The city of Los Angeles arranged a nice tribute to Adam West yesterday, flashing the bat-signal on the side of City Hall.
The cool part is they got the symbol right: there have been several iterations over the years, but this one matches the one on West’s costume (on the show, the shape of the projected signal was different, but why quibble?).
What makes it doubly awesome, though, is that LA City Hall doubled for the Daily Planet starting with the second season the old “Adventures of Superman” TV show, making for a cool, if probably unintentional, cross-reference. Wish I could’ve seen it in person.
This is shaping up to be one lousy year. Mere weeks after the death of Roger Moore, I’ve lost another childhood hero, Adam West.
As related in an earlier post, I first encountered Mr West’s Batman in a television airing of the 1966 feature film starring the cast of the TV show. It’s fair to say it blew it my young mind, with its outlandish sets, gadgets, vehicles and costumes. It was, in essence, a comic book brought to life. A couple of years later, the show itself turned up in syndication and watching it became a highlight of my daily routine.
I would’ve been about 9 when I saw the movie, maybe 11 or 12 for the series, so I may or may not have caught on at first that it was all a gag. Not that it would have necessarily mattered: I knew Get Smart was played for laughs but I still viewed Max as a hero, and when Uncle Arthur put on a Superman costume and flew around the neighborhood on Bewitched, I didn’t think “that’s hilarious” (as the laugh track seemed to encourage) but rather, “Wow, I wish my Superman suit made ME fly.”
Similarly, even if I realized that the central joke of Batman was what a square the caped crusader was — that he was a postmodern lampoon of straight-shooting, tea-totaling heroes like Clayton Moore’s Lone Ranger (with a similar delivery) — it wouldn’t have mattered to me.
There’s a really great post at NPR that sums up my own experience with the Adam West Batman; like that author I was a kid devoted to law and order and rule-following. As a toddler I lectured strangers on the perils of smoking and chastised my grandfather for improperly disposing of litter. Neighbors said I wouldn’t get out of my pedal car until I’d properly parallel parked it next it to the house. Naturally I’d be a sucker for a hero who ordered orange juice in a nightclub and refused to start the Batmobile until Robin had fastened his safety bat-belt.
As has been noted endlessly everywhere, Adam West’s portrayal of Batman was aimed at two audiences; the kids who took him deadly serious and their parents, who chuckled at his cornball earnestness. The interesting thing, for me, is that even though in the short run the bread and butter of the show was in that older audience, who after all were the potential customers for the show’s sponsors, in the long run it’s the younger audience that’s defined the show’s legacy. For years, I’ve frequented a message board devoted to ’66 Batman and its members aren’t the least bit self-conscious about declaring this Batman as their personal hero. His straight-laced morality may have been the butt of the joke in ’66, but it’s made him a role model to generations.
I believe this is the genius of West’s approach; it would’ve been easy to aim for full-on comedy with the role and make him an utter doofus…and maybe that would’ve helped the actor keep the character enough at arm’s length to have shed the image when the show was canceled…but by adding that layer of earnest sincerity, he ensured the longevity of the show through the younger fans. Because as sure as we may have been in ’66 — and are today — that we’re above corny ideals like “fair play” and “good citizenship” and the like, the truth is every generation is hungry for heroes who understand there are such things as “right” and “wrong” and are willing to step up and do what’s right. The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy generation got that kind of hero straight up and without irony. Kids of the 60s and 70s happily settled for a Batman who was cut from the same cloth even if Mom and Dad did laugh at him.
