McGoohan was born in Astoria, Queens, New York City to Thomas McGoohan and Rose Fitzpatrick, who were living in the United States after emigrating from Ireland to seek work. He was brought up as a Roman Catholic. Shortly after he was born, McGoohan’s parents moved back to Mullaghmore, County Leitrim, Ireland, and seven years later, they moved to Sheffield, England. McGoohan attended St Vincent’s School in Sheffield. During World War II, he was evacuated to Loughborough, Leicestershire. There he attended Ratcliffe College, where he excelled in mathematics and boxing. McGoohan left school at the age of 16 and returned to Sheffield, where he worked as a chicken farmer, a bank clerk and a lorry driver before getting a job as a stage manager at Sheffield Repertory Theatre. When one of the actors became ill, McGoohan was substituted for him, launching his acting career.
In 1955, McGoohan starred in a West End production of a play called Serious Charge in the role of a priest accused of being homosexual. Orson Welles was so impressed by McGoohan’s stage presence (“intimidated,” Welles would later say) that he cast him as Starbuck in his York theatre production of Moby Dick—Rehearsed. Welles said in 1969 that he believed McGoohan “would now be, I think, one of the big actors of our generation if TV hadn’t grabbed him. He can still make it. He was tremendous as Starbuck.” and “with all the required attributes, looks, intensity, unquestionable acting ability and a twinkle in his eye.”
His first film appearance was an uncredited role in The Dam Busters standing guard outside the briefing room. He delivers a line – “Sorry, old boy, it’s secret – you can’t go in. Now, c’mon, hop it!”, which was cut from some prints of the movie. While working as a stand-in during screen tests, McGoohan was signed to a contract with the Rank Organisation. The producers may have been more interested in capitalising on his boxing skill and appearance than his acting ability, casting him as the conniving bad boy in such films as Hell Drivers and the steamy potboiler The Gypsy and the Gentleman, and after a few films and some clashes with the management, the contract was dissolved. Free of the contract, he did some TV work, winning a BAFTA in 1960. His favourite part for the stage was the lead in Ibsen’s Brand, for which he received an award, and appeared in a (still extant) BBC television production in August 1959.
Soon, production executive Lew Grade approached McGoohan about a TV series in which he would play a spy named John Drake. Having learned from his experience at the Rank Organisation, he insisted on several conditions in the contract before agreeing to appear in the programme: all the fistfights should be different, the character would always use his brain before using a gun, and, much to the horror of the executives, no kissing. The series debuted in 1960 as Danger Man, a half-hour programme geared toward an American audience. It did fairly well, but not as well as hoped. Production lasted only one year and 39 episodes. After this first series was over, one interviewer asked McGoohan if he would have liked the series to continue, to which he replied, “Perhaps, but let me tell you this: I would rather do twenty TV series than go through what I went through under that Rank contract I signed a few years ago and for which I blame no one but myself.”
McGoohan was one of several actors considered for the role of James Bond in Dr. No. While McGoohan, a Catholic, turned down the role on moral grounds, the success of the Bond films is generally cited as the reason for Danger Man being revived. Before that happened, McGoohan spent some time working for Disney on The Three Lives of Thomasina and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. After he had also turned down the role of Simon Templar in The Saint, Lew Grade asked him if he would like to give John Drake another try. This time, McGoohan had even more say about the series. Danger Man (US: Secret Agent) was resurrected in 1964 as a one-hour programme. The scripts now allowed McGoohan more range in his acting. The popularity of the series led to McGoohan becoming the highest paid actor in the UK, and the show lasted almost three more years. After shooting the two episodes of Danger Man in colour, McGoohan told Lew Grade he was going to quit for another show.
In the face of McGoohan’s intention to quit Danger Man, Grade asked if he would at least work on “something” for him. McGoohan gave him a run-down of what would later be called a miniseries, about a secret agent who resigns suddenly and wakes up to find himself in a prison disguised as a holiday resort. Grade asked for a budget, McGoohan had one ready, and they made a deal over a handshake early on a Saturday morning to produce The Prisoner. Apart from being the star, McGoohan was the executive producer, forming Everyman Films with series producer David Tomblin, and also wrote and directed several episodes, in some cases using pseudonyms. The originally commissioned seven episodes became seventeen.
