Is that actually him on the horse? Don't know; doesn't matter. For those of us who were introduced to Patrick McGoohan via the Disney's Wonderful World of Color mini-series Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh he always was that mysterious, haunting man of two faces. With its horror movie flourishes, this was stronger stuff than most "children's television" of the time. Then there was Secret Agent, the slightly Americanized iteration of the British series Danger Man. Not children's television in any sense, but a favorite of my grandfather, who was confined to a wheelchair because of MS; watching the tube was a stress-free shared activity, and he was very taken with the show. So, when The Prisoner came to U.S. TV a couple of years hence, I was ready. Albeit eventually confused. The concept of the "Rovers" made for an amusing game to play with a beach ball in the swimming pool, as I recall. The Prisoner, both conceived by and starring a never-less-than-intense McGoohan, was, of course, a grower, and it remains one of the most reliably mind-bending television series ever created.
It's a genre piece, in both an "of course" and "sort of" sense. Much, I dare say most, of McGoohan's film work is in "genre" stuff, but in every performance, he's got a rough, almost (if you will) kitchen-sinkish presence; he is always somehow naked. It could make for some weird but bracing contrasts. He's absolutely the realest thing in the beloved-of-Howard-Hughes 1968 Cold War cheese block Ice Station Zebra, for instance.
His intensity was used to better effect in the likes of David Cronenberg's Scanners, a sort of genre-film-plus. And the intensity wasn't entirely, or some would say even partially, an act, as it were. In the interview book Cronenberg on Cronenberg, the director recalls the disaster that was the first day of shooting on Scanners, and continues: "It kept on being that difficult. Patrick McGoohan was part of the reason. 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."
One hopes McGoohan has found the peace that largely eluded him in life. Still, one has to admit, from the remove of the theater seat, or the sofa, his rage gives off a perversely warming glow indeed.