Diana Rigg, Emma Peel of 'The Avengers,' dies at 82

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Diana Rigg, Emma Peel of 'The Avengers,' dies at 82
Diana Rigg, who played Lady Olenna, arrives for the premiere of the fourth season of "Game of Thrones" in New York on March 18, 2014. Rigg, the British actress who enthralled London and New York theater audiences with her performances in classic roles for more than a half-century but remained best known as the quintessential new woman of the 1960s on the television series "The Avengers," died on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 at her home in London. She was 82. Elizabeth D. Herman/The New York Times.

by Anita Gates

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Diana Rigg, the British actress who enthralled London and New York theater audiences with her performances in classic roles for more than a half-century but remained best known as the quintessential new woman of the 1960s — sexy, confident, witty and karate-adept — on the television series “The Avengers,” died Thursday at her home in London. She was 82.

Her daughter, Rachael Stirling, said in a statement that the cause was cancer.

Rigg had late-career success in a recurring role, from 2013 to 2016, as the outspoken and demanding Lady Olenna Tyrell on HBO’s acclaimed series “Game of Thrones.” “I wonder if you’re the worst person I ever met,” Lady Olenna once said to her nemesis Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). “At a certain age, it’s hard to recall.”

But Rigg’s first and biggest taste of stardom came in 1965, when, as a 26-year-old veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she was cast on the fourth season of ITV’s “The Avengers.” As Emma Peel, she was the stylish new crime-fighting partner of the dapper intelligence agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee), replacing Honor Blackman, who had left to star in the James Bond film “Goldfinger.” (Blackman died in April.)

Although Mrs. Peel, as Steed frequently addressed her, remained on the show relatively briefly, she quickly became the star attraction, especially when “The Avengers” was broadcast in the United States, beginning in 1966. Reviewing the 1969 movie “The Assassination Bureau,” in which she starred, Vincent Canby of The New York Times described Rigg in her Emma Peel persona as a “tall, lithe Modigliani of a girl with the sweet sophistication of Nora Charles and the biceps of Barbarella.”

She had left the show by then for a luminous career in feature films. Her other roles included Helena in Peter Hall’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (1968), Portia in an all-star version of “Julius Caesar” (1970), a free spirit who tempted George C. Scott in Arthur Hiller and Paddy Chayefsky’s satire “The Hospital” (1971), and the cheated-on wife in Harold Prince’s interpretation of the Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” (1978).

But again it was for something of an action role that she received the greatest attention, when she played a crime boss’s daughter in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), the only James Bond film to star George Lazenby. Her character had the distinction among Agent 007’s movie love interests of actually marrying Bond, but she was killed off in the final scene, for the sake of future plot lines.

Rigg returned to television, largely in more serious roles than before, among them Clytemnestra, Hedda Gabler, Regan in “King Lear” and Lady Dedlock in “Bleak House.” And although she said she was not a fan of mysteries herself, she was the host of the PBS series “Mystery!” from 1989 to 2003 and played Gladys Mitchell’s unconventional detective Adela Bradley on the BBC series “The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries” from 1998 to 2000.

Rigg never neglected the theater, where she had begun. She joined the National Theater Company in 1972 and went on to acclaimed performances both on Broadway and in the West End, interpreting writers as different as Tom Stoppard (“Night and Day,” “Jumpers”) and Sondheim (a 1987 London production of “Follies”).

She continued working in theater well into her 70s, starring in “The Cherry Orchard” in 2008 and “Hay Fever” in 2009, both at the Chichester Festival Theater. One of her final stage roles was as Mrs. Higgins, the protagonist’s imperious but sensible mother, in a 2011 production of “Pygmalion” at the Garrick Theater in London. Thirty-seven years before, at what was then the Albery Theater, a few streets away, she had been the play’s ingénue, Eliza Doolittle. (She played Mrs. Higgins again in the 2018 Lincoln Center Theater revival of “My Fair Lady.”)

Wherever Rigg went, honors seemed to follow. She received the 1994 Tony Award for best actress in a play for her performance in the title role of “Medea.” In London she had already received the Evening Standard Theater Award for the same role, an honor she received again, in 1996, for both Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.”

She never won the Olivier Award, London’s Tony equivalent, but she was nominated three times: for “Mother Courage” (1996), “Virginia Woolf” (1997) and Jean Racine’s “Britannicus/Phèdre” (1999).

Her most notable British screen award was a 1990 best actress honor from BAFTA, the British film and television academy, for “Mother Love,” a BBC miniseries in which she played a murderously possessive parent. From 1967 to 2018 she was nominated for nine Emmy Awards, including four for “Game of Thrones.” She won in 1997 as best supporting actress in a miniseries or special for her role in a British-German production of “Rebecca,” based on the Daphne du Maurier novel. Mrs. Peel had become Mrs. Danvers.

Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born on July 20, 1938, in Doncaster, Yorkshire, the daughter of a railroad engineer who soon moved his family to India for a job with the national railway. She returned to England when she was 8 to attend boarding school and remained in the country to complete her education.

Rigg entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at 17 and made her professional debut two years later, in 1957, in Brecht’s drama “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company (1959-64), she began in minor parts and advanced to meatier ones, including Lady Macduff in “Macbeth” and Bianca in “The Taming of the Shrew.”

Rigg was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1988 and a Dame Commander in 1994. Her marriages — to Menachem Gueffen, an Israeli artist (1973-76), and to Archibald Sterling, a Scottish businessman and theater producer (1982-90) — ended in divorce. Her surviving daughter, Rachael, from her second marriage, is an actress. Rigg is also survived by a grandson.

Although Rigg’s career was distinguished, it had disappointing if not unpleasant moments. An American sitcom, “Diana” (1973), in which she played a fashion designer on her own in New York, lasted only one season. And when she did a much-talked-about nude scene on Broadway in “Abelard and Heloise” (1971), she was nominated for a Tony but suffered the particular slings and arrows of one critic, John Simon of New York magazine, who was notorious for criticizing actors’ looks and described her as “built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses.”

Rigg fought back at critics in general by compiling similarly unkind criticism in a 1983 book, “No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews.” Its reassuring examples included a comparison, by Australian broadcaster Clive James, of Laurence Olivier’s Shylock to the cartoon character Scrooge McDuck.

In interviews, Rigg was both philosophical and flexible about her career. She suggested in the 1970s that “it would have been death to have been labeled forever by that one TV series,” referring to “The Avengers,” then defended a return to television in the late ’90s with the thought that “being doomed to the classics is as limiting as doing a series for the rest of your life.”

But when she was appearing in “Medea,” her love for the stage was evident. “It’s simply to do with an appetite now for really good work in the final third of my life,” she told The New York Times in 1994. “The theater to me is home; in some curious way, I don’t belong anywhere else.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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