The title character of The Prisoner (the otherwise-unnamed “Number Six”) spends the entire series trying to escape from a luxury island prison community called “the Village”, and to learn the identity of his nemesis, Number One. The Village’s administrators try just as hard to force or trick him into revealing why he resigned from his previous job as a spy, which he refuses to divulge. The Prisoner was a completely new, cerebral kind of series, stretching the limits of the established television formulae. Number Six became McGoohan’s most recognisable character. Unfortunately, the role also became his prison: Number Six was so obsessively opposed to authority that whenever McGoohan later played characters who had anything to do with the concepts of individuality or freedom, the character was compared to his previous incarnation – for example, his portrayal of the warden in Escape from Alcatraz (1979). “Mel Gibson will always be Mad Max, and me, I will always be a Number,” he was once quoted as saying.
McGoohan appeared in many films, including Howard Hughes’s favourite, Ice Station Zebra (1968), for which he was critically acclaimed, and Silver Streak (1976), with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. In 1977, he starred in the TV series Rafferty, playing a former army doctor who has retired and moved into private practice (one reviewer considers this series a forerunner to House). He co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the prison drama Escape from Alcatraz (1979), portraying a cruel warden. He also appeared in Scanners (1981), a science fiction/horror film by Canadian director David Cronenberg.
He directed Richie Havens in a rock-opera version of Othello called Catch My Soul. In 1985, he appeared on Broadway for his only production there; he starred opposite Rosemary Harris in Hugh Whitemore’s Pack of Lies, in which he played a British intelligence agent. He was nominated for a Drama Desk Award as Best Actor for his performance. McGoohan received two Emmy Awards for his work on Columbo, with his long-time friend Peter Falk. McGoohan had said that his first appearance on Columbo (episode: “By Dawn’s Early Light”) was probably his favourite American role. He directed five Columbo episodes (including three of the four in which he played the murderer), and wrote one and produced two (including one of these). McGoohan was involved with the Columbo series in some capacity from 1974 to 2000 and his daughter Catherine McGoohan appeared with him in his final one, Ashes to Ashes.
In 1991, McGoohan starred in The Best of Friends for the British Channel 4 network, which told the story of the unlikely friendship among a museum curator, a nun and a playwright. McGoohan played George Bernard Shaw alongside Sir John Gielgud as Sydney Cockerell and Dame Wendy Hiller as Sister Laurentia McLachlan. In the United States, the drama was shown as part of Masterpiece Theatre by PBS. He was most recognised by a later generation of fans as King Edward I from the Oscar-winning Braveheart (1995), and as Judge Omar Noose in A Time to Kill (1996). In 1996, he appeared in Paramount’s big budget cinema adaptation of The Phantom comic strip, playing the previous, murdered Phantom, and father of the current incarnation of the title character (played by Billy Zane) who carried on his father’s “undying” persona.
In 2000, he reprised his role as Number Six in an episode of The Simpsons, “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes”. In it, Homer Simpson concocts a news story to make his website more popular, and he wakes up in a prison disguised as a holiday resort. Dubbed Number Five, he befriends Number Six and escapes with his boat; McGoohan gives the classic line after Homer pops the Rover Type Balloon with a fork – “If only I’d thought of that”. McGoohan’s last film was a voice role in the animated film Treasure Planet, released in 2002. That same year, he received the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award for The Prisoner.
McGoohan’s name was linked to several aborted attempts at producing a new film version of The Prisoner. In 2002, director Simon West (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) was signed to helm a version of the story. McGoohan was listed as executive producer for the film, which never came to fruition. Later, director Christopher Nolan attached to a proposed film version. However, the source material remained difficult and elusive to adapt into a feature film. McGoohan was not involved in the project which was ultimately completed. A reimagining of the series was filmed for the AMC network in late 2008, with its broadcast taking place during November 2009. McGoohan died on 13 January 2009 at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, following a brief illness. His remains were cremated. A biography of the actor was first published in 2007 by Tomahawk Press, with a further biography published in 2011 by Supernova Books.
- March, 19, 1928
- New York, New York
- January, 13, 2009
- Santa Monica, California