Diana Rigg may be known mostly for playing Emma Peel on The Avengers, but her career touched on an astounding eight different decades. Peel’s first credit was as “bit part” (seriously, that’s the credit) in a televised version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for NBC in 1959. Rigg’s theatre career outpaced her television and film career for many years until landing the iconic role of Emma Peel in 1965.
It’s easy to forget now, but Rigg only joined The Avengers four years after its inception in 1961. Rigg wasn’t even the original choice for the role. She actually replaced Elizabeth Shepherd after the filming of episode two. But once she appeared onscreen for the first time in what was officially season 4, she became a sex symbol overnight. Rigg wasn’t prepared for the level of attention she received for her appearance, and often took issue with the way ABC promoted the show. Rigg took a stand for women’s equality prior to season 5 by holding out for a pay raise based on the notable attention she had brought to the series. Despite doing so during the Equal Rights movement of the ’60s, Rigg claimed that no one, not her co-star Patrick Macnee, nor a single woman in the industry supported her. After the fifth season and just 51 episodes, Rigg left The Avengers. While her time on the show was brief, her adept mix of class, comedy, and charm (along with her beauty) made her unforgettable.
It is a bit of a shame though that she is known for so little else by so many. In her first role after leaving the series, Rigg got an upgrade over “bit part” with the role of Helena in a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The film wasn’t well received, but just one year later in 1969, Rigg would play a Bond woman (Diana Rigg was never a “girl”) in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. While that Bond flick is mostly known as “the one with George Lazenby,” it’s also the only film in the series where Bond married the object of his affection. That’s right, in the more than half a century of Bond flicks, only one woman made an honest man out of 007. Who could blame the producers for breaking the character of the womanizing secret agent with Rigg on set?
Perhaps Rigg’s greatest silver screen role followed two years later across from George C. Scott in Arthur Hiller’s prescient health care satire, The Hospital, written by the great Paddy Chayefsky. Rigg did more than hold her own across from Scott, she scored a Golden Globe nomination in the category of best supporting actress. As Barbara, Rigg plays a woman who not only turns the head of the doctor played by Scott, but challenges and briefly restores him amid his crumbling hospital. Rigg’s tart wit and sharp tongue stole just about every scene from her esteemed leading man. How he didn’t follow her to Mexico at the end of the film is a sizable mystery.
The remainder of the ’70s saw Rigg working consistently on television. She shot a series called Diana built around her in the lead that lasted just 15 episodes, but earned an Emmy nomination for In This House of Brede, as a woman who gives up her normal life to become a Benedictine nun. Rigg seldom found roles in the three subsequent decades that met her stature. She was a hoot in The Great Muppet Caper in 1981 and classed up Evil Under the Sun starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot the next year. She did score the plum role of Lady Dedlock in a 1985 Masterpiece Theatre version of Bleak House, and earned another Emmy nomination (and win) in 1997’s Mrs. Danvers in the two-part movie Rebecca, based on the du Maurier novel.
It wouldn’t be until 2013, at the age of 75, that Rigg would find a role that let her show her gifts in full. Her 18 episode stint as Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones earned her five Emmy nominations. Her days as a reluctant sex symbol long behind her, Rigg brought her usual wit and class to the role, but added a steely-eyed grit to her performance that few might have expected. Her final scene on the show as she is poisoned is a master class in a character both accepting her horrible fate, but not shrinking even an inch as it arrives.
“Tell Cersei, I want her to know it was me.”
Rigg continued acting steadily after GoT. In fact, she has two projects that have yet to be screened: a horror film called Last Night in Soho with Anya Taylor-Joy and Thomasin McKenzie, as well as the mini-series Black Narcissus with Gemma Arterton and Jim Broadbent.
Over her 61-year career on film and television, some might say Rigg caught the zeitgeist only once–on The Avengers–and then simply had a solid, steady career after that. But that doesn’t feel true. Because as the legend of Emma Peel grew, we learned that Diana Rigg didn’t just catch the zeitgeist, she never let it go.
Diana Rigg died today. She was 82 years old.