R.I.P. Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner's TV Visionary
By Scott Thill
January 14, 2009
Celebrity, Sci-Fi, Television
"I am not a number, I am a free man!" Patrick McGoohan's character Number Six shouted at the panoptic eye in the sky at the beginning of every episode of the revolutionary '60s sci-fi TV series The Prisoner. And although the character would come to dominate McGoohan's life and even chase him out of London following the series' controversial 1968 finale, "Fall Out," McGoohan is a prisoner no longer.
The actor died Tuesday in Los Angeles at the age of 80, a still-underrated legend whose influence will no doubt grow larger as this still-new millennium unfurls.
A cosmopolitan iconoclast in an entertainment world still teeming with conformists, McGoohan was known for both his brawn and brains, a rare combination. Born in Queens, New York, in 1928, his family soon moved to Ireland and eventually England, where McGoohan made his name.
He excelled in boxing and math at Ratcliffe College, and worked a variety of odd jobs before landing a gig as a stagehand at Sheffield Repertory Theatre, where he not only kick-started a brilliant stage career but also met the love of his life, actress Joan Drummond. According to popular lore, McGoohan continued to write her love letters even as old age beckoned, and remained loyal to his family until his final days.
It was perhaps that utterly romantic commitment, along with the fact that he first studied to become a Roman Catholic priest, that caused McGoohan to eschew violence and promiscuity once he became one of the most popular actors in England, after his first major series Danger Man (also known as Secret Agent Man in the United States) landed in 1960.
Unlike the brusque heavies he played in films like 1957's Hell Drivers or plays like Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew or Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, Danger Man's John Drake was the ultimate cool customer, a globe-hopping fixer for NATO who nearly always solved major geopolitical tangles with brainy stratagems rather than sex or violence. McGoohan's resolute morality would eventually pave the way for others to become stars: He passed up both the roles of James Bond and The Saint's Simon Templar, opening doors for Roger Moore.
When Danger Man was resuscitated as an hour-long thriller in 1964, McGoohan flexed his muscle further, demanding more room to act, sharper plots and more friction with his superiors, which set the stage for the intelligence showdowns that would serve as the thematic center of every Prisoner episode.
He also became one of the highest-paid actors in England, which he parlayed into roles in spooky Disney films like Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and The Three Lives of Thomasina. Along the way, he impressed nearly without fail. Welles called his acting "intimidating;" billionaire Howard Hughes obsessively watched Ice Station Zebra, a nuclear thriller in which McGoohan appeared alongside Rock Hudson, Jim Brown and more; Secret Agent Man's eponymous musical theme, performed by Johnny Rivers, became a pop hit. He could do no wrong.
That is, until the controversial 1968 finale of The Prisoner, which — like the later cliffhangers of similar envelope-pushing programs like David Lynch's Twin Peaks or J.J. Abrams Lost — confounded conventional expectation and stoked a viewer outrage that McGoohan admits led him to leave London for Los Angeles for good. (For an extended analysis of Danger Man and The Prisoner's cultural influence, read Wired.com's feature, eerily published hours before McGoohan passed.)
As McGoohan would later explain of the destabilizing conclusion of The Prisoner in a 1984 retrospective: "If I could do it again, I would. As long as people feel something, that's the great thing. It's when they are walking around not thinking and not feeling, that's tough. When you get a mob like that, you can turn them into the sort of gang that Hitler had."
From the outset, McGoohan constructed The Prisoner as an escape vehicle designed to tease brains and incite response. Its main character, Number Six, was, like John Drake, an intelligence agent, but one tired of the grind and looking to retire, much like McGoohan when he dreamed up the character after expressing a desire to leave Danger Man. He conceived the series nearly on his own, and wrote and directed several episodes, including some of the finest: "Many Happy Returns" and the last two episodes "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out." When he first thought up the influential series, McGoohan wrote a 50-page Prisoner bible that explained everything actors, producers and other principals needed to know.
And there was a lot to know, given that the show skewed television stranger than most anything that had aired at the time, including The Twilight Zone. Though designed to last only a few episodes, The Prisoner's popularity and bravery stretched the show's run to 17, with the later installments like "Living in Harmony" and "The Girl Who Was Death" head-tripping off into the Western genre and surrealism, respectively.
From technological nightmares of surveillance and murderous inventions like the balloon Rovers to brain transplants and Clockwork Orange-like torture, The Prisoner challenged viewer expectation and experience with every episode. The Prisoner was an allegory of the individual, aiming to find peace and freedom in a dystopia masquerading as a utopia.
"I must have individuality in everything I do. It's not easy to find it always," McGoohan once explained. "I question everything. I don't accept anything on face value."
After The Prisoner's astounding conclusion, McGoohan left the madding crowd ironically for Los Angeles, where he continued to work in television and film. He won two Emmys for his work on Columbo, whose star Peter Falk was one of his good friends. He appeared in films like Braveheart, Treasure Planet and David Cronenberg's sci-fi crossover Scanners. He even lampooned The Prisoner in The Simpsons. But it was clear that McGoohan was picking and choosing his work after more than two decades of stunning productivity and cultural influence. And although director Nick Hurran and producer Trevor Hopkins tried hard to involve McGoohan in their forthcoming miniseries reboot of The Prisoner, due in November, his declining health made that a near impossibility.
Perhaps it is fate or coincidence that as Hurran and Hopkins previewed scenes from the 2009 version of The Prisoner last week in Hollywood, McGoohan had succumbed to an illness that would take his life mere miles away. But whatever it is, the fact remains that television has lost one of its most compelling, honorable stars.
Rest in peace, Patrick McGoohan. Your mark on the 20th century simply cannot be ignored. Your influence on the 21st century has yet to be fully measured, but when it is, one thing is sure: You will be more missed than the day you left us all.