It’s 007 season again and countless fanboy hours will be wasted debating the merits of who was the best James Bond of all time — a sad process of sorting out the pecking order of a sad line up that started with Sean Connery and ends with Daniel Craig. And while I have my favorites in the role, the best James Bond of all time for my money is Patrick McGoohan.
In 1962 the first of the Bond films hit the screen with Sean Connery in the leading role as 007, and I have to admit (in terms of film history as we know it) Connery brought a real sense of magic to the role. However Ian Fleming’s choice for the role was David Niven who was much more high brow than Connery. In 1967 Niven did get his chance to play Bond in Casino Royale, but being a comedy it would be unfair to judge him on the role. But the key thing here is that Connery shouldn’t be thought of as the primordial secret agent by any means.
Which brings us back to Patrick McGoohan: He was not only offered the role of 007 (which he turned down) but he was also offered the role of The Saint (which he also turned down). However in spite of never being 007 it can be said that McGoohan’s work on Danger Man and later The Prisoner put him in a class above anyone who has played a secret agent on the small or large screen for all time.
The first thing that puts McGoohan a cut above the rest is that he started his career as a stage actor — so he’s able to bring a bit more dimension and ambiguity to playing a secret agent. When you’re watching McGoohan on the screen he’s never a flat cartoon character but instead a complex character with a past. Connery has the sex appeal and brute strength, but McGoohan is more than a pretty boy or a jock — you get the feeling that the wheels are turning upstairs and that he’s seen a bit of the world.
Another thing that places McGoohan above the rest was his insistence to reinvent the cliches of the secret agent. Upon returning to his role in Danger Man he insisted that the character always use his brains before using a gun and that there be no kissing. Can you imagine the likes of anyone who has ever played James Bond being able to pull off a secret agent role with those limitations? Not only that but with those limitations McGoohan makes his role even more believable.
And then of course there’s The Prisoner itself: The concept wasn’t his, but not only did he star in the show but he produced and wrote for it. The show itself might not only represent the best of the spy genre, but may be one of the best television series of all time (and at the very least would belong in anyone’s top ten list). While you can say that Ian Fleming put secret agents on the silver screen, with his creative input Patrick McGoohan made it into an art form that has yet to be topped.