After the show was cancelled, Adam went through a long rough patch, career-wise, having been typecast as a caped crimefighter at a time when live-action superhero projects were rare as hen’s teeth. People only wanted to see him as Batman, so with a family to feed he packed up the cape and cowl in a traveling case and made the rounds of car shows, county fairs and mall openings, playing the Caped Crusader well into middle-age. In the time-honored tradition of kicking a guy while he’s down, he was mercilessly parodied for this and held up as a kind of cautionary tale for actors nervous about taking on similarly iconic roles. But to his eternal credit, he never gave up and never lost his sense of humor, poking fun at himself and turning his public persona into sort of 24/7 in-character performance: “Adam West” the kooky eccentric. It won him a new generation of fans and gave his career a second wind as a celebrity spokesperson, voice artist and frequent guest star “as himself” in the grand tradition of Hollywood legends who end up “famous for being famous” long after we forget what they were originally famous for. If anyone ever had a reason to resent Batman and want to bury him, it was this guy, but he remained a fan and champion of the character until the end, which was awesome.
It’s hard watching these icons of my youth exit the stage one by one, and I know it’s not over yet. But if there’s any comfort to be had, it’s from knowing that as long as there’s reruns and DVDs and Blu-Rays and Roku and Youtube and whatever comes next, they’ll live on, forever young and vital and handsome and courageous. Somewhere out there right now on a screen somewhere in the world, the Caped Crusader is racing into action in the Batmobile, figuring his way out of a nefarious death trap, stopping for a lecture on traffic safety or good nutrition. And that’s as it should be.
Still, it’s hard not to feel it’s a dark day in Gotham, with that red phone beeping away unanswered.
I’ve been taking the death of Roger Moore pretty hard, considering I never met the guy. But then again, he’s been a part of my life as far back as I can remember. Basically, he was who I wanted to be when I grew up.
As an awkward, buck-toothed beanpole of a kid living in a succession of middle-of-nowhere small towns, I was completely in awe of this impossibly handsome, witty and sophisticated jet-setter who got to do the coolest things in the most wonderful places with the most interesting people in the world. Early on, I decided that was the life for me. If my off-the-rack Sears Toughskin leisure suits were no match for Roger’s bespoke creations from Cyril Castle or Douglas Hayward, and our Country Squire station wagon was a far cry from a Lotus Esprit, at least I could manage an approximation of Roger’s hairstyle, and after hours of practice in front of the mirror, raise one eyebrow at a time.
Looking back, I wonder if I could sense somehow that the Roger Moore I saw was himself a construct, the invention of an insecure, pudgy and often sickly kid from working class South London who grew up idolizing screen heroes like Stewart Granger and David Niven with dreams of following in their footsteps. Young Roger George Moore taught himself to speak with a precise and measured upper-class accent and comport himself with the manners and grace of a true English gentleman, to the point where it was hard to imagine him not having been born into the peerage. No one batted an eyelash when he played a full-fledged English Lord in The Persuaders and when he was eventually knighted in real life, it seemed a logical development. Even before I knew his biography, his carefully constructed public persona inspired my efforts to mimic the traits I most admired: an unflappable sang-froid under even the most stressful conditions, an air of class that never strayed to snobbery, pride in appearance that stopped short of vanity, the ability to weather reversals with humor and elan, the pluck to succeed by wits and wit where muscle was not sufficient.
Obviously, I tended to blur the lines between Roger Moore and James Bond, since I knew the latter better than the former. but the great thing was that when Roger showed up on talk shows or interviews, he was a match for his fictional roles; dressed to the nines, debonair, cultured, witty and charismatic. For me, Roger Moore WAS James Bond and vice-versa. Critics would dismiss his performances as not “acting” at all, saying he was just being himself. Oddly, they seemed to be suggesting that was a bad thing. Personally, I cherished the notion that somewhere out there in the “real” world was a guy every bit as cool as he seemed on screen.
To me, criticism that Roger was too unflappable, too flippant about the chaos exploding around him as 007 missed the point: Roger’s Bond wasn’t immune to fear or pain, but he understood the importance of maintaining an outward calm. It unnerved his enemies to see him face threats with such equanimity. They would pull up next to him in a speeding car and he’d flash them the friendly smile you’d give a fellow motorist on a Sunday drive in the country. They’d crush objects in their bare hands and he’d look on with mild bemusement. Sometimes I got the impression the baddies spent all those millions on their enormous, stainless steel hideouts in hopes they’d finally pierce Bond’s nonchalance and elicit a gasp of awe. Roger never obliged.
