LONDON - British actress Diana Rigg has portrayed many leading Shakespearean women - Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Cordelia and Regan in King Lear and Adriana in The Comedy of Errors. But to the average North American TV viewer she'll always be remembered as supercool Emma Peel of The Avengers, the popular British TV series that first aired on this continent in the '60s.
Rigg is back on television in a new role as Lady Dedlock, a woman with a secret, in the "Masterpiece Theatre" production of Bleak House, Charles Dickens' attack on corruption in the courts of 19th-century England. The eight-part series (Sundays on most PBS stations), which aired earlier this year on BBC-TV with excellent notices, began Dec. 1.
It's one of the few acting jobs she has taken recently, choosing instead to concentrate on the domestic stage. For the last few years, the 47-year-old native of Yorkshire has been semi-retired so that she can be with her eight-year-old daughter and husband, Archibald Stirling, a London businessman from Scotland.
Her extended family includes Stirling's two sons, ages 17 and 19, from another marriage, who visit occasionally. Holidays are sometimes spent at the family's manor house (circa 1592) in Scotland, where she and her husband fish and hunt. (Rigg was divorced from her first husband, Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, in 1976.)
"I'm now very much dictated by my domestic circumstances," she says, explaining that she's on a self-imposed acting hiatus until spring, having worked most of last year and much of this year. She may collaborate next spring on a project with her husband, who has produced several plays.
There's a touch of irony to Rigg's housewife role - writers explained that Emma left the series to become a housewife after her long-lost aviator husband was found in a South American jungle.
In reality, Rigg was bored with the role. So in 1968, after two years on The Avengers, she packed up her jumpsuits and Carnaby Street gear and quit.
"I wasn't thinking anymore (as Emma Peel)," she says. "I was simply learning lines, and that's not good enough. I think one ought to develop and that's why I left. One of the attractions that make this business so exciting and wonderful is realizing new characters."
She promptly did two movies, which were released in 1969 - The Assassination Bureau and On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the only James Bond film in which George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery as Agent 007. Her other film credits include Julius Caesar (1970), A Little Night Music (1977) and Evil Under the Sun (1982).
"I'm offered roles in America," she says, gazing fondly out into the yard of her London townhouse where her daughter is playing, "but I can't do them until my daughter is of an age when either she can travel with me or when she will be away at boarding school ... not much before she's 12 or 13."
Her American offers have been made-for-TV movies and miniseries, including a couple of "blockbusters," which she declines to name. If she's gotten an offer from Dynasty creator Esther Shapiro, she won't admit it, though she does reveal that her daughter and friends "are riveted" by Dynasty.
Known more for her dramatic roles, Rigg would like to try comedy, hopefully with more success than her 1973-74 NBC sitcom, Diana, which lasted less than six months.
Rigg hadn't watched The Avengers before she auditioned for the part in 1966, replacing Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore in the James Bond Goldfinger film) as Steed's partner. Her roles were in the theatre. "I didn't know what I was in for except I knew the lady (Peel) fought."
When Rigg left two years later, Linda Thorsen, a Canadian-born actress, joined the series, not as Emma Peel but as Tara King, another partner for Steed.
But the series, seen on ABC from 1966-69, wasn't the same without Mrs. Peel; it ended a year later. In 1976 it was reborn in England as The New Avengers with Steed joined by two young agents. In 1978 CBS added The New Avengers to its late-night schedule where it aired occasionally until recently.
"I think The Avengers appealed to audiences because the show was witty, eccentric and very English," says Rigg, adding that many of the scenes were improvised. "The Avengers made absolutely no concession to its American market, and I suspect its Britishness was part of its appeal."
Rigg says that Steed's partner originally was to be a man, but the producers decided to cast a woman in the role and didn't bother to change the script.
"They just sort of dressed her in black leather and let her get on with it. She had a lot of what would have then been considered masculine attributes. ... They (the writers) sort of fell into this advanced woman. They didn't think it out."
The role resulted in one of TV's first liberated women.
"She became a prototype for a lot of other women subsequently on television," says Rigg, who believes her own personality - but not the whiz kid part - came across as Emma's. "I suppose a core of Emma was me, just as it was with Patrick as Steed," she says.