Wednesday, January 14, 2009

We'll be seeing you, No. 6


The actor Patrick McGoohan died in Santa Monica, Calif., on Tuesday after a brief and undisclosed illness, at the age of 80. If you don’t recognize the name, it might be understandable given the velocity and short attention span of the times. He hadn’t worked in some time, no doubt a concession to advancing age and the relative absence of parts in Hollywood for actors with, uh, that much experience.

But in his prime, McGoohan brought consummate acting skills and a voice that could have made the phone book sound like Shakespeare to numerous roles in movies and on television, one in particular.

He first came to the attention of American TV viewers as “Secret Agent,” in which he starred as John Drake, a British agent involved in various global intrigues. The series roughly dovetailed with the American fascination with espionage according to the 007 movies, followed by “The Avengers” and “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” series on the small screen. The show’s theme song, “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers, became a pop music staple of the ‘60’s.

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If McGoohan’s career had gone no further than “Secret Agent,” he might have been no more than a curious pop-culture footnote. But he went to produce, direct, write and star in a series that paved the way for television as a more daring and inventive medium than it had been before — in many ways, more daring than it’s ever been since.

In 1967 McGoohan debuted in “The Prisoner,” a series whose short life (it only ran for 17 episodes, from late 1967 to February 1968) belies its importance to the medium of television.

In the series, McGoohan plays a British agent who had been involved in various business in the service of Her Majesty. Fed up, the unnamed agent (Drake?) resigns from the service. On the day he quits, he rushes home to prepare to leave the country, ostensibly for a much-needed vacation. It’s then the agent is drugged and spirited away to, well, a secret undisclosed location: a bucolic Village whose inhabitants are seemingly happy and inwardly resigned to their fate, despite their identities having been smudged, their names reduced to numbers.



They are prisoners, a fact never more obvious than when one tries to escape from this not-quite-idyllic situation, only to be pursued by large, white, balloon-like blobs that appeared from nowhere to chase the would-be escapee and induce a briefly suffocating paralysis.

As No. 6, McGoohan spent much of his time plotting his own escape, secretly huddling with others of the same fate and inclination — searching for a way out, a way to exit from a fate and a future that, however benign, was not of his choosing. Every week the show’s opening sequence was punctuated with the following exchange, setting the storyline for newcomers:

No. 6: Where am I?
No. 2: In the Village.
No. 6: What do you want?
No. 2: Information.
No. 6: Whose side are you on?
No. 2: That would be telling. We want information … information … information.
No. 6: You won’t get it.
No. 2: By hook or by crook … we will.
No. 6: Who are you?
No. 2: The new No. 2.
No. 6: Who is No. 1?
No. 2: You are No. 6.


And then, No. 6’s cri de coeur: “I am not a number … I am a free man!

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What might sound like a thin foundation for a television series was anything but. “The Prisoner” was and remains one of prime-time television’s enduring existential statements, a show that raised issues of freedom, enslavement, conformity, identity and one’s purpose in life that would find their way into entertainments from “The Truman Show” to the current hit TV series “Lost.”

In a tribute published in May 2004, TV Guide noted that "[f]ans still puzzle over this weird, enigmatic drama, a Kafkaesque allegory about the individual's struggle in the modern age."



Part thriller, part science fiction, part Orwellian dystopia, “The Prisoner” changed the perception of prison, daring to propose the idea that incarceration need not be an exercise of iron bars and stone walls — that the deeper prisons are those of our own minds and imaginations.

“The Prisoner,” which also starred a youngish Leo McKern as No. 2, was all of a piece with the obsession with Brit culture of the time; check the Village exteriors (shot in Wales) and No. 6’s jacket, whose lapels (bordered in white piping) still screams “Briton on holiday!” today.

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McGoohan went on to other roles: starring in such films as “Ice Station Zebra,” “Silver Streak,” David Cronenberg’s sci-fi cult classic “Scanners” (1981), and (in a clever turnabout) as the warden in “Escape From Alcatraz,” with Clint Eastwood. He worked in television, from “Columbo” to “Mastepiece Theatre.” More recently, and memorably, McGoohan starred opposite Mel Gibson in “Braveheart” (1995) portraying the 12th century Plantagenet King Edward I (“Longshanks”), conqueror of Wales and the nemesis of Scottish rebel William Wallace.

But for better or worse, McGoohan was “The Prisoner” to TV buffs and fans of cult television hits. The role was a kind of genial cement — a prison — for McGoohan, who never quite escaped the popular fascination for the series and his role in it. (“The Simpsons” even did a takeoff in 2000.)

But what a prison. Without his realizing it, “The Prisoner” set the bar high for television going forward, its sense of adventure and fun something that risk-averse, prime-time TV has rarely approached since.

That spirit of independence ran deep. In at least one episode, when confronted by a Village superior who demands his conformity to the new order around him, No. 6 utters his fully defining statement, and maybe McGoohan’s own:

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”

A fitting passion for his career; a worthy pursuit for our own lives.

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