Patrick Macnee.

Actor and star of The Avengers.

Born: February 6, 1922

Died: June 24, 2015

Patrick Macnee, who has died aged 93, was the stylish leading man of The Avengers, one of the most successful television shows of the 1960s. His character, the secret agent John Steed, was a striking mix of traditional and modern: he was never seen without his bowler hat and umbrella (which he sometimes used to despatch baddies) but he was also the first leading man in television to have a thoroughly modern relationship with his female co-stars, who were just as strong and liberated as he was.

For Macnee, the success of The Avengers in the mid 1960s was a long time coming after many years of struggle. At the height of the show's popularity, Macnee and his co-stars, including Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg, became icons of fashion and the sexual revolution, although with its mix of science fiction and espionage the programme was always an unlikely hit. Asked once to sum the show up, Macnee said: "The Avengers is about a man in a bowler hat and a woman who flings men over her shoulders." It was a pretty accurate description.

Macnee's character in the show, with its mix of conventional and unconventional, was foreshadowed in his own upbringing. Born Daniel Patrick Macnee, he went to Eton but was brought up in what amounted to a lesbian harem in Berkshire that included his mother Dorothea and her lover, known as Uncle Evelyn. Evelyn was tyrannical and eccentric but she was also independently wealthy, which meant Macnee's childhood was comfortable (he was frequently driven around by Rolls-Royce).

It was not a hugely happy childhood however. Macnee's parents were often at loggerheads and for much of the time, he was forced, against his will, to wear a kilt, partly because of his Scottish heritage but partly because of a sadistic streak in Evelyn who once said of the young Patrick: "Given time, we'll make a good woman of him."

His Scottish heritage was on his father's side. Major Daniel Macnee was the son of a Scottish engineer who worked on the Forth Bridge and the grandson of Sir Daniel Macnee, the portrait painter and president of the Royal Scottish Academy. Major Macnee's great love was horses; his wife's great love was alcohol, and they could not reconcile their differences.

After his parents' marriage broke up, Macnee went to live with Evelyn and got his first taste of acting at Eton, where he appeared in school plays. It was also where he discovered his rebellious and entrepreneurial streaks. He ran a betting ring at the school and sold pornography magazines to the other boys and was eventually asked to leave.

It was then that he revealed to his mother that he wanted to be an actor and she found a patron who agreed to pay for her son to attend Webber Douglas School of Drama. In a real-life echo of Great Expectations, the sponsor asked that his identity never be revealed, and it never was.

After acting school, Macnee took the then traditional route into repertory but had to give up his first film role when he got his call-up papers. He joined the British Light Coastal Forces, which was dedicated to the defence of the English Channel, and did his training in the lochs around Fort William.

After the war, he struggled to get his career off the ground. He had a non-speaking part in Laurence Olivier's 1948 film version of Hamlet but by the 1950s had decided to leave the country after being offered work with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. At the time, the CBC was being run by an ambitious man called Sydney Newman who would go on to create The Avengers and Doctor Who, but at the time there were only around 80 TV sets in the whole of Canada. Macnee got a lot of work, but was a big star in a tiny world.

This lack of success started to hit him - he was getting through 80 cigarettes and a bottle of whisky every day - and an attempt to break back into the UK with a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream in Edinburgh was disastrous. One critic said of the production, which starred Moira Shearer as Titania, that "the dream turned out to be a nightmare and a mob besieged the theatre demanding refunds. The cast and crew made a run for it."

By 1960, Macnee had decided enough was enough and he should give up acting and become a producer instead. He began work on a documentary about Winston Churchill, but Sydney Newman, now working in the UK, had remembered him and thought the part of a secret agent in a new show he was planning would be just right for him. The show was initially called Police Surgeon and lacked the fantastical elements that would later become its trademark (it was more dirty mac than Savile Row). Macnee was also the sidekick rather than the leading man - that was Ian Hendry - but he didn't mind. He was on £150 a week and his new wife (and by now two children) were being properly looked after for the first time. "I could afford to enjoy the lifestyle I'd been brought up to expect as part of my birthright," he said.

However, after one series of Police Surgeon, Hendry left to pursue a career in film and Steed found himself promoted to leading man in a show that was taking a different direction under a new title, The Avengers. Not only did a more fantastical element start to creep in, Steed's new co-star was a woman: Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman.

This new combination of Macnee in bowler hat and Blackman in leather catsuit was a sensation. It was a thoroughly modern relationship of equals with Macnee resisting an attempt by the producers to make Cathy and Steed fall in love, although in real life Macnee made a move on Blackman (she demurred).

After Blackman left, Macnee had three more co-stars - Emma Peel played by Diana Rigg, Tara King by Linda Thorson and in, The New Avengers, Purdey played by Joanna Lumley - and the series ran for eight successful years. When it finished in 1969, Macnee moved to America but his career was never to reach the same heights. He hit the bottle hard again and did not give up alcohol until the 1980s when he was diagnosed with liver disease.

Later, he settled down to a career of regular appearances on television, mostly typecast as the suave English gentleman, in American TV shows such as Frasier, Magnum, and Murder She Wrote. He also appeared in films - most famously as James Bond's friend Sir Godfrey Tibbett in A View to A Kill and in the cult horror film The Howling in 1981. He also had a brief cameo in the shambolic movie remake of The Avengers in 1998 and a small role in This is Spinal Tap.

Away from acting, Macnee was a keen nudist ("I received the wrong kind of headlines but I didn't care," he said of the hobby) and was married three times. His third wife pre-deceased him and he is survived by his two children from his first marriage, Rupert and Jenny.