When, in Live and Let Die, two thugs drag him out to a Harlem alley for execution, he calls over his shoulder to the lovely Solitaire, “Now don’t go away, I shan’t be long.” Later in the same film, he’s helplessly restrained in the bad guy’s lair as an imposing henchman pulls his trick watch from his wrist. Seeing as said henchman’s right hand has been replaced with a hook/claw device, it’s an awkward process, and Bond mockingly tut-tuts his efforts: “Butterhook!” For me, this kind of thing defined the movie Bond: captured, subdued and in imminent peril, his response is to dig himself even deeper with his smart mouth. Some viewers would interpret this kind of thing as breaking the fourth wall, undermining the seriousness of the scene. But if you viewed it — as I did — within the context of Bond’s world, and not a nod to the audience, it becomes a sort of psychological warfare, a mental jiu-jitsu that unnerves opponents and turns defeat to victory.
There are, if you look for them, plenty of moments when panic threatens to take over, when Roger’s Bond realizes he’s in the soup and he’d better think fast: Trapped on a tiny island surrounded by hungry alligators, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain as a villain kicks away the pitons holding him up, spinning to seeming doom in an out-of-control centrifuge. In For Your Eyes Only, he’s tied to girlfriend du jour Melina as a motorboat prepares to pull them across a coral reef and tear them to shreds. “I didn’t think it would end like this,” says Melina. Looking her in the eyes, he answers calmly, “We’re not dead yet.” With only the girl to hear him, and no villains to impress, he shows what’s at his core, not flippant disinterest but the dogged determination that he WILL, he MUST survive, or that if he must die, he’ll at least not give the enemy the satisfaction of breaking him. This is old school, stiff-upper-lip English hero stuff; not perhaps to the liking of fans who prefer Bond as a modern anti-hero type, but catnip to the hero-worshiping kid I was (and am).
Other moments of depth and showcases for Roger’s acting chops come in The Spy Who Loved Me, generally regarded as his best Bond (and his personal favorite). Two come opposite Barbara Bach as Russian spy Anya Amasova. In the first, they engage in a game of secret agent one-upmanship, rattling off details from each other’s dossiers, until Anya broaches the death of Bond’s wife, Tracy, at which point the affable playboy act vanishes and he tells her, in essence, to shut up. Moments later, he’s back in “charming” mode, but we’ve seen a flash of what’s beneath. Another moment comes later in the film when Anya demands to know if Bond killed her former lover on an earlier mission. Roger-Bond answers with candor and a degree of weary resignation that, yes, killings are in his job description and yes, this was one of them. Little moments like this added a welcome layer of depth that worked well within the overall lighter nature of the films. If you wanted to take the whole thing as a lark, fine, but if you wanted an indication that underneath it all, something deeper and more substantial lurked, well here it was. Overall, I have to say I prefer this approach — the occasional glimpse of Bond’s core — to the relentless sturm und drang of the more recent Bond films, and their “This time it’s personal….again” schtick. The more we dwell on Bond’s “inner life,” the less mysterious and awesome he becomes.
As a youngster, it irritated me when adults said, “I liked Roger Moore better as The Saint.” I hadn’t seen The Saint at that point, but I knew it was a TV show, and this left-handed compliment clearly implied that (1) no matter what Roger did, Sean Connery would always be better, and (2), Roger’s talents might have been good enough for TV, but he was clearly out of his depth in movies. Far from brow-beating me into switching to Team Connery, this kind of criticism just caused me to dig in my heels and defend my chosen favorite more steadfastly. It was a crusade I’d have to keep up for the next few decades.
