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Patrick McGoohan: Son of a Bitch

I have no idea what kind of man he was in real life, but to me, Patrick McGoohan will be always be a bit of a bastard. Casting him as a villain was almost too perfect; watching Braveheart, I find myself rooting for Longshanks, and in each of the impressive four times McGoohan faced off against Peter Falk's Columbo, I was always fooled into thinking maybe this time, he'd get away with it. Mr. McGoohan was not a cuddly guy. He was not lovable, or effacing, and in the majority of his on-screen work, he made no effort to work his way into the audience's good graces. There was never a sense as with some actors that he was winking underneath, that he didn't really mean any of it. McGoohan faced us in a state of perpetual irritation—sometimes softening to tolerance, more often blossoming into full blown rage, but always with a foundation of contempt for everything and everyone, the fury of a man who judges the world and finds it perpetually wanting.

About Braveheart: there's a scene that illustrates what I'm describing. If you've seen the movie, you know the one I'm talking about—it involves Longshanks, his idiot son Prince Edward, and Edward's not all that bright himself lover. Also, an open window and a long drop to the courtyard below. Given that for most of the movie, any moments involving Ed and/or his lover go out of their way to present them as weak, mincing, pathetic, etc, Longshanks defenestrating said lover should be the lowest in a series of low blows. But it doesn't come across that way, because there's something brutally comic in the way McGoohan plays it. As a misanthrope, he pulls no punches. Regardless of what we're supposed to take from the murder, what we're really thinking watching it is, given the opportunity, McGoohan would do the same to any one of us.


It was that level of misanthropy—that hungover reaching for the shotgun pissiness—that made McGoohan so weirdly endearing. He was a talented actor, but what gave him his edge was his intensity, and that intensity was born mostly out of, well, it probably wasn't puppy love. In his best work, he stood apart from the actors around him the way a torch stands apart from a flashlight. You see him as the malevolent warden in Escape From Alcatraz, and it makes Clint Eastwood's efforts all the more dangerous, because this is not a stupid man Clint's trying to fool. This is not a guy who's going to give a do-over should things go wrong. ("Oh my yes, paper maiche was a lovely touch, shame it wasn't convincing. Perhaps if I leave my glasses behind next time?") There's something so immediate about McGoohan's intelligence that he can't help but bring whatever he's playing closer to home. As with Braveheart, though it may be a group of criminals McGoohan is menacing, you can't help but feel that somehow, that menace is directed at you.

McGoohan wasn't always the bad guy, though. He's the best part of Ice Station Zebra, playing a British spy who knows more than he's willing to let on, and his subdued, near narcoleptic work in Scanners adds to that film's general tenor of dread without ever being overtly evil. He was The Phantom's dad, in a performance a hell of a lot more compelling than anything else the flick had to offer. He was even a Scottish veterinarian in a Disney movie (The Three Lives of Thomasina), and a Robin Hood-esque vicar in the awesomely named Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow. (It's hard to imagine McGoohan in a kid's movie, isn't it? Like inviting King Lear to a Chuck E. Cheese.)

His greatest role was as Number Six, the ex-spy turned captive hero of the British TV series The Prisoner. Running a scant 17 episodes, the show has a well-deserved reputation for weirdness; a hodge-podge of thriller conventions, satire, and sci-fi allegory, Prisoner is one of the most popular televised Rorschach tests ever conceived, frustrating in its opacity, but endlessly rewarding to anyone with the patience for a lot of unanswered questions. I'm can't remember how old I was when I saw my first episode—I was a teenager, definitely, but beyond that, things get muddy (which is the only proper way to remember one's adolescence)—but I do remember feeling like someone had just taken the top of my head off. For the first time in my life, here was something that never condescended to its audience, never compromised to make sure the slow folks could keep up. It's far from perfect, but The Prisoner was an early indication of what television could aspire to, combining the immediacy of film with the narrative expanse of a good novel. Its eccentricities were always surprising and yet somehow still familiar; strip away the trappings, and it's just this story about a guy who doesn't fit in wherever he goes. And for once, he's not the one who's screwed up.

McGoohan was the driving creative force behind the series, as well as its star, so it's no wonder that it served as a perfect showcase for his talents. Finally, we have a man who hates the world stuck in a world that justifies that hate. In the anonymous Village, Number Six is prodded, tested, tricked, seduced, compelled, and tortured by a shadowy force whose ultimate purpose is never revealed, and all of it done for a simple piece of information that it wouldn't take more than a sentence or two to reveal. It's not even all that important—they only want to know why he quit his job. No state secrets, nothing involving missile plans or code words or anything technical like that; simply his motivation for leaving an exciting, well-paid (one assumes) position at British Intelligence. It almost seems rude of Six not to tell them. Sure, they drugged and kidnapped him, but they do give him room and board and a quite lovely seaside vacation. All very comforting, provided you don't swim too far.


We never find out why Six resigned, but those of us playing at home come closer to figuring it than any of the various Number Twos. For McGoohan, motivation is a personal thing, and regardless of how insignificant the questions may seem, the right not to answer them is of innumerable value. At its heart, The Prisoner is about the ways in which society seeks to crush and compromise the individual, to force people into blind acceptance so that the trains run on time, the clocks are always set, and faces are forever smiling. Out of all his movie and TV work, it's here that McGoohan's fury finds its true purpose. His is the passion of anyone who's ever been told to fit in, to quiet down, to agree more, to listen less, to know one's place, to never question it. For once, we aren't the target of his anger, we share it. For all the outcasts, here is someone who wouldn't compromise how nicely he was asked to.

There was something else, too. Take "The Chimes of Big Ben," one of the best episodes of the show. (SPOILERS ahead, somewhat.) After a series of events too complicated to get into here, Number Six thinks he's finally found his way home. Back in the offices of his former employers, he's relaxing for the first time in months. His bosses are a bit testy, but that's to be expected; he did leave his position in a huff and then disappear off the planet to god only knows where. And why did he resign, anyway? After all the trouble they've gone to for him, the least he could do is answer such a simple question.


There are only a handful of moments in The Prisoner when Number Six seems prepared to confess his secret, and this is as close as he comes. A look of indescribable weariness crosses his face, and he says, "I resigned because for a very long time…"

That's all we get. The Village's long con falls apart due to a poor understanding of international time zones, and Six stalks off, a little wiser and a lot angrier. But there's something in the way he leaves that's worth noting; it ties in to that weariness he showed when he came close to giving himself up, and it lies at the heart of what made Patrick McGoohan so compelling. Because when he's defeated—when he finds out his latest hope is another game, and that someone he'd been willing to trust had screwed him over yet again—he doesn't shout or rail at the heavens or tackle anybody. He just walks out of the room with a slight grin on his face. It's not a happy look, and it makes you realize, anybody who's that closed off, anybody who spends his life without budging an inch, can't be a very happy person. There's a loneliness in all his anger, the loneliness of someone who knows he's alone and wishes desperately it were otherwise; but he can't bring himself to open new doors, and, in the end, hates himself more than anything for that cowardice.


Patrick McGoohan is one of my heroes, and I'm very sorry he's gone. He will be missed.

(You should also check out  Glenn Kenny's excellent piece on McGoohan; it's got pictures!)


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