Diana Rigg

Diana Rigg Headshot

Actress

Birth Date: July 20, 1938

Death Date: September 10, 2020

Birth Place: Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, UK

The poised, effortlessly versatile veteran of stage, film and television for over five decades, Dame Diana Rigg was a rara avis: a flawless interpreter of Shakespeare and other classical stage work, as well as a thinking man's sex symbol as Mrs. Emma Peel, the catsuit-sporting crime fighter on "The Avengers" (ITV, 1961-69). Rigg's cool beauty and knack for witty banter made her an idol among male viewers during the 1960s, but she struggled to overcome the character's superhuman charms after leaving the show. She instead found lasting fame and respect on Broadway and television, where she netted Tony and Emmy awards as formidable figures like Medea, Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca" (ITV, 1996), and Olenna Tyrell in "Game of Thrones" (HBO 2011- ). Though fondly remembered for "The Avengers" decades later, Rigg's body of work made her one of the most accomplished and respected actresses in the business.

Born Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg on July 20, 1937 in Doncaster, a town in England's South Yorkshire County, she was the daughter of Louis Rigg, a railway engineer, and his wife, Beryl Hila Helliwell. When she was just two months old, her father took an assignment as a railway executive in Bikaner, India, where the family remained until Rigg was eight years old. Upon their return to Yorkshire in 1945, she was sent to the Fulneck Girls School at Pudsey, where she struggled to fit in with the other students. The experience provided her with an independent streak that would be a hallmark of her personality for the rest of her life.

At 13, she made her acting debut in a school production of "Goldilocks," which inspired her to make the craft her profession. She was then accepted to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where she honed her talents, though she frequently clashed with the faculty and was nearly dismissed. While completing her studies, she worked in a variety of jobs, including a four-month stint as a fashion model. Her professional stage debut came in the Academy's 1957 production of "The Caucasian Chalk Circle." She later joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and made her London stage debut in 1961's "The Devils" before progressing to a wide variety of Shakespearean and other classical roles. The pay from her stage work was barely enough to keep Rigg afloat, so she began working in television in 1962. Three years later, she was announced as Honor Blackman's replacement on the popular action series "The Avengers."

Rigg's Emma Peel was, at first, modeled along the lines of Blackman's Cathy Gale, a formidable martial artist and supremely self-confident woman. Like Gale, Mrs. Peel - whose husband, pilot Peter Peel, had disappeared over the Amazon - was athletic and brilliant, but with added layers of fashion sense and sexual freedom that made her exceptionally popular with both male and female viewers. Fans were also fond of the banter between Mrs. Peel and Patrick Macnee's John Steed, which was occasionally bawdy but always delivered with champagne crispness. Rigg's popularity helped to boost the show's ratings in both England and the United States, and its producers embraced the Pop Art aesthetic seen in Mrs. Peel's outfits - the most notable of which was a leather catsuit, which Rigg disliked intensely - and added touches of fantasy and science fiction to the plots.

For Rigg, the experience of "The Avengers" was a bittersweet one. The series had clearly boosted her into the spotlight, but the rigors of the shooting schedule prevented her from taking other projects. She also became soured on the series when she discovered that she was earning less than some of the cameramen. After holding out for a pay raise, she returned for a second season, which would be her last. She then ventured into films in the hopes that her popularity on "The Avengers" would translate into a career in features.

After appearing with Helen Mirren and Ian Holm in a filmed version of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (1968), she was cast as Countess Teresa di Vincenzo in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969). The idea of pairing Emma Peel with James Bond (George Lazenby) was a tempting one for moviegoers, and Rigg brought a great deal of spark and spirit to the character, who made history as the only woman to wed Agent 007. Her character's death inspired Bond, once again played by Sean Connery, to eliminate her assassin, supervillain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, in the opening moments of "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). Rumors of Rigg's displeasure with Lazenby were part of show business legend for decades before the actress was forced to dispel them in interviews.

The Bond film was only a modest success, and Rigg's subsequent screen efforts essentially followed suit: "The Assassination Bureau" (1969) was a period adventure with Oliver Reed as a charming hired killer and Rigg as the lady journalist who fell for him, while the Oscar-winning "The Hospital" (1971) cast her as the daughter of a homicidal maniac (Barnard Hughes) who cures suicidal doctor George C. Scott of his impotence. She later played Portia, wife of Jason Robards' Brutus, in the all-star 1970 film version of "Julius Caesar," and showed a wicked sense of humor as Vincent Price's loyal but homicidal daughter in the black horror-comedy "Theatre of Blood" (1973). All were well-regarded projects, but none were box office hits, which sent Rigg back to the stage and television for more substantive work.

She won a Tony for her Broadway debut in 1971's "Abelard and Heloise," which marked a lengthy tenure on American and British stages throughout the 1970s and 1980s. An uncouth comment about her nude scene in "Abelard" by critic John Simon inspired her to pen No Turn Unstoned, a collection of vicious reviews by theater critics that became a bestseller and cult favorite in 1982. Rigg briefly returned to series work with "Diana" (NBC, 1973-74) as a British divorcee who moves to New York City to begin a new life as a fashion coordinator. She had more success with "In This House of Brede" (1975), which marked her Stateside TV-movie debut as a British woman who joined a convent. Rigg was nominated for an Emmy for her performance, and would largely focus on TV features on both sides of the Atlantic for much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Rigg's theatrical background made her a natural for classical works on the small screen, and she tackled such towering roles as "Hedda Gabler" (YTV, 1981) and Regan in a legendary production of "King Lear" (Channel 4, 1983) with Laurence Olivier in the title role. In 1989, she won a BAFTA as a mother whose fixation on her son leads to murder in "Mother Love" (1989), which aired in the U.S. on the PBS series "Mystery!" (1980- ), which she also hosted from 1989 to 2003.

The 1990s was a period of career triumph for Rigg. A return to the Broadway stage in "Medea" (1993) earned her a Tony Award, and was followed by critically acclaimed productions of "Mother Courage" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In 1996, she won an Emmy as the sinister Mrs. Danvers in an ITV remake of "Rebecca," and won a legion of new fans as Mrs. Bradley, a Jazz Era amateur sleuth, in "The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries" (BBC One, 1998-99), a series of whodunits that aired on "Mystery!" The decade was capped by Queen Elizabeth I naming her Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1994. The 21st century saw Rigg still active in her seventh decade, with performances in productions of "Suddenly Last Summer" in 2004 and Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" in 2009. She was a less frequent presence on television and in film, though she played a French Mother Superior who presided over a Chinese orphanage in "The Painted Veil" (2006) and appeared in an episode of Ricky Gervais' international hit series, "Extras" (BBC 2, 2005-07), where she was on the receiving end of a condom in errant flight. In 2013, Rigg joined the cast of "Game of Thrones" (HBO 2011- ) as Olenna Tyrell, whom she portrayed until the end of the character's story arc during the show's seven season in 2017; she was nominated three times for the Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Emmy Award for the recurring role. During this period, Rigg also co-starred in British-American miniseries "You, Me and the Apocalypse" (Sky 1/NBC 2015-16) and appeared on the Mackenzie Crook sitcom "Detectorists" (BBC 4 2014- ). Diana Rigg died on September 10, 2020 at the age of 82.

Credits

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