Thursday, January 15, 2009

”I am a free man!”

(CBS/AP) Patrick McGoohan, an actor who created and starred in the cult classic TV show "The Prisoner," died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a short illness. He was 80.
“I am a free man!”

This was the inimical quote of the character referred to as “Number 6.” No more fitting epitaph applies to Patrick McGoohan.

At a time when the Cold War was far less egalitarian, far less romantic, and far more notorious than anything depicted in a James Bond movie, The Prisoner was a spy series based out of the imagination of McGoohan and his colleague, George Markstein. The 1967 surrealistic mystery series was far closer to the social commentary and satire of George Orwell’s Ninteen Eighty-Four than it was to the glamorous James Bond of Ian Fleming.

In fact, McGoohan had already set a very different tone in his earlier series, Danger Man, which was known in the United States as Secret Agent Man. That 1964-1967 series kept itself “professional.” A lot less killing, and far fewer sexual escapades for visceral thrills and titilation, than the Ian Fleming series. Through trained in boxing, McGoohan had no personal penchant for depictions of violence.

Wikipedia notes, “McGoohan insisted on several conditions before agreeing to do the show Danger Man: all the fistfights should be different, the character would always use his brain before using a gun, and, much to the horror of the executives, no kissing. They hired him anyway.” The Trivia section on the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) notes, “Patrick McGoohan was adamant that Drake live up to a higher moral standard than the likes of James Bond. As a result, the character rarely becomes involved with women (beyond mission requirements), and rarely kills anyone - in fact he almost never carries a gun.”

McGoohan had in fact turned down the roles of both James Bond, and Simon Templar of The Saint. He wanted to pursue something of his own imagining. Thus the story of the resignation of “Number 6” from his life of covert operations was an analogy of McGoohan’s resignation from the omnipresent and controlling European production company, the Rank Organisation.

The concept of burying covert operations and operatives was alluded to in the opening segments of the U.S. series of 1966, Mission: Impossible, “As always, should you or any of your IM force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.”

Our “free, democratic” governments were in reality doing things that would utterly shock or outrage the public and world. This was quite well-known. We were admitting by this dramatic conceit our leaders would lie to us to keep us safe from the truths they created. They’d carefully hide the evidence and dissemble the facts.

Patrick McGoohan decided to make his next television show about one such covert operative, who needed to be disavowed. Hushed up. Put out to pasture. Watched. How do you hide what you’ve done? How do you retire a man who knows too much? Unlike the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock thriller with James Stewart, The Man Who Knew Too Much, about an accidental encounter with the world of covert assassination, the protagonist of The Prisoner does not stumble into his knowledge. It had been his profession.

McGoohan’s charcacter is a secret operative who quits his day job. He wants to get out of the business for unstated reasons, though it is obvious he is not happy with his work any more. Angry in fact. He is not allowed the possibility of a regular retirement, and thus the character is transported to the Village where he can be safely watched and monitored.

The Prisoner was filled with surrealistic elements. From the large-wheeled bicycles and eerie landscapes of the Salvador Dali-like credits, to Rover, the large ballon that retrieves wayward runaways, to the edgily-discomforting smiles, fashions, furnishings, and other oddities of the Village. It was a rebellious series, set in the real world, yet apart from it. A metaphor appropriate for many people who, at the time, felt trapped by the heavy-hand of intrusive governments bent on imposing social order by violence and deprivation of liberties and lives if need be.

Watching it as a child on television in re-runs, I was struck by many foundational elements of the show. Ethics, hypocrisy, wit, color, psychology, freedom, anger, calmness. Science fiction. A fiction about unpleasant truths. It was a heroic yet everyman struggle against oppression. The spy-versus-spy craftiness of those who sought to set, or burst through, the boundaries of freedom.

One could see the false polite smile of the triumphantly powerful. In return, the silent yet unmistakeably defiant slap in the face of the powers-that-be. It was over-the-top, and clearly hyperbole—a warning of how the world might turn if we let it become so. The shape of things to come.

McGoohan went on after The Prisoner to do other work, yet that series became the pinnacle of his career. I was very pleased to see him in Braveheart, where he played King Edward Longshanks to steely-eyed dramatic perfection, though much of the movie was dross and historically inaccurate.

Throughout his career, he projected a gravitas to his person, yet limned with a gentlemanly wit and charm. He had a boldness and presence which was not just limited to the roles he played on screen. Long after his passing, he will remain one of the world’s unforgettable presences.

Mr. McGoohan, if you are reading over my shoulder, I have but one thing to say to you today:

“Be seeing you!”

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