Whenever I met another Bond fan (which, to some degree, is pretty much everyone), they’d start the discussion with enthusiasm, but when they asked my favorite and I said, “Roger,” more often than not they’d look at me with disappointment, or even pity. Poor boy, you obviously don’t know your Bonds if he’s your favorite. “Purist” Fleming fans assumed I must never have read the books, older fans assumed I was just too young to know better. With the arrival of the internet, I “met” Bond fans from around the world on the old usenet group alt.fan.jamesbond, some of whom I would go on to meet in the flesh and several of whom remain friends today. When I started a popular fansite (“Mr KissKissBangBang”) with one of those fellow fans, one of my first contributions was an article called, “Who Says Less is Moore?”, a defense of Roger offered at a time when his era was widely derided (and preserved at this Polish site). I felt like a voice in the wilderness, though thankfully he has plenty of champions, now. Possibly that’s because with the benefit of hindsight, most fans can agree Roger had a positive impact on the series, and indeed may have ensured its survival. Nowadays we take it for granted that the mantle will be passed every few years and a new actor will take the reins, but in 1973 it was by no means certain the series would survive the loss of Connery. Under Roger, it not only survived but thrived, bringing in over a billion dollars in ticket sales. And where in the 70s there was an either/or choice for Bond fans, now there are multiple interpretations to choose from; it’s easier to like someone other than Connery without feeling like you’re disrespecting the original. Plus, whereas in the 70s you may have felt Roger was leading the series to rack and ruin and changing it forever for the worse, now we’ve had three successors with their own approaches and we can enjoy Roger’s era on its own merits; it had a beginning and an end and with the passage of time it’s no longer a “threat” to anyone.
By the way, eventually I did get to see The Saint and I realized those old folks may have been on to something: on the whole I liked Roger better as the Saint than I liked anyone as James Bond. He just seemed to fit more naturally into Simon Templar’s skin than 007’s. Where Bond was largely amoral and professional about his job (which was, in the end, to kill people), Templar was motivated by a strong personal sense of right and wrong (if not strict adherence to the law). Bond was, for all his glamorous trappings, a civil servant who had an office and took orders from a boss: Templar was an unsupervised free agent who involved himself in cases when and where he chose. Roger Moore’s patented on-screen persona was largely defined by a sense of moral justice and personal authority, which fit Templar’s “knight errant” archetype but was at odds with Bond’s nature as a “blunt instrument” wielded by the British government. This creates a friction between actor and role in those moments when Bond’s harder side comes to the fore; sometimes it works (as when he kicks a killer’s car off a cliff in FYEO; we know he deserves it) but sometimes it doesn’t (slapping around Maud Adams in Man With The Golden Gun, an act of needless cruelty). Over 12 years, Bond mutates to fit Moore’s screen persona as much as, or more than, Roger conforms to the Bond template, until, by the end, he’s hanging from airplanes and blimps to rescue damsels in distress. With Roger at the wheel, the role is incrementally steered away from “ruthless assassin” to something closer to “white knight.” Fandom remains divided over whether that’s a good thing.
For the last month or so, I’d been working my way through the early seasons of “The Saint” and working on this Youtube tribute, hoping to post it in honor of his upcoming 90th birthday. It was nearly finished when I got the bad news:
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and by the time of A View To A Kill in 1985, even I was ready for Roger to move on. Unfortunately, what he went on to was a series of progressively awful films until he pretty much threw in the towel on acting, but on the up side that left him free to devote his time to his charity work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, championing the cause of underprivileged children around the world and becoming at last a hero in real life, as well.
Off-screen, Roger always came across as genteel and charming, with an almost supernatural patience for idiot interviewers who asked him the same questions at every press junket and kept it up for 40 years after his retirement from Bond: “How is your Bond different from Connery’s? Who was your favorite leading lady? Will you say, ‘Bond, James Bond’ for us?” For these facile, unimaginative questions, he had his practiced, equally facile answers, but he always delivered them graciously, as if it were the first time he’d been through it all, not the 14 millionth. I can’t remember him ever making a petty or unchivalrous remark about another performer, and when other actors succeeded him as 007, Roger cheered them on, acting as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the series, a sort of “Bond Emeritus,” ever grateful to his old bosses and his many fans. In the wake of his passing, a great story is making the rounds of social media, recounting of Roger’s act of kindness to a young fan — doubtless just one of many — while in a remembrance penned for Variety, Pierce Brosnan revealed his own encounter with Roger as a young fan, and how much it meant to him.
