Yesterday, actor Patrick Macnee died at 93. And those of us who grew up watching him play John Steed on The Avengers (the original Avengers, mind you, and the reason the recent superhero movies have to be called Marvel’s The Avengers) are breathing a melancholy sigh, because we miss the actor who embodied the man so many of us wished we could have been.
An adventurer? Yes, of course. A spy in a science-fictional world of mad scientists, robots and secret labs. But John Steed was so, so much more than that. He was intelligent, savvy, skilled, dashing, confident, erudite, witty, cultured and unflappable. He played a gentleman’s gentleman, a natty figure that James Bond could only admire from afar.
And John Steed was a product of the post-war modern generation: Not only did he refuse to carry a gun, and was still great at his dangerous job; but he worked alongside some of the most amazing women in the world, and never let sex get in the way of work. Again, he was the gentleman’s gentleman, and any lady who stood alongside him knew that her virtue would never be in danger, her gender would never be denigrated, her skills would never be doubted.
So was John Steed’s relationship with the characters of Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman) and Emma Peel (played by Diana Rigg). Cathy and Emma represented some of the first women adventurers in television that weren’t there just to be rescued by the men, or met in the boudoir after the adventure was over; they were front and center in the action, taking down as many bad guys as Steed. And Steed, rather than being threatened by them or distracted by them, worked efficiently and professionally beside them.
(Tara King—played by Linda Thorson—was also a great and capable agent, but deliberately softened and made to cater to and strongly admire/adore Steed… something Macnee didn’t think worked as well as the Steed-Gale and Steed-Peel relationships. Steed remained professional with Tara, nevertheless.)
This was (in the sixties and seventies) what many of us saw as the future of man-woman relationships—considered by some to be even more civilized than the “sexual revolution” we usually saw on American television, where constant and deliberate sexual tension between equals in name only inevitably resulted in leading men bedding a different woman every week, and the beginnings of “will-they-won’t-they” television.
Lamentably, the antics of James Bond came to be considered the Ideal British Gentleman by the American masses: The man who wears his dangerousness on his sleeve, and cuts ruthless quips as he dispatches his enemies. When John Steed dispatched an enemy, he didn’t revel in it or soften the blow with bad jokes; he noted the regrettable but necessary loss of life, and moved on. He was the consummate professional, in his job, and with his colleagues.
He was also okay with being an anachronism: Wearing Saville Row suits and a bowler (with a bulletproof top), always carrying an umbrella (with a sword hidden in the handle) and driving a monstrous vintage Bentley roadster. Though almost everything in The Avengers was designed to be hyper-British (for the American audiences to ogle), Macnee made John Steed, a caricature in itself, work marvelously. Not only did Americans want England to be just like what they saw on The Avengers, but they wanted their English gentlemen to be just like John Steed. Hell, he even made jowls look cool.
Macnee’s John Steed was admittedly a character out of whole cloth, a type designed to allow foreign audiences to revel in a fairytale version of England. But he (and The Avengers) did it so well that even those of us who were in on the joke, just didn’t care. Patrick Macnee was an icon of American television, and he will be sorely missed.