Thursday, January 15, 2009

"I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered:" Number 6 leaves The Village

R.I.P. Patrick McGoohan--if, indeed, he is dead; all we know for sure is that a tall, sepulcural-looking fellow hustled a body into a vintage hearse outside a London flat. (I always wondered--did he leave the keys in that vintage Lotus?)

The week that Jack Bauer, the impresario of state-sanctioned ultraviolence, returns to network television is also the week we lost the actor who created the cerebral agent who disdained guns and violence. For John Drake (known to the early-1960s US television market as "Secret Agent Man") and for the abductee known only as Number 6, as for McGoohan throughout his professional life, it was a battle of wits. A contest of wills. A relentless battle where one's individuality was at stake every moment, waking or sleeping. Well, you get the picture.

Danger Man's John Drake was the ultimate cool customer, a globe-hopping fixer for NATO who nearly always solved major geopolitical tangles with brainy stratagems rather than sex or violence. McGoohan's resolute morality would eventually pave the way for others to become stars: He passed up both the roles of James Bond and The Saint's Simon Templar, opening doors for Roger Moore.

When Danger Man was resuscitated as an hour-long thriller in 1964, McGoohan flexed his muscle further, demanding more room to act, sharper plots and more friction with his superiors, which set the stage for the intelligence showdowns that would serve as the thematic center of every Prisoner episode.

He also became one of the highest-paid actors in England, which he parlayed into roles in spooky Disney films like Dr. Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh and The Three Lives of Thomasina. Along the way, he impressed nearly without fail. Welles called his acting "intimidating;" billionaire Howard Hughes obsessively watched Ice Station Zebra, a nuclear thriller in which McGoohan appeared alongside Rock Hudson, Jim Brown and more; Secret Agent Man's eponymous musical theme, performed by Johnny Rivers, became a pop hit. He could do no wrong.

That is, until the controversial 1968 finale of The Prisoner, which — like the later cliffhangers of similar envelope-pushing programs like David Lynch's Twin Peaks or J.J. Abrams Lost — confounded conventional expectation and stoked a viewer outrage that McGoohan admits led him to leave London for Los Angeles for good. (For an extended analysis of Danger Man and The Prisoner's cultural influence, read's feature, eerily published hours before McGoohan passed.)

As McGoohan would later explain of the destabilizing conclusion of The Prisoner in a 1984 retrospective: "If I could do it again, I would. As long as people feel something, that's the great thing. It's when they are walking around not thinking and not feeling, that's tough. When you get a mob like that, you can turn them into the sort of gang that Hitler had."

Unfortunately, failing health prevented McGoohan from being involved in the 2009 reboot of "The Prisoner."

The net will be awash with clips of "The Prisoner" today, and rightly so. But just to be properly contrary, here's "The Island," a 1960 episode of "Danger Man:"

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