Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan dies at 80

Farewell, number six

Still of Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner

Patrick McGoohan, creator of The Prisoner and star of Danger Man, has died after a short illness in a hospital in Santa Monica, California, aged 80.

The Irish American actor's work in the 60s foreshadowed concerns about freedom and personal privacy that remain key political issues today, thanks to the erosion of liberties pushed forward by governments as necessary in the fight against terrorism. What's less remembered is that the depiction of technology in the The Prisoner in particular was decades ahead of its time. The series was among the first to depict cordless telephones and miniature surveillance cameras, among other innovations that only became commercially available years later.

McGoohan was born in New York but moved back with his Irish-born parents to County Leitrim soon after his birth, resettling in Sheffield, England, seven years later. The teenager left school at 16 and went through various menial jobs before working in a theatre, initially as a manager, where he filled in as an actor, launching a career on the stage and (less comfortably) in British film with the Rank Organisation.

After that unhappy experience, McGoohan insisted on more control in agreeing to take over the role of secret agent John Drake in Danger Man. He insisted that the agent use his brain before a gun and that all fist fights (McGoohan was an accomplished amateur boxer) needed to be different. He also insisted on the absence of romantic sub-plots.

McGoohan went onto to make four seasons of Danger Man in the 1960s. His charecterisation would go on to shape the secret agents that followed him, from Harry Lime to Jason Bourne.

McGoohan reportedly turned down the roles of James Bond (in Dr No) and Simon Templar (The Saint) during this period, before becoming weary of the character. Producer Lew Grade was keen to retain his services and agreed to give McGoohan unprecedented control with a new series that became The Prisoner. George Markstein, script editor on Danger Man, is credited with helping to develop the initial concept of the series, a spy trapped in a resort-like prison.

McGoohan not only starred in and produced the series but also wrote three episodes and directed two others. The main character in the series, a former secret agent who's abducted after he resigns, spends the series trying to escape from The Village, an agreeably quaint but nonetheless oppressive penal colony.

Addressed as Number Six by his captors, a label memorably rejected in the speech "I am not a number, I'm a free man", McGoohan's character engaged in a battle of wits with his captor while trying to discover who ran the village and to escape. Leo McKern appeared in three episodes as McGoohan's nemesis, Number Two.

An initial six-episode mini-series run was expanded to 17 episodes and broadcast between 1967 and 1968. By turns surreal and Kafkaesque, The Prisoner disappointed some who wanted the more straightforward story-telling of the Danger Man series but became a cult hit over time. The Prisoner features elements from science fiction and psychological drama as well as spy stories.

The series influenced future productions such as Lost and films such as The Truman Show. Its iconic Rover weather balloon guardians were parodied in The Simpsons. The exteriors for the series were shot in Portmeirion, Wales, making the model village something of a tourist destination in its own right.

McGoohan went on to enjoy a successful film career but will always be best remembered as The Prisoner. In a nice piece of casting he played the Warden opposite Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. He also played Edward Longshanks opposite Mel Gibson's William Wallace in Braveheart. He gained award recognition with two Emmys for guest starring roles in Columbo

Several abortive attempts at producing a movie version of The Prisoner, starring McGoohan's friend Gibson, were discussed but never came to fruition. However, a "reimagining" of the seminal series is due to hit TV screens later this year. Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel has taken the role of Number Six opposite Sir Ian McKellen, as Number Two.

McGoohan is survived by his wife, Joan Drummond McGoohan, and three daughters. ®

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