RIP Patrick McGoohan

Patrick McGoohan changed the way I looked at television. Before McGoohan, I had believed that television was merely a medium devoted to passing entertainments. But when I first caught an episode of The Prisoner playing out its surreal madness through a fuzzy black-and-white Samsung television at a very young and impressionable age, I realized that television could transform into a medium that grabbed you by the throat and had you pondering the mechanics and complexities of the larger world. McGoohan was the guy who proved without question that television was art. He created mesmerizing landscapes and provoked without apology. There were always fascinating motivations behind his creative decisions. Who were the strange guys sitting behind the Rover shrine at the end of “Free for All?” Why did McGoohan heighten the ends of certain sentences in his lines? He was often an eccentric actor, but he was always interesting and he refused to explain himself. To some degree, he was the thinking man’s Robert Mitchum.

It certainly helped that, as an actor, McGoohan played the consummate badass. Nearly every kid I knew who had seen The Prisoner wanted to be McGoohan. They wanted to build a kickass boat out of a faux artistic sculpture. They wanted to enter a room and not take any shit. McGoohan’s characters did all this without a gun.

As both Number Six and John Drake, McGoohan had one of the most commanding presences I have ever observed in a television actor. His fierce eyes, buried beneath his tall forehead, would shoot laser beams through the glass, demanding that you do something. Because he sure as hell was going to do something. So why couldn’t you? McGoohan smiled when he damn well felt like it, which was rarely. But he would crack that telltale grin every so often, letting you know that you could be in on the joke, if you had the smarts and the instincts to keep up. When McGoohan exploded in a furious rage, which was quite often, he had the talent of making you believe that the feral act was somehow rational.

Underneath his brazenness, McGoohan was a first-class entertainer, both as an actor and a writer-director. He had the rebellious courage to know damn well what he wanted. It wasn’t James Bond (which he turned down twice). And it sure as hell wasn’t playing John Drake forever. Instead, he used his status to produce one of the best television programs ever made. The episodes that he wrote, directed, and acted in had McGoohan dipping into wild surrealism (“Fallout”), devastating political satire (“Free for All”), and Beckett-like power plays (“Once Upon a Time” — see above clip).

Hollywood didn’t know what to do with McGoohan, but he stayed busy on episodes of Columbo (many of which he also directed) and appeared in a short-lived series as the brilliant detective Dr. Sid Rafferty. He was possibly too smart for the film industry, but he wasn’t too stodgy to send up his most famous creation in an episode of The Simpsons.

McGoohan was a maverick in a medium that prides itself on conformity and the lowest common denominator. But his fierce determination to make television better inspired other creative forces to turn out smarter material. For this, we have McGoohan to thank and his output over the years to marvel at.


  1. McGoohan’s death really casts a pall over my day. I loved watching and listening to him act. The incredible force of his personality was an incendiary animating force in The Prisoner. Sadly, as you noted, he was tragically underused by the so-calld entertainment business. But we can be grateful for what was.

  2. You can watch every episode of “The Prisoner” for free here:

    The last two episodes may be the greatest two hours of original programming ever televised. I can’t imagine how he got away with it. It makes you feel like there was a parallel world where this sort of thing was possible, was wanted, was expected, was normal.

    I am a person of tender years, but I describe the plot of this show to people my age and they just stare at me, suspicious.

    “You mean like “Lost?”

    “Yes, except written by a human being with actual thoughts and preoccupations, and not by a committee of self-important cocaine addicts.”

  3. Oh no. I didn’t realize AMC was promoting the remake already. This is a real dilemma — do I want to look?

    That decision aside, McGoohan also grabbed my attention at an impressionable age but the Prisoner was my secret. After watching the series I shared with friends but I did so reluctantly. I knew while watching it that I would never be able to watch it again with ‘fresh eyes’ (that was the first time I ever had that realization) so I passed the video cassettes to friends as if they were a prize that needed to be earned. I was disappointed when they weren’t as revved as I was for the thing.

    So in a weird way I am happy to see the appreciation he is getting today. I am sorry to see him go but I am glad I am not the only one that is bummed about it. He was that good.

  4. Wouldn’t lasers easily shoot through glass, lasers being light and all? McGoohan’s stare must be capable of more impressive feats.

  5. Good tribute to Patrick. I am really bummed out about his passing. There’s a great tribute over at the Onion AV club if you want to take a look. I love this paragraph:

    “We never find out why Six resigned, but those of us playing at home come closer to figuring it than any of the various Number Twos. For McGoohan, motivation is a personal thing, and regardless of how insignificant the questions may seem, the right not to answer them is of innumerable value. At its heart, The Prisoner is about the ways in which society seeks to crush and compromise the individual, to force people into blind acceptance so that the trains run on time, the clocks are always set, and faces are forever smiling. Out of all his movie and TV work, it’s here that McGoohan’s fury finds its true purpose. His is the passion of anyone who’s ever been told to fit in, to quiet down, to agree more, to listen less, to know one’s place, to never question it. For once, we aren’t the target of his anger, we share it. For all the outcasts, here is someone who wouldn’t compromise how nicely he was asked to.”

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