Five things you didn't know about Patrick Macnee

Best known as the urbane, witty and well-dressed Avenger John Steed, Macnee preferred life in the nude

Patrick Macnee
(Image credit: Getty)

Patrick Macnee, the debonair star of the 1960s television series The Avengers, has died in California at the age of 93.

The British actor had a long and distinguished career in theatre and film, but will always be remembered as John Steed, the bowler-hatted, umbrella-twirling secret agent with his feisty co-stars Honor Blackman (as Cathy Gale) and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel).

Macnee was born in London in 1922, the son of Daniel and Dorothea, a racehorse trainer and the niece of the Earl of Huntingdon. He was educated at Eton and after a stint in the Royal Navy during WWII, he won a place at drama school. Gloomy about his acting prospects in post-war Britain, he left to work in stage and television shows in Canada and the US, before being offered the part in The Avengers.

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In a career that spanned five decades, Macnee appeared in more than 150 stage plays. He also made memorable film appearances in This Is Spinal Tap and the Bond film A View to a Kill, but The Avengers would always be his crowning glory. The series became synonymous with the "swinging London" of the 1960s and later achieved cult status with recurring TV reruns.

Macnee returned when the series was reprised as The New Avengers in the 1970s, appearing alongside Joanna Lumley's Purdey and Gareth Hunt's Mike Gambit (pictured above). It also spawned a 1998 film, starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed and Uma Thurman, in which Macnee voiced the role of Invisible Jones.

Here are five lesser-known facts about the star.

Macnee was a schoolyard bookmaker

Macnee had mixed memories of his schooling at Eton. He was in the Officer Training Corps and the honour guard for King George V at St George's Chapel, but he was also expelled from the school for running a pornography and bookmaking empire. He had picked up racing and dressing tips from his father, a dapper but diminutive bookmaker known as the "shrimp" who had been known to point a shotgun at those guests he suspected of being pacifists.

He was raised by a gay couple

Unable to cope with Macnee's alcoholic father, his mother Dorothea ran off with a wealthy lesbian called Evelyn. The couple brought up young Patrick, instructing him to call Evelyn "Uncle" as well as trying to get him to wear dresses. Macnee resisted but wore a kilt until he was 11. Meanwhile his father went to India, but was later expelled for urinating on the Raj's elite from a balcony.

He narrowly survived WWII

Macnee served in the Royal Navy during WWII and commanded a motor torpedo boat in the English Channel and the North Sea. He caught bronchitis shortly before D-Day and while in hospital his boat and crew were destroyed in action. Macnee later said in interviews that the carnage he had seen in WWII prompted him to insist on not using a gun in The Avengers. The only weapon he usually carried was an umbrella sword.

He was a nudist

Despite being known for his dapper attire, Macnee was a member of a nudist colony in the 1970s and even afterwards often swam and played naked tennis. Linda Thorson, who played John Steed's assistant Tara King, remembered Macnee as "a paradox". "He was the best-dressed man on television and a nudist in real life," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He was Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson

Macnee played both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson several times. He was most notably in 1991's Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady with Christopher Lee, who also died this month. Macnee played Doctor Watson in Sherlock Holmes in New York alongside Roger Moore as Holmes, and appeared as Holmes in the poorly received The Hound of London.

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