London -- British actress Diana Rigg has portrayed many leading Shakespearean women -- Helena in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Lady Macduff and Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth", Cordelia and Regan in "King Lear" and Adriana in "The Comedy of Errors". But to the average American TV viewer she'll always be remembered as supercool Emma Peel of "The Avengers", the popular British TV series that first aired on U.S. television in the '60s. The other half of the secret agent team extraordinaire was Jonathan Steed, played by Patrick Macnee.
The series still airs in 35 U.S. cities, including Chicago on WFBN-Ch. 66 (5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.)
Rigg is back on television in a new role as Lady Dedlock, a woman with a secret, in the "Masterpiece Theatre" production of "Bleak House", Charles Dickens' attack on corruption in the courts of 19th-Century England. The eight-part series (9 p.m. Sundays on WTTW-Ch. 11), which aired earlier this year on BBC-TV with excellent notices, began Dec. 1.
It's one of the few acting jobs she's taken recently, choosing instead to concentrate on the domestic stage. For the last few years, the 47-year-old native of Yorkshire has been semi-retired so that she can be with her eight-year-old daughter and husband, Archibald Stirling, a London businessman from Scotland. Her extended family includes Stirling's two sons, ages 17 and 19, from another marriage, who visit occasionally. Holidays are sometimes spent at the family's manor house (circa 1592) in Scotland where she and her husband fish and hunt. (Rigg was divorced from her first husband, Israeli artist Menachem Gueffen, in 1976.)
"I'm now very much dictated by my domestic circumstances," she says, explaining that she's on a self-imposed acting hiatus until spring, having worked most of last year and much of this year. She may collaborate next spring on a project with her husband, who has produced several plays.
There's a touch of irony to Rigg's housewife role -- writers explained that Emma left the series to become a housewife after her long-lost aviator husband was found in a South American jungle.
In reality, Rigg was bored with the role. So in 1968, after two years on "The Avengers", she packed up her jumpsuits and Carnaby Street gear and quit.
"I wasn't thinking anymore (as Emma Peel)," she says. "I was simply learning lines, and that's not good enough. I think one ought to develop and that's why I left. One of the attractions that make this business so exciting and wonderful is realizing new characters."
She promptly did two movies, which were released in 1969 -- "The Assassination Bureau" and "On Her Majesty's Secret Service", the only James Bond film in which George Lazenby replaced Sean Connery as Agent 007. Her other film credits include "Julius Caesar" (1970), "A Little Night Music", "The Muppet Movie II" (1979) and "Evil Under the Sun" (1982).
"I'm offered roles in America," she says, gazing fondly out into the yard of her London townhouse where her daughter is playing, "but I can't do them until my daughter is of an age when either she can travel with me or when she will be away at boarding school . . . not much before she's 12 or 13."
Her American offers have been made-for-TV movies and mini-series, including a couple of "blockbusters", which she declines to name. If she's gotten an offer from "Dynasty" creator Esther Shapiro, she won't admit it, though she does reveal that her daughter and friends "are riveted" by "Dynasty".
Known more for her dramatic roles, Rigg would like to try comedy, hopefully with more success than her 1973-74 NBC sitcom, "Diana", which lasted less than six months. She played an English divorcee who moved to New York to start over. Barbara Barrie and Richard Mulligan were in the cast.
Rigg hadn't watched "The Avengers" before she auditioned for the part in 1966, replacing Honor Blackman (Pussy Galore in the James Bond "Goldfinger" film) as Steed's partner. Her roles were in the theater. "I didn't know what I was in for except I knew the lady (Peel) fought."
When Rigg left two years later, Linda Thorsen, a Canadian-born actress, joined the series, not as Emma Peel but as Tara King, another partner for Steed.
But the series, seen on ABC from 1966-69, wasn't the same without Mrs. Peel; it ended a year later. In 1976, it was reborn in England as "The New Avengers" with Steed joined by two young agents. In 1978 CBS added "The New Avengers" to its late-night schedule where it aired until recently. (The network also showed reruns of "The Avengers" from 1979-80.)
"I think 'The Avengers' appealed to audiences because the show was witty, eccentric and very English," says Rigg, adding that many of the scenes with her and Macnee were improvised. "'The Avengers' made absolutely no concession to its American market, and I suspect its Britishness was part of its appeal."
Rigg says that Steed's partner originally was to be a man, but the producers decided to cast a woman in the role and didn't bother to change the script.
"They just sort of dressed her in black leather and let her get on with it. She had a lot of what would have then been considered masculine attributes. . . They (the writers) sort of fell into this advanced woman. They didn't think it out."
The role resulted in one of TV's first liberated women.
"She became a prototype for a lot of other women subsequently on television," says Rigg, who believes her own personality -- but not the whiz kid part -- came across as Emma's. "I suppose a core of Emma was me, just as it was with Patrick as Steed," she says.
Earlier this year, Rigg appeared with Ronald Pickup in a London production of "Little Eyolf". Anthony Hopkins was her costar in a recent BBC Television production of the play. Last summer, she traveled to the south of England to appear in the Chichester Theatre Company's production of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra".
Trained at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Rigg's first role was in 1957 in "The Caucasian Chalk Circle". In 1959 she made her first London theater appearance in "Ondine" as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-on-Avon. Subsequent stage credits include roles in "The Devils", "Becket", "The Taming of the Shrew", "The Art of Seduction", "The Physicists", "Pygmalion", "Abelard & Heloise", "Jumpers", "The Misanthrope" and "Phaedra Britannica".
Rigg's most recent American stage performance was the role of French author Colette in a 1982 production of the musical of the same name, in which she aged 64 years -- from 18 to 82. The play had its world premiere in Seattle.Eighteen years earlier, she made her American debut on Broadway in "The Comedy of Errors" and "King Lear", re-creating roles she originated in England.