Mrs. Stirling was definitely not wearing black leather. In fact, merely mentioning black leather within earshot of Mrs. Stirling—the married name of the British actress who once wore exactly that while karate-chopping her way through three television seasons as The Avengers’ supercool Emma Peel—is to risk being made to feel as though you’d just been overheard wondering what it is, exactly, the Queen Mother does. Uncouth. Boorish. Gauche.
“The idea that I don’t like to talk about that part of my life is rubbish,” says Mrs. Stirling, who is better known outside her home in London in London’s fashionable Kensington section as Diana Rigg. “When I get touchy, it’s at the suggestion that The Avengers was the sum of my professional career.”
The lady has a point.
Incredibly, 16 years have passed since Rigg played Mrs. Peel. If she is still identified with the character that brought her almost instant worldwide celebrity at age 26, it certainly is not because she hasn’t tried other things.
She’s won critical raves for her works in classics from Shakespeare to Moliere to Isben; she’s won James Bond’s notoriously fickle heart in the big-screen film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”; and she’s even won a battle scar, of sorts, courtesy of a feline co-star apparently unimpressed by her attempts at singing during an out-of-town preview of the 1982 musical ‘Colette.’ (The cat was no ninny; the show, based on the life of the French novelist of the same name, closed prior to Broadway.) This week, TV audiences will have a chance to see why Rigg’s been called “one of England’s finest, most versatile dramatic actresses”—and perhaps, in the process, finally relegate The Avengers to its proper place on her resume—when she joins none other than Laurence Olivier in a Mobil Showcase presentation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”
There’s something about Diana Rigg that makes you take it on faith that she didn’t resort to “feminine wiles” in overcoming her husband’s objections to our meeting within the sanctity of their home. Maybe it’s the sardonic smirk that seems to punctuate every other droll sentence out of her mouth. Or the bluntness she shows in explaining, when pressed about her own feminist sympathies, that “self expression is an utterly meaningless phrase unless you’ve got the money to keep yourself in body and soul…and I mean keep yourself.” Or simply the fact that she’s always lived her life as she pleased: openly setting up housekeeping with another woman’s husband when she was in her 20’s; dismissing her own first spouse, the Israeli artist Menahem Gueffen, as “a kind of mach toy” following their abrupt divorce in her 30’s; and, most recently, putting off the tiny detail of marrying businessman Archie Stirling—he of the Scottish Stirlings—until their now 6-year-old daughter, Rachael, turned 4. “Diana is a sophisticated woman who’s led a very intense and courageous kind of life,” says longtime friend Anna Sosensko, the theatrical producer. Adds “Lear” actress Dorothy Tutin: “She has a glamour about her, in addition to being a marvelous actress—which doesn’t always go together.”
As we settle on different couches in a sitting room dominated by a working fireplace and a view of a forlorn garden cluttered with a ping-pong table and assorted children’s playthings, sipping white wine from crystal glasses kept on a sideboard heavy on liqueurs, Stirling’s name naturally comes up.
A “soul mate” is how Rigg describes Stirling—although, strictly from an agent’s perspective, the husband who introduced her to the joys of salmon fishing in Scotland may be too much of a soul mate. Take the case of “Lear.” By all things sane in this world, Rigg should have only needed to hear two words before leaping at the opportunity to spend three weeks in a Manchester studio taping this ultimate Shakespearean tragedy for Britain’s Granada Television: Laurence Olivier.
At 75, wracked by gout, cancer of the prostate, thrombosis of the leg, and the muscle wasting disease dermatopolymyositis, Olivier was tacitly understood to have chosen the mad king for what might have been (but was not) his final tour de force. “It was hankies out on several occasions because of that sly old fox,” Rigg now says. “The director [Michael Elliot], who was an extremely clever man, didn’t for an instant pamper him. He would call for another take and another take and another take. So we were all standing there thinking, ‘Oh, please, don’t ask for him to take it again.’ I really believe that, physically, he was pushed to the limit.”
But Rigg didn’t leap at the opportunity. Not because her occasionally “disastrous” past willingness to “have a go at anything,” as she wryly puts it, had suddenly soured her on acting. And not because she was dumbfounded by the irony of what Elliot proposed she do. That is, portray Lear’s scheming daughter Regan as a last minute substitute for Faye Dunaway, the “Mommie Dearest” star unexpectedly tied up in shooting another of those Important Films that had somehow always eluded Rigg. “Before I fall off the twig, I’d like to make something I was proud of on the silver screen,” says Rigg, who played Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia, opposite Paul Scofield in the early 60’s. “But I’m not weeping. I loathe getting up at 5:30 in the morning.”
No, if Rigg didn’t immediately leap at the thought of acting opposite Olivier for the first time, it was because of Stirling and Rachael.
“In the past,” she says matter-of-factly, “there was nothing to stop me or give me pause. I would grab a holiday between jobs, and if I wasn’t working on something, I’d be preparing for something. And I loved every minute of it. But this is another kind of happiness, which I suppose in the end is more long lasting. Although, I don’t know.”
A smirk. “I rather think that’s in the nature of my personality that I have a sort of single minded streak. But, you know, it’s absolutely hellish working with a child and a husband miles away. It’s hellish. I don’t know how other people do it; I’m just deeply divided and unhappy being away. So, what’s the point?”
The point about Rigg, as always, is independence. She may be blissfully happy as a married woman, but that doesn’t exactly mean that she’s turned into a hausfrau. Yes, there are passing qualms regarding the wisdom of her self imposed semi exile. “I’ll either retain my rarity value or sink into obscurity,” she recently quipped in a letter to Avengers co-star Patrick (John Steed) Macnee.
Last October, the actress published “No Turn Unstoned”, a virtual thesaurus of the deadliest reviews ever written about the theatre’s notables—including, lest anyone think her fainthearted, New York magazine critic John Simon’s line comparing Rigg’s body to "a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses" after she’d bared more than her soul onstage in the 1970 play "Abelard and Heloise." "A book that would appeal to her acerbic wit," observes one friend. And, together with the likes of fellow actresses Glenda Jackson and Maggie Smith, she’s presently very much engrossed in trying to arrange the taping of plays for television once they’ve run a season on the London stage. "The real difficulty," Rigg complains, "is finding vehicles for the ladies. There aren’t many new parts for us. I don’t know why. I think we’re fascinating creatures."
Which brings us back to Emma Peel and The Avengers. Impossible as it may now sound, the British press actually agonized, nearly 20 years ago, over whether even a refugee from the Royal Shakespeare Company like Rigg was up to replacing the popular actress who’d left the series for greener pastures. Patrick Macnee, of course, knew better: "Diana alighted on us with genius and just took the show—which was a light hearted comic strip at the time—and shook it and made it gossamer." And when, too soon, Rigg concluded that "discovering dead bodies and tracking Mr. Bad wasn’t very testing," more than a few viewers had trouble recalling that it was Honor Blackman she’d succeeded in the first place.
Rigg is too smart to fool herself into believing that "Lear" will finally stop people from thinking of black leather whenever her name is mentioned. How could it? Michael Elliot may now rightfully gush that his second choice for the role of Regan "stands out, even in that cast." But, heck, for all her touchiness about wanting to be remembered as more than a foiler of saboteurs, torturers, and other ubiquitous meanies, Rigg herself admits to catching an Avengers rerun now and then. "I love looking back through a photo album and, in a sense, The Avengers is like that. I see this younger version of myself, and I think, 'She's OK'."