A few years ago, Roger contributed commentaries to DVDs of the Bond films, and they were a cut above the norm. I’ve gotten used to stars who either don’t remember old projects or pretend not to, but Roger recalled all the scenes and many of the lines. He had stories about his co-stars, even in the smaller roles, and he remembered cameramen and behind-the-scenes crew, as well. By all accounts he made an effort to know everyone from gaffer to gopher, sound man to cable puller, and never copped an “I’m the star, here” attitude. You got the impression he was a guy who could focus on something beyond his next close-up, someone genuinely engaged in the movie making process, who appreciated everyone on the team and had more than a passing knowledge of the technical ins and outs of movie-making. I don’t think I ever heard one of his co-stars say he was anything other than warm and generous.
Sometime around 1998 or so, the nearby Kings Dominion theme park opened a “James Bond: License to Thrill” ride, and my “press” status from the MKKBB website let me attend the celebration. There had been rumors early on that Roger would attend, which would have put me over the moon. As it was, I had the great pleasure of visiting and eating lunch with “Q” himself, Desmond Llewelyn, which was beyond awesome. I listened raptly as he traded memories with stuntman BJ Worth of the films they’d both worked on. (I still remember hims saying, “The Spy THAT Loved Me.”) Since he’d starred with five consecutive 007’s, that meant there were now just two degrees of separation between me and Roger Moore. Alas, that was as close as I would get.
More recently, Sir Roger made himself available for Question and Answer sessions on his website, and naturally I sent in questions. On two occasions, he answered them, and it made my day to read “Hello, David” from the man himself. He was also the only movie star I ever requested an autograph from, and thankfully his assistant Gareth Owen passed it along even though I’d addressed it to his predecessor Doris Spriggs. Getting back that envelope with a return address of Pinewood Studios — where all the magic happened! — was a thrill, and I cherish the photo (inscribed “Good luck, David! – Roger Moore”)
Often mocked — and sometimes not so gently — for being such a powerful avatar of the 70s, with its outlandish fashions, fatuous pursuits and general goofiness, over time Sir Roger became something of a national treasure in the UK. When Timothy Dalton succeeded him as Bond, many fans were eager to embrace a more serious approach to things, and it was easy to put down Roger for the same things that had sold all those tickets just a few years before. But the further his era slips into the past, the more fondly it seems to be remembered. It’s difficult to look at where the series is today, under the often grim and intensely physical Daniel Craig, and draw a through-line to Moore’s Bond, but certain vestiges remain. If anything, his legacy is more obvious in non-Bond films like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series, or The Kingsman, with their over-the-top sensibilities and lack of pretension. When the first Iron Man film was released, I saw more than one reviewer draw parallels to Moore-era Bond, and indeed I’d say if any franchise approximates what the Moore era was to Young Me, it’s Marvel’s superhero films, with their emphasis on dazzling spectacle, their embrace of humor, and their skill at transporting audiences to impossible but engaging worlds for a couple hours of pure, unapologetic escapism.
This has turned out to be a long post, but like I said Roger meant a lot to me, even at a distance. I’m fast running out of childhood heroes and Roger was at the top of the list. After a few of my heroes let me down one way or another, I took to saying it doesn’t really matter what a person’s like when they’re not on stage or in front of the camera; it’s the music they make, the words they write, the performances they deliver that matter, because who are we to judge? But when I’m honest with myself, of course it matters what a person’s like, and I was glad to have a hero who only ever went up in my estimation, never down.
