A budding star finds opportunities on stage and screen in 1950s Toronto.
In 1952, 30-year-old Patrick Macnee arrived in Toronto with less than 10 pounds in his pocket and checked into a downtown YMCA. The struggling actor had found limited opportunities in his native England, and had come to Toronto on a promise of regular employment and pay at the CBC’s new television unit. Macnee would hone his craft in Toronto, working in numerous radio and television productions and appearing in local theatrical productions, before gaining international fame as John Steed in The Avengers.
Born in London, England, in 1922, Patrick Macnee studied drama and pursued a stage career in Great Britain, with limited results. Following service in the Second World War, Macnee’s career failed to gain momentum; in his 1988 autobiography Blind in One Ear, he describes his struggles trying to find paying acting work in post-war Britain, often travelling great distances to appear in productions in an effort to support himself and his young family. After hearing Macnee describe his financial and professional woes, friend and fellow actor Katharine Blake suggested he consider work in Canada, where her husband, director David Greene, had just landed a position at CBC’s new television unit. Macnee recalls Greene saying he would “be delighted to have me working for him in Toronto, where he’d pay me an undreamt of fortune of thirty pounds a week and give me sufficient work to keep five actors in employment.”
In Toronto, Macnee soon met the other young, raw, talented individuals who were establishing themselves at the CBC. There were other British imports, including Barry Morse and Leonard White, and numerous Canadians destined for stardom such as Lorne Greene, Kate Reid, Arthur Hiller, and Norman Jewison. Television was a new medium at this time, and the lack of clear guidelines, coupled with the demand for programming, meant that everyone in the industry worked frequently and learned quickly. Historian Paul Rutherford, in describing the early years of Canadian television, notes that there was an excitement about television similar to that of the early film industry, and that “the first [CBC] producers thought they were pioneers, testing the limits and showing the power of a new art-form.”
“I thrived in this heady atmosphere,” Macnee writes. “True to his word, David Greene gave me more work than I could handle.” One 1958 Toronto Star article suggests Macnee may have appeared in as many as 500 radio and television productions for the CBC. During his years at the CBC, the Toronto television unit produced both full hour and half hour standalone dramas, usually broadcasting one or two a week, live. As with theatre, these early CBC dramas proved compelling in part because of the excitement of live performance, which, in addition to instilling a sense of reality and spontaneity, also carried the very real chance that things could go wrong at any time. In a 1955 CBC production of Billy Budd, Macnee shared the stage with veteran film actor (and definitive Sherlock Holmes) Basil Rathbone and an up-and-comer named William Shatner. Shatner later recalled that “when [Rathbone] made his big entrance, he stepped into a bucket… He’s stomping around with this bucket stuck to his foot. It was like a burlesque gag.”
Macnee’s first known television work for the CBC was a serial adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. More work followed, and the regular income allowed Macnee to move out of the YMCA to 9 Prince Arthur Avenue, where he shared rooms with local theatre director and Globe and Mail critic Herbert Whittaker.
With such a large pool of acting talent now gathered in Toronto, it should come as no surprise that several new theatre companies emerged during these years. The early 1950s saw not only the launch of the Stratford Festival, but of the Jupiter Theatre and Crest Theatre companies, both of which aimed to stage productions of high quality and artistic merit while also providing avenues for Canadian talent. With actors suddenly in demand, Patrick Macnee found plenty of stage work to further his craft and supplement his income.
Founded in 1951, The Jupiter Theatre is described by Terry Kotyshyn in his 1986 Master’s thesis as “Toronto’s first full-time, professional theatre.” Lacking an official venue, most of the company’s productions were staged at the Royal Ontario Museum Theatre, and featured many actors and directors who would go on to international fame, including Christopher Plummer, Jewison, John Colicos, and Macnee’s future Avengers co-star Honor Blackman.
In the spring of 1953, Macnee appeared as Corporal Joseph Adams in the Jupiter’s production of Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners, a verse play written specifically for staging in a church. Considered experimental and rather difficult, the play concerns four prisoners of war, locked up in a disused church, whose experiences trigger dreams inspired by the Old Testament. Despite its unconventional nature, the production at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on Simcoe Street proved fairly successful with local critics. The Star’s Jack Karr, while noting the play was inherently “abstruse,” praised both the production and its cast, noting “this is a compact and tightly-knit teamwork, and the performances, individually and as a company, have both conviction and depth.” Completing the cast of four were Don Harron, veteran CBC announcer W.A. Brodie, and the production’s director Leonard White, who had also appeared in the original London staging of the play.
A Sleep of Prisoners came on the heels of the Jupiter’s successful staging of another Fry play, the romantic comedy The Lady’s Not for Burning. The two Fry plays proved to be the most popular and greatest critical successes of the Jupiter Theatre’s season, and in May the company staged an equally successful remount of The Lady’s Not for Burning at Hart House. The original lead actor Christopher Plummer was unavailable for this production. This allowed Macnee to step into the starring role, in a production which also featured Leonard White, Don Harron, and Katharine Blake.
