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Appreciating Patrick McGoohan: To Me, His "Prisoner" Was Number 1
January 15, 2009  | By David Bianculli  | 2 comments
prisoner1.jpgPatrick McGoohan's death at age 80 this week, announced Tuesday, was a sad event -- made sadder by the realization that, in the media world of 2009, few editors and opinion-makers seemed to know or care who he was and what he contributed to TV alone.

McGoohan played two of the best adversaries ever to face Peter Falk on Columbo. But most of all, he played Number 6, the never-named secret agent who has abducted to a mysterious island and subjected to all manner of mental games on that classic 1968 CBS series, The Prisoner.


The Prisoner was absolutely, uncompromisingly brilliant -- so far ahead of its time that much of it seems fresh today, down to the Beatles music in its climax, Number 6's weekly battles of wits with an ever-replaced Number 2, and, at the end, a famously cryptic ending in which interpretations were as open-ended as the non-ending of The Sopranos.

(My take, for the record: Yes, Number 6 and Number 1 were one and the same. Just as, now as in the Sixties, we are all prisoners of our own devices.)

AMC is presenting a remake of The Prisoner this year, and we'll see if it can approach, much less equal, the original. In 1968, The Prisoner arrived as a summer replacement series for The Jackie Gleason Show, and its 17 episodes (the show actually was a lengthy weekly miniseries) were astoundingly surrealistic, multilayered and addictive.


It was Lost, two generations ago... yet the reason McGoohan, who created the series as well as starred in it, got little notice for his passing this week is because The Prisoner, sadly, is at this moment fading from pop-culture memory. Shame, shame, shame.

To revisit the old episodes, read Diane Werts' FOR BETTER OR WERTS blog today -- click to find it HERE -- and follow her directions on how to find them online.

Nice to know, though, that the original computer guru of this website, Chris Spurgeon, checked in with an appreciative private email. So good, I'm making it public:

"Shows like Lost owe everything to The Prisoner, a show that was decades ahead of its time (what WAS a typical prime time drama the summer The Prisoner premiered? I don't remember, but they were pretty damn low on the challenge-the-viewer-scale, I bet).

"I seem to recall that The Prisoner was the summer replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show, right? There must be people out there who STILL haven't recovered from the cognitive dissonance of tuning in for another safe week of Gleason and getting tossed into The Village instead."

I'm one of them. And by the way, Chris, since you asked: Some other TV shows airing that summer of '68? Actually, it wasn't a bad year, especially for a summer crop. I Spy, The Monkees, Star Trek, The Avengers, He and She, Judd for the Defense, Get Smart and Mission: Impossible were all on the air that summer.

And so was The Summer Brothers Smothers Show, the summer-replacement series hosted by Glen Campbell, for which executive producer Tom Smothers gave the first TV jobs to such young writer-performers as Steve Martin and Rob Reiner.

Oh, yeah, the Smothers Brothers. Gotta go. Back to my book...

But I salute you, Mr. McGoohan. The Prisoner was just the sort of bold, innovative show that, as a teenager, made me recognize and appreciate great TV. Tom and Dick, that goes for you, too...




Adam Bomb 1701 said:

I was very disappointed to hear that Patrick Mc Goohan had passed away. The ending to "The Prisoner" still makes me think, even after 40 years. One series he did in the late 1970's was titled "Rafferty." It was about a curmudgeonly but brilliant doctor. Mc Goohan hated the show, but as one poster on IMDB noted (and I agree with him) his character was the spiritual ancestor of the great Dr. Gregory House. RIP, Mr. Mc Goohan.

Comment posted on January 15, 2009 11:26 AM

shauna said:

I loved this show so much when my husband turned me onto the reruns on BBCA a couple of years ago. It's just the perfect combination of oddity and wry humor. I was deeply saddened to learn that I was just a few miles from the real "Village" at Christmas but didn't make it there. I have mild hopes for the AMC remake, but at least it's worth one view.


Comment posted on January 15, 2009 11:56 AM

Jim said:

There also seems to be some ambiguity over whether Number Six was the same character as John Drake, whom McGoohan portrayed in "Danger Man" (broadcast as "Secret Agent" in the US) earlier in the '60s. I think McGoohan denied any connection, but that may have been for copyright reasons, since he did not own the rights to the character from the original series.

I hope one of the cable channels will rebroadcast both series in tribute to McGoohan's passing. Please let us know if they are scheduled, as our miserable local paper doesn't run listings for many channels, and BBCA is one they don't cover.

Comment posted on January 15, 2009 2:41 PM

Ken said:

What, not one mention of Ricardo Montalban's passing? Fantasy Island as the white-suited Roarke, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, He was the epidome of debonair... remember his "soft Corinthian leather" for Chrysler Cordoba? And it was always fun seeing Johnny Carson make fun of him... so a toast to Mr. Montalban as he reaches de big plane in the sky! (Trust me, Mr. Montalban's passing was duly noted by most media outlets. It was McGoohan's relative lack of respect I was hoping to balance. -- David B.)

