception and intellect, a wonderful concoction for a serious actor like McGoohan. Stories were both complex and adventurous, and often questioned the machinations of his own government- a theme that would return when McGoohan began to think about creating his own show. Drake was a spy who thought his way out of trouble, though gadgets like the crude modifications of mundane objects that true spies employ were used and added to the show’s entertainment value. With breaks for other acting projects, McGoohan played the role from 1960 to 1967.

George Markstein (story editor/Secret Agent, co-creator/The Prisoner, writer/The Odessa File), learned in the early 1960s about a "retirement home" where ex-spies and their secrets could be kept safe. With McGoohan's interest to "retire" Drake and take on individual-vs-society themes, their efforts gelled in the creation of The Prisoner. With backing from ITC, McGoohan was able to take the espionage genre to a new level. At the start of each of the 17 episodes of his new show, The Prisoner, an unnamed spy, resigns in anger. He is kidnapped and taken to a resort village, assigned a number, and is interrogated in fantastic and manipulative ways. His character echoed the rebellious counter culture of the times by championing the rights of the individual. The experience-weary mind of the ex-spy struggled to determine if his captors were a foreign power or indeed his own government. The program was cutting edge and quickly became a cult classic that blended Mod/Pop Art design and fashion with Sci Fi, political undertones, and surrealism.

As a ten-year-old, I watched The Prisoner very closely. My eyes danced from the screen to a typewriter on the floor, where I quickly transcribed the cast and crew credits, as well as a weekly synopsis. I bound my entries in a school report folder, along with clippings from TV Guide. Somehow it was my way of trying to understand the show and a way to celebrate McGoohan’s effect on me as an artist. It was also my first inspiration to research and write about pop culture. Just this past fall, I found my Prisoner binder. I dusted off the cover and sent it as a gift to my friend David Webb Peoples, who is currently working on a feature adaptation with director Christopher Nolan.

Patrick McGoohan set my senses afire in a different way than 007 or The Avengers (competing favorites in my childhood). His quick mind and critique of the world around him was visible in the stories and characters he chose. I respected that quality in him, and he inspired me to think and to question while enjoying a spy adventure at the same time. For those reasons I picked McGoohan as the person I most admired when I applied to boarding school as a kid. I stood proudly when my graduating class was reminded of this in our senior year. And I think fondly on Patrick McGoohan today. He will be missed.

Key episodes to revisit: (Danger Man/Secret Agent) Yesterday's Enemies, To Our Best Friend, (The Prisoner) The Arrival, Chimes of Big Ben, A, B and C, Many Happy Returns. Fans of LOST will enjoy the episode, Checkmate. My friend Steve Bissette's piece about McGoohan can be seen on his website (see links).

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