The modern ideal of the muscle-bound action star has nothing on the wits and fury of Patrick McGoohan, the personification of the 1960s action man.
The success of The Expendables has resulted in a surge of audience interest in the cinematic ideal of the 1980s ‘man of action’ which has seen the rejuvenation of the careers of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the interminable continuation of the Jason Statham franchise. This makes some of us yearn for an even earlier milieu, that of the 1960s action men, like Lee Marvin, Michael Caine and Steve McQueen. These men didn’t need to bulge with muscles or carry a machine gun, because all they required were wits and resolve.
Patrick McGoohan helped to define what it meant to be a 1960s man of action, albeit in his own, inimitable style
One actor helped to define what it meant to be a 1960s man of action, albeit in his own, inimitable style: Patrick McGoohan. In the 1960s, McGoohan starred as no-nonsense NATO operative John Drake in the excellent ITC series Danger Man. Every week, Drake would use his wits and his fists (but rarely ever a gun) in the name of spreading democracy around the globe. But the character of Drake remained an anomaly – he was frequently at odds with his superiors and never seemed to be romantically interested in any of the women in the show.
This mistrust of authority would come to the fore in 1967, with McGoohan’s masterpiece The Prisoner. After leaving Danger Man and turning down the roles of James Bond and The Saint (he believed the characters too vulgar), McGoohan embarked on his dream project. In The Prisoner, McGoohan plays a spy who – upon resignation – is kidnapped and sequestered in The Village, a strange township where everyone is designated a number; he is Number 6. Every week, he comes up against Number 2, who tries to extract “information” from him.
Conceived by McGoohan himself, The Prisoner is 60s weirdness at its best: strange costumes, an even stranger location and a giant, bouncing white balloon monster. But the show was a way for McGoohan to address his concerns with society at large, including major institutions like politics, education, media and even terrorism. McGoohan was an individualist, and The Prisoner was his thesis statement about the importance of being yourself in a world of increasing marginalisation.
McGoohan is a thermonuclear explosion, contained inside a bubble of rage. Every moment teeters on the brink of revelation
Weirdness aside, The Prisoner was also an action show. In each episode, Number 6 tries to escape The Village or to resist the techniques employed to secure his submission. Again, McGoohan uses his wits and his fists but never firearms to get the job done. One episode, Living in Harmony, was even criticised for its pacifist stance, while the powers-that-be wanted more public support for the Vietnam War. However, it wasn’t just in the realm of television drama and its ability to address political concerns where McGoohan was so iconoclastic. It was the very style of his acting which pushed him to the frontier of what it meant to be a man of action in the 60s, or any era.
Film director John Boorman once commented that the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune could not be directed, he could only be pointed like a gun. McGoohan is a thermonuclear explosion, contained inside a bubble of barely suppressed rage. Each look and gesture comes with its own ecosystem of odd tics and mannerisms and every moment teeters on the brink of revelation. Whether he is sipping a cup of tea, or matching wits with Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz, it is with the inquisitive nature of a child that is having this experience for the first time in his life.
Yet McGoohan’s style was punctuated with a slight smile within a look of indignation, as if he was playing a joke on us all along (only if we laughed, we’d get our teeth kicked in). When McGoohan did finally let loose, it was a maelstrom of blood and thunder – now we are the child, and he is the enraged schoolmaster who is getting ready to give us six of the best. While his credits after The Prisoner prove he had some rather high profile roles in Scanners, Columbo and later Braveheart, the spectre of McGoohan’s alcoholism made him difficult to work with. It still haunts his reputation, as it does plenty of fellow British ‘hard men’ like Richard Harris and Oliver Reed, but his legacy remains.
The spectre of McGoohan’s alcoholism haunts his reputation, but his legacy remains
Danger Man is regarded as a solid entry in the Cold War spy genre and The Prisoner gains more attention each year as one of the greatest cult television shows of all time – it is an inspiration to all that came after it, from Twin Peaks to Lost. McGoohan was an idiosyncratic, iconoclastic actor and director, and perhaps not the first actor you would think of when discussing the action men of the 1960s. But to me, he will always be Number 1. Be seeing you.
Featured image: ITV
Inset images: ITV; Paramount