In closing, I like to remember Roger in a scene from Vendetta for the Saint, one of the best stories from the series and one of two adapted for theatrical release. Near the middle of the film, Simon Templar is talking to an old and dying mafia don, who orders the Saint’s execution from his deathbed. As our hero is jostled out of the room by enforcers, the Don says, “Goodbye, Simon Templar. We will never meet again.” “I know,” answers Simon, glancing heavenward with a wry smile. “I’m going that way.”
Godspeed, Sir Roger, and thanks. May your halo never droop.
Comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t occurred to me until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed from his brush.
I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the late, great Curt Swan on the Superman family of comics. Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known as the blended entity “Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.
Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”
On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly master. A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”
I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s. So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.
One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style” of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge Marvel style. In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste. If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.
This ability to, let us say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership would accept.
This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told. In all honesty, for me it worked. I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman. As it was, the books were already crammed with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me; Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”
Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.
I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics. If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.
I couldn’t let the recent passing of actor Patrick Macnee go by without at least a tip of the bowler.
My memories of Macnee go way back. It’s likely I heard him before I saw him, thanks to his ominous narration at the beginning of every episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. Later, he was the voice of the Cylon’s “Imperious Leader” in the same series, before finally showing up in (sort of) human form as the evil Count Iblis. By then, I’d probably seen him as British agent John Steed on The New Avengers, running at 11:30 EST on the CBS Late Night Movie.
Naturally it was the Steed role that made the biggest impression, as James Bond had already predisposed me in favor of secret agents and all things British. Though paired in The New Avengers with two more contemporary, youthful and “hip” agents, it was the comparatively anachronistic (if not fantasy-based) Steed who most interested me. With his Edwardian outfits and ever-present umbrella, his impeccable manners and cultured ways, he was exaggeratedly “British,” which I suppose satisfied me in the same way that foreigners want all Americans to wear cowboy hats and talk with a twang.
Post-Avengers, Macnee went on to memorable roles in the horror film The Howling and the cult-favorite comedy, This is Spinal Tap, and practically innumerable guest appearances on TV shows. He starred as Dr Watson opposite two Sherlock Holmeses, Roger Moore (!) in Sherlock Holmes in New York and his old school chum Christoper Lee in two other films. Macneee also played Holmes himself in The Hound of London, making him one of very few actors to play both roles. In the wake of his passing, I sought out the Magnum, PI episode titled “Holmes Is Where the Heart Is,” in which Macnee guest stars as a former British agent who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes in a sort of “two for one” package of Macnee specialties.
Indeed, the Steed role was the gift that kept on giving for Macnee, keeping him steadily employed from 1961 to 1969 opposite various screen partners on the original series, then again in 1976 in the aforementioned New Avengers revival, plus in-character cameos on talk shows, variety shows, music videos and commercials. Even when he was “done” with Steed, he pretty much turned “ex-British agent” into a second career; you could just imagine producers saying, “We need a former spy in this episode. Get me Macnee!” In 1983, he replaced the late Leo G. Carroll as Napoleon Solo’s boss for the Return of the Man from UNCLE TV movie, and if his precise status was somewhat unclear in the 1985 Bond film, A View To A Kill, his casting opposite Roger Moore was obviously meant to capitalize on the nostalgia appeal of pairing two former icons of 60s British adventure TV.
In the 90s, I finally got to see the original Avengers series on AMC, and it became a bit of an obsession for me. Almost every episode had at least one moment for Steed to shine, but near the top of the list, for me, was a scene in “A Touch of Brimstone.” Chiefly famous for a skimpy and suggestive outfit Mrs Peel wears as “the Queen of Sin,” (contributing mightily to the decision by American networks not to air the episode at the time), the episode also features the immortal scene where Steed applies for membership in the mysterious Hellfire Club, and is put through a tension-filled initiation by the wonderfully evil Lord Cartney, as played by Peter Wyngarde.
