Diana Rigg, the Emmy- and Tony-winning British actress who vaulted to international fame in the 1960s with her performance as the seductive spy Emma Peel on The Avengers, then gained a new following decades later as the cunning Lady Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones, died Thursday. She was 82.
Rigg was diagnosed with cancer in March, according to her daughter Rachael Stirling, who said she had “spent her last months joyfully reflecting on her extraordinary life, full of love, laughter and a deep pride in her profession. I will miss her beyond words.”
“It is with tremendous sadness that we announce that Dame Diana Rigg died peacefully early this morning. She was at home with her family who have asked for privacy at this difficult time,” added her agent Simon Beresford. “Dame Diana was an icon of theatre, film, and television. She was the recipient of BAFTA, Emmy, Tony and Evening Standard Awards for her work on stage and screen. Dame Diana was a much loved and admired member of her profession, a force of nature who loved her work and her fellow actors. She will be greatly missed.”
Rigg also played the ill-fated Bond girl Tracy di Vicenzo opposite 007 actor George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).
As the third of four female sidekicks to Patrick Macnee’s dapper John Steed on ITV’s The Avengers, Rigg’s Peel became an icon in England and the U.S. The show centered on the duo — Steed with a bowler hat and umbrella, Peel in cutting-edge mod fashions — working as partners for a secret British intelligence agency in an over-the-top, sometimes surrealist England.
She played Peel for 51 episodes from 1965-68, earning two Emmy nominations, then returned to her roots in the theater for a time. She shared a BAFTA special award for The Avengers with her counterparts Honor Blackman (Cathy Gale), Linda Thorson (Tara King) and Joanna Lumley (Purdey on The New Avengers) in 2011.
Rigg had another chance to work in a zeitgeist-defining series when she joined HBO’s Game of Thrones in 2013 as Lady Olenna, the “Queen of Thorns” known for her mastery of palace intrigue. She was nominated for four Emmys for her work on the show.
In 1997, she received her lone Emmy for portraying the antagonistic head housekeeper Mrs. Danvers in a PBS adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg was born on July 20, 1938, in Doncaster, England. Her family lived in Jodhpur, India, where her father served as a manager of the state railroad. She spent her childhood in India until she was 8, when she was sent to boarding school in England.
“India gave me a glorious start to life,” Rigg said in a 2004 biography written by Kathleen Tracy. “It gave me an independence of spirit.” But the transition to dreary England was difficult: “The school didn’t mean to be cruel, but it was. I felt like a fish out of water. I knew nobody. I started from scratch. … With an experience like that, your life changes. You are never reliant on your parents again.”
After a couple of years, Rigg’s parents followed her back to England and transferred her to a different school. It was there that a teacher, Sylvia Greenwood, “realized I loved literature and words and saw that I could speak and — well, act! Not just encouraged me, she cheered me on, brought me out. I began to live.”
Rigg studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and made her professional debut in 1957 in New York with a performance in The Caucasian Chalk Circle. She also played in repertory companies while working as a model.
Rigg was accepted as an understudy by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1959 and soon signed a five-year contract. She left in 1964 for The Avengers, which was also about to air — in color! — in the U.S. on ABC. It was her first commercial TV work, and she had never seen the show.
She effectively took over for Blackman, who had left to take the role of Pussy Galore in the 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger. (Julie Stevens had played Sneed’s partner Venus Smith for six episodes in 1962-63 before Rigg debuted as Emma Peel, a play on “M-Appeal,” a marketing term that meant “men appeal.”)
Shortly after leaving, she starred as Helena in a film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968) alongside Helen Mirren as Hermia, Ian Holm as Puck, Judi Dench as Titania and a number of other Royal Shakespeare Company players.
She landed her first U.S. movie role in the comedy The Assassination Bureau (1969), based on an unfinished Jack London novel set in Edwardian England, and turned heads as James Bond’s beguiling wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).
Rigg was nominated for a Golden Globe for best supporting actress for her performance as a nurse in Paddy Chayefsky’s acerbic film comedy The Hospital (1971). She then starred as a department store fashion coordinator who moves to New York after her divorce on the short-lived 1973-74 NBC sitcom Diana, modeled after The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Her other notable projects included the 1975 CBS telefilm In This House of Brede, in which she played a businesswoman who becomes a cloistered Benedictine nun, in another Emmy-nominated turn; The Great Muppet Caper (1991), in which she played the victim of a jewelry heist; the 1985 Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Bleak House, in which she starred as Lady Honoria Dedlock; PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery!, which she hosted from 1989-2004, taking over from Vincent Price; and the BBC’s The Mrs. Bradley Mysteries, in which she played amateur detective Adela Bradley from 1998-2000.
In 1983 she wrote No Turn Unstoned, a compendium of terrible critics’ reviews from actors, directors and playwrights, inspired by a savage slam of her stage performance in Abelard and Heloise.
In 1994, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her contributions to film and theater, and from 1998-2008 served as chancellor of the University of Stirling in Scotland.
Rigg was married in the 1970s to Israeli painter Menachem Gueffen and later to theater producer Archie Stirling, with whom she had a daughter, Rachael. Both marriages ended in divorce.
You can follow us on social media at www.twitter.com/HighlightHwd and at Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Highlight-Hollywood-106496451085468/
Written By: Tommy Lightfoot Garrett
Photographs are Courtesy: Helen Sloan/HBO
Follow us on Twitter @HighlightHwd or @LightfootinHwd