In 1953, siblings Murray Davis, Donald Davis, and Barbara Chilcott founded the Crest Theatre company, which offered a variety of popular and ambitious plays for 13 seasons. Unlike the Jupiter, the Crest company had their own performance space, located away from the downtown core in the old Belsize movie theatre on Mount Pleasant Road.
Macnee landed the role of Henry, Earl of Derby, in the Crest’s first-ever production, Richard of Bordeaux, written by Josephine Tey under the pen name Gordon Daviot. The company had to work swiftly, having only six weeks between the theatre’s final film screening and the play’s opening night. In his 2005 history of the Crest Theatre, Paul Illidge notes that the theatre’s earlier incarnation as a Vaudeville house meant it came with a stage lighting system already installed, but that the production crew nevertheless had to redecorate the entire venue, remove the popcorn machine and movie posters, and relocate the theatre’s air conditioning unit. Two six-foot chandeliers, discovered in the basement, were relocated to the main foyer in time for opening night.
Richard of Bordeaux opened on January 5, 1954. One difficulty with the Crest’s location was the lack of adequate parking; numerous theatre goers were issued fines for illegally parking on the residential streets during the play’s run. For subsequent productions, programmes noted that parking was available 500 yards down the street, at Stark’s Motor Sales and Services, Ltd. Despite this hiccup the play proved successful, and Macnee appeared in a second Crest production that May, as “Lord Beauregard (Bogey), an eligible bachelor” in Tyrone Guthrie‘s Haste to the Wedding.
In late 1954, Macnee left briefly for Great Britain, where Michael Benthall cast him as Demetrius in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which toured North America. The final stop, as Macnee writes, “was given on an ice rink in Toronto, where [co-star] Maggie Courtenay and one of her cumbersome trains caught themselves up in a set of revolving doors.” This rink was, of course, Maple Leaf Gardens, and the production proved appropriately lavish for the large venue, the Star calling it “a bandbox done up in tinsel and spangles for a generation of theatre-goers already bedazzled by CinemaScope.” In the Globe and Mail, Whittaker called it “brisk, breathtaking, and beautiful,” and wrote that “Patrick Macnee as Demetrius and Terence Longdon as Lysander were handsome stalwarts both, working harder for comedy than for romance, but making vital, romantic figures out of those changeable heroes.”
Following A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macnee reconnected with David Greene, who cast him as Macduff in a CBC production of Macbeth, starring Barry Morse in the title role. Whittaker’s review of the production was generally positive, and had particular praise for the cast, noting “John Drainie was a very fine Banquo, Patrick Macnee a positive and heroic Macduff, and Frank Peddie a proper King as Duncan. One felt that such a cast could hardly be assembled for a stage production here, or equalled elsewhere. Certainly Olivier doesn’t have that kind of support in Stratford-upon-Avon.”
Although he continued to appear in CBC productions throughout the late 1950s, Macnee found, as did many of his contemporaries, that there were tempting opportunities in Britain and the United States. From 1955 through 1960, Macnee bounced around between Toronto, New York, and Hollywood, finding television, film, and stage work as he went, and shifting his primary residence to Malibu before the end of the decade. When an opportunity in Toronto presented itself, he would drive himself from New York to Toronto, where his later CBC work included productions of Pride and Prejudice, The Browning Version, and an Arthur Hailey drama called Seeds of Power, which was based on a 1952 incident at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories and described by the Star as the CBC’s “most ambitious drama in two years.”
While in town for a CBC production in 1958, Macnee sat down with the Star‘s Burns Rutherford, and heaped praise on the city which had provided so much momentum for his career. “Toronto is the only place in the world I know of that an artist can perform in all mediums—television, stage, radio, and films—at the same time and still make a living,” adding “…standards here are high. Proof of that is the ever-increasing numbers of artists lured elsewhere.” By this time, many of those whom Macnee had worked with had relocated to Britain or the United States, where they would go on to international fame. Years later, in a CBC retrospective, Norman Jewison wrote “I remember sitting in Los Angeles in the ’60s and thinking, 70 per cent of American television is being produced, written, or directed by people I worked with at CBC.”
In 1960, Patrick Macnee found himself in England, approaching 40, and unsure of where his career would take him next. After a night out together in London, his erstwhile Jupiter Theatre co-star Leonard White spoke to Macnee about a new show he was working on for the Associated British Corporation, a drama series which would star Ian Hendry. They needed somebody to play his sidekick. Macnee, unsure about the project but once again in need of work, met with the show’s creator, another former CBC colleague, Sydney Newman. Macnee, assuming the show would be a short commitment, agreed to do it. The show turned out to be The Avengers.