Steed is first challenged to drink a ridiculously huge mug full of some sort of alcoholic spirit, which he does with aplomb (asking for a bit more as “the drive down seems to have given me quite a thirst.”) Then, with his wits and reflexes thus (presumably) impaired, he’s challenged to remove a dried pea from a chopping block before a club member can cut it in two with an axe. Another member, and a veteran of this particular test in the past, holds up his two prosthetic fingers as a warning of what could happen. Steed agrees gamely, with the air of a fatuous aristocrat out of his depth and blind to his peril. Lord Cartney looks on with a cruel leer, al but licking his lips at the prospect of witnessing a gruesome maiming. The signal is given, the axe swings down and Steed — puff! — blows the pea off the chopping block, thus meeting the challenge of removing it, and without ever risking his digits.
Wyngarde, still a couple of years away from iconic superspy status himself as Jason King in Department S, is perfect here, projecting first an oily sadism, then a fuming disappointment at Steed’s clever dodge. Macnee handles the scene perfectly as well, playing up his “clueless fop” act while underneath he’s acutely aware of his danger, and Cartney’s treachery, and determined to outwit him. By literally “blowing off” Cartney’s “ultimate test,” he makes a mockery of the whole exercise, and gives Cartney a figurative poke in the eye without ever dropping the pretense of fun and games. Here we have Steed in a nutshell, the eccentric, flighty facade concealing a center of hard, English steel. It’s no coincidence that the bowler secretly has a steel brim and the umbrella conceals a finely honed sword.
At the height of my infatuation with The Avengers, I bought a full-size umbrella to replace my collapsible version. I wanted to practice all the “stage business” Macnee was so great at when he used his as a cane, a pointer or a hook (rarely did Steed’s brolly actually get opened). In my defense, I never carried it unless their were rainclouds out, and ultimately I abandoned it as too hard to wrestle in and out of my car. Plus I could never roll it even a fraction as tightly as Steed did. Even at my most intense stage of fandom, I didn’t buy a bowler, but I definitely sympathized with Niles and Frasier Crane when they defended their love of Steed to their dad Martin in an episode of the sitcom, “Frasier:”
Martin: My point is, you guys could never resist putting on airs. Even when you were in junior high, you used to love that TV program, “The Avengers.” You used to run all over the neighborhood pretending you were that guy with the umbrella…Steve. Frasier: Steed! Niles: (rolls his eyes)Dad! Frasier: There were worse role models. Steed was dapper and witty. When anyone tried to give him grief, he gave them a sound thrashing with the umbrella. Martin: Well, that’s great, admire him if you want. But did you have to run through the neighborhood in bowler hats? I mean, you were just begging to get beat up. Frasier: Come to think of it, it was rather a rough summer that year, wasn’t it? Niles: I remember getting a chin strap so the bowler wouldn’t fall off when I ran.
It’s worth noting that much of what we associate with Steed are traits native to Macnee himself; the cheery good humor, the charm and pleasant manner and gentlemanly conduct. In his book, “The Avengers And Me,” Macnee noted that it was largely up to him what form his character would take (not least because, at first anyway, it had been meant as just a supporting role):
“Nobody told me how I should play steed, or relate to other people. I never, ever, got a brief. It was never written down. The script for ‘Hot Snow,’ the first episode in December 1960 said; ‘Keel is about to push the bell button when the door is flung open. Steed stands there.’ Just that, nothing else. No description, nothing. So I just made him up….[Steed] was never a character in literature, like Bulldog Drummond, Simon Templar or James Bond, or a persona somebody else had first created in another medium. Steed was never written down — “Steed stands there.”– and I was the man. I’m awfully proud of that. As time went on, Steed and myself just grew together.”
Even in his heyday, Steed was an anachronism, and more’s the pity. Macnee, likewise, seemed one of the last exemplars of a more civilized and decent era, a time either long past or maybe just imagined in the first place. We’re a bit the poorer to have lost them both.