Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Actor Patrick McGoohan died yesterday at the age of 80. Call me perverse: I like The Prisoner, but I love Secret Agent/Danger Man.
I know, I know: The Prisoner was a thinking man's fantasy series, so far ahead of the curve that it looped back on itself like a moebius strip. And it was totally cool.
But I was hooked by McGoohan's John Drake in the B&W Secret Agent (1960-'61, 1964-'67). I was too young to have followed either version of the series when it was new, but I caught up with Secret Agent in syndication in the late 1970s (around the same time I discovered the magnificently pessimistic The Fugitive), and I couldn't get enough of its vision of a principled espionage agent trying to navigate in an increasingly amoral world. Secret Agent had a touch of The Avengers' pop surreality, but its primary appeal was as a corrective to the boys' own adventure excesses of the James Bond novels and films.
Born in Astoria, Queens, on March 19, 1928, McGoohan's family moved back to Ireland shortly after he was born. He began acting in the early 1950s, starting on stage and segueing into UK television in 1954. He knocked around in supporting TV and movie roles for several years, including one of my favorite films as a child, 1964's The Three Lives of Tomasina, about the travails of a plucky puss cat. Secret Agent's original incarnation, Danger Man, didn't last long. But version 2.0, Secret Agent, made McGoohan an international star.
And I can't help but feel that show's appeal was due at least in part to Johnny Rivers' amazing version of Steve Barri and P.F. Sloan's title song. I can't tell you how many times I heard it covered in the 1970s and '80s — I especially like the version by a long forgotten NYC band called Crayola — and I even own a 45 single. And it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago -- one of my co-workers at TVGuide.com used it as his ring tone and it was awesome.
McGoohan's The Prisoner was a stroke of genius, the surreal story of what happened when a secret agent who bore a remarkable resembleance to John Drake decided to leave the spy game. Everytime I read that Hollywood filmmaker wants to remake it, I die a little inside.
McGoohan had a fine post-Secret Agent/Prisoner career, but for me — and, I suspect, many others — he's always be some version of John Drake.