With the help of Leonard White and the rest of The Avengers‘ production staff, Patrick Macnee developed John Steed into one of the most memorable characters of 1960s television. Initially a gritty, shadowy figure, Steed morphed into a witty, sophisticated secret agent, forever associated with his bowler hat and umbrella. The show, too, evolved. After the departure of Hendry after the first series, Macnee was teamed with Jupiter Theatre alumnus Honor Blackman, followed by Diana Rigg, and Toronto-born Linda Thorson, each playing characters who were teamed with Steed, known for their stylish images and combat skills. As the show developed and production value increased, The Avengers increasingly incorporated elements of fantasy and science-fiction, and became known for its mix of action, humour, and style.
Following the end of The Avengers in 1969, Macnee continued to work on stage and screen, in a career which included roles in This Is Spinal Tap and A View to a Kill. He returned to Toronto numerous times over the next two decades for work. In addition to various television jobs, including commercials for Swiss Chalet and a guest spot on The Littlest Hobo, he starred in three different plays at the Royal Alexandra Theatre: The Secretary Bird in 1973, Absurd Person Singular in 1975, and The Grass is Greener in 1980. Newspaper ads for The Grass is Greener traded on Macnee’s television fame, featuring photos of him with a Steed-esque bowler and umbrella. He also returned in the late 1970s for a revival of The Avengers, called The New Avengers, in which some Canadian financial backing resulted in the show’s final four episodes being shot and set in Toronto.
His final big production in Toronto was an extended run of Sleuth in 1987 at the New Century Theatre, now known as the Danforth Music Hall. Macnee portrayed Andrew Wyke, alongside Geraint Wyn Davies‘ Milo Tindle. The show proved extremely popular with Toronto audiences, and was extended multiple times, despite lukewarm reviews. Nevertheless, Robert Crew of the Toronto Star called Macnee’s performance “masterful,” and wrote “as you might expect, Macnee knows every comma and exclamation point, when to switch on his considerable charm, when to move into bewilderment, terror, and despair.”
Whenever in Toronto for professional engagements—or just in town to visit with old friends—Macnee sat down for interviews with the local press to reminisce about the old days and to provide updates for those who remembered him during his years in Toronto. “When I was in Toronto two years ago” he told the Star in 1975, “I took a walk down Prince Arthur, and there [my old house] was, one of only about two or three houses on the whole block that still stood. I couldn’t believe the changes in the rest of the city.” Macnee also took the time not only to express gratitude for the opportunities and connections he found in Toronto, but for the effect the city had on him. Reflecting on his Toronto years in his autobiography, he writes “Canada had been marvellous to me in so many ways… [T]he relaxed attitude I’d encountered among numerous people had pierced my English upper-class crust, and I felt more cosmopolitan in outlook.”
In April of 1973, he sat down for an interview with Globe and Mail theatre critic and old personal friend Herbert Whittaker. “I didn’t become an actor at all until Canada,” he told Whittaker. “I learned to act from Andrew (Allan) on all those radio shows, and at the Crest [Theatre]… Before that I wasn’t really an actor.”
Stephen Cole, Here’s Looking at Us: Celebrating Fifty Years of CBC-TV (McClelland & Stewart, 2002: Toronto); Crest Theatre Collection, Performing Arts Manuscript and Archival Collections at the Toronto Reference Library; The Globe and Mail (October 29, 1952; March 16, April 4, April 7, April 9, May 16, May 18, October 24, November 11, 1953; January 2, May 1, December 14, December 15, 1954; April 28, May 21, September 28, 1955; March 23, 1966; April 21, April 25, 1973; October 3, October 7, 1975; April 16, June 20, September 23, 1977; December 31, 1979; March 22, April 1, 1980; August 12, October 26, December 23, 1987; December 31, 1988); Paul Illidge, Glass Cage: The Crest Theatre Story (Creber Monde, 2005: Toronto); Terry Kotyshyn, Jupiter Theatre, Inc., 1951–1954: The Life and Death of Toronto’s First Professional, Full-Time Theatre, Master of Arts Thesis (Department of Drama, University of Alberta, 1986); Patrick Macnee and Marie Cameron, Blind in One Ear (Doubleday, 1988: Toronto); Dave Rogers, The Complete Avengers (St. Martin’s Press, 1989: New York); Paul Rutherford, When Television Was Young: Primetime Canada 1952–1967 (University of Toronto Press, 1990); Toronto Star (April 2, April 7, May 19, 1953; December 15, 1954; October 3, 1957; March 15, 1958; March 24, May 21, 1966; July 24, 1970; April 19, April 24, April 25, 1973; October 4, 1975; February 14, 1976; February 10, August 27, September 29, 1977; July 31, December 10, 1979; March 31, April 12, April 13, 1980; August 12, October 21, October 26, December 10, 1987; October 19, October 27, 1988); Toronto Star Weekly (December 23, 1961).
For more about Patrick Macnee’s years in Toronto, Barbara Frum interviewed him on CBC’s As It Happens in 1977.
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