Comment posted on January 15, 2009 3:07 PM

Brian said:

I have a double-Extra tribute to Patrick McGoohan. In SECRET AGENT he was John Drake.
Years later in COLUMBO: AGENDA FOR MURDER, he played Oliver Finch.
Just before that he was on MURDER SHE WROTE as Oliver Quayle.
Drake, finch, and quail (Quayle) are 5-letter birds.
What does it mean? I have no idea. (I'd think you may be cuckoo -- but that's six words. Still, I like your quest for an overarching theory. Maybe Drake, Finch & Quayle was supposed to be some sinister-sounding law firm. -- David B.)

Comment posted on January 15, 2009 10:36 PM

Sally W. said:

I enjoyed watching "The Prisoner" when the local New York City PBS aired it one summer several years ago; it completely blew me away for its uniqueness and weirdness. I loved "The Simpsons" do their parody of Number Six and the Island - hilarious! Homer Simpson's stealing Number Six's raft - too funny. Patrick McGoohan will be missed.

I agree that it's kind of sad that not nearly enough in the media recognized McGoohan's passing. I did the "I am not a number..." reference to a friend, who I thought appreciated cult tv shows; he totally gave me a blank look! It's not at all satisfying that not nearly enough people appreciate the ideas that Number Six and "The Prisoner" presented!

I think it's kind of fascinating that both McGoohan and Ricardo Montalban passed away so close in time - both connected to islands on tv...! (even if I will probably remember Montalban more for being Khan on Star Trek, Mr. Roarke and Fantasy Island was good fun; I wonder if Number Six would ever appreciate Fantasy Island or would existentialist crises prevail before he could ever feel ok with being on such an island? Hmmm!).

Comment posted on January 16, 2009 2:06 AM

Toby O'B said:

It bothers me that Montalban is getting an all day tribute on TCM, but as far as I can tell, they won't be doing the same for McGoohan.

Granted, most of his best work was for the small screen, but there are movies in his body of work that could be shown, even if it wasn't for an all-day affair.

Actually, maybe AMC might be the way to go with some of these films - 'Moonshine War', 'Ice Station Zebra', 'Brass Target', 'The Phantom', 'A Time To Kill', 'Baby', and of course, 'Braveheart'...... (Good call -- and where are the all-day TV tributes of Secret Agent, Columbo and his other work, in addition to The Prisoner? Sigh. -- David B.)

Comment posted on January 16, 2009 2:55 AM

Marlark said:

A loss, especially when I hear he was the original choice for Dumbledore and was preparing for new roles.

The Prisoner:
I always thought the clue to who was Number 1 was given during the opening of each show:

Number 6: Who are you?
Number 2: Number 2 (or, the new Number 2)
Number 6: Who is Number 1?
Number 2: You are Number 6.

This can easily be seen as:

Number 2: YOU are, Number 6.

Great show. I remember watching it on PBS in the early 70s, confounded, enthralled and ultimately challenged. What a great mind expanding experience for a young adult. What TV challenges us today?

Battlestar Galactica?
What else?

Thanks for the look back, David.

(You're welcome! And I'd say "Lost," which returns this week, is the same delicious sort of challenging. And as one reader wrote it, pointing out something that had never occurred to me: Both "Lost" and "The Prisoner" take place on an uncharted island. Then again, so does "Gilligan's Island." -- David B.)

Comment posted on January 17, 2009 5:04 PM

Mezzyp said:

Since I don't see it mentioned here, I'm just pointing out that The Prisoner series was funded and produced by Sir Lew Grade's ITC (Independent Television Corporation) and originally screened on ITV, the non-BBC UK television network at that time.

Without background knowledge, just reading the comments, it would sound like an American series.

Comment posted on January 29, 2009 1:19 AM
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Actually, the idea to put "The Prisoner" in place of "The Jackie Gleason Show" in the summer of 1968 was not Gleason's idea but CBS's. Gleason's own company put out "The Dom DeLuise Show" as his summer replacement - but CBS placed that show on Wednesdays. It turned out to be the last summer replacement program Gleason ever turned out; the last two years of his show (up to its cancellation in 1970) consisted of repeats of his own series. But that CBS put "The Prisoner" in his time slot for the summer was the first sign that The Great One's clout within the network was beginning to erode.
Nov 16, 2019   |  Reply
Karen Marshall
I was about 10 years old when The Prisoner first aired, but I was already crushing on Patrick McGoohan from his Secret Agent ( Danger Man ) shows. I have never forgotten the images and emotions that The Prisoner evoked...as stories about "escaping" imprisonment have always held special appeal for me. I have followed Mr McGoohan's movie and tv career..and while there are a few disappointments..for the most part I have enjoyed most of his acting roles.
I have read many articles about him, and I get the impression that he was a perfectionist in most areas of his life. He was very intelligent, and obviously had desires to keep his work life and home life separate. He evidently drove himself almost to the point of a breakdown to get The Prisoner made...and he said that Leo McKern DID have a breakdown during the filming of The Prisoner episode "Once Upon a Time" Patrick McGoohan was a unique person and he created THE most intriguing TV show of all time. Be seeing you Patrick!
Feb 6, 2016   |  Reply
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