In his performances, Patrick McGoohan — who died today at the age of 80 — seemed to live in a private universe where everything was always at a full boil. Whether storming down that long corridor at the beginning of each episode of The Prisoner or fuming over the rebellious Scots in Braveheart, McGoohan conveyed a sense of barely contained, furiously intelligent rage, at the world and at himself.
For a long time I thought McGoohan’s aura of wrath had to be a mannerism — a byproduct of that glowering face, with its pale helmet of a forehead pressing down on eyes that seemed to flicker either with disgust or sardonic amusement. Then I came across this reminiscence in an interview with David Cronenberg, who directed McGoohan in Scanners — the film that set the stage for Cronenberg’s breakout from the horror genre, but which had an exceptionally troubled production:
He’s a brilliant actor; the voice, the charisma, the presence, the face. Phenomenal. And he was aging so well; he looked so great in that beard. But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, ‘If I didn’t drink I’d be afraid I’d kill someone.’ He looks at you that way and you just say, ‘Keep drinking.’ It’s all self-destructive, because it’s all self-hating. That’s my theory. He was also terrified. The second before we went to shoot he said, ‘I’m scared.’ I wasn’t shocked; Olivier said that he was terrified each time he had to go on stage. With Patrick, though, it was just so raw and so scary—full of anger and potent. But he was sensing the disorganization; the script wasn’t there, so he was right to worry about it. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know whether I could bring it off or not. We parted from the film not on very good terms ultimately.
It was McGoohan’s fate to be forever remembered as Number Six in The Prisoner, the weirdest summer replacement series that ever aired on American network TV, and the best advertising brochure that Portmeirion, Clough Williams-Ellis’ eccentric resort in North Wales, could have asked for. At least he could console himself with the knowledge that he, like Number Six, was ultimately the author of his own fate: McGoohan conceived The Prisoner with George Markstein, a writer on Danger Man, aka Secret Agent, the spy series that made McGoohan a star. Danger Man may have been readily identifiable as a James Bond knockoff, but there was no way to categorize The Prisoner — there had never been anything like it on television up to then, and damned little that approached its surrealistic ambitions ever since.
McGoohan said he intended The Prisoner to run only for seven episodes but had to concoct an additional 10 stories in order to ensure a sale to CBS television in the U.S. The stretch marks showed: several of the episodes are mediocre, and a couple border on unwatchable. But the first few episodes, and the head-spinning two-part conclusion, still stand up quite well as some of the most uncompromisingly strange drama ever to hit the airwaves.
There was more to McGoohan than The Prisoner, of course: even in a formulaic Cold War plodder like Ice Station Zebra he generated enough intensity to melt the phony ice sheets on the set. But I can’t help remembering the brilliant opening of The Prisoner whenever I walk down a long hallway. I have yet to hear a thunderclap when I open the door at the end of the hall, but I’m sure that for Patrick McGoohan the heavens were happy to oblige.