b. 31 March 1922 Armagh, Northern Ireland
d. 14 August 1982 London, England

Patrick Magee was born one hundred years ago (exactly two weeks after St. Patrick’s Day) at 2 Edward Street in 1922 in Northern Ireland, the same year that the Irish Free State was formed after the Irish War of Independence. Magee attended the St. Patrick’s grammar school and, according to the Belfast Telegraph, he was against England’s control of Ireland and was an activist for international issues, politically he was progressive. In his obituary in the Glasgow Herald, Magee is quoted in a 1976 interview as calling himself a “street fighter from Armagh” who decided to “live on a precipice.”

Magee’s proclamation of himself as a warrior living on the edge is an apt description of his birth month, his performances, and his personality. Like the mad March hare from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or the mad March wind, Magee could be frantic and frenzied in both his characters for films and his roles for the stage.

“Hellraiser” of the Stage

“Hellraisers” is a nickname for alcoholic actors Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed, although it can also be applied to Robert Shaw and Ian Hendry. The Belfast Telegraph bestowed this title upon Patrick Magee. Magee’s heavy drinking was so notorious that when he performed in the play Faith Healer in 1981 opposite Helen Mirren it became obvious to the audience that he was tipsy and, as a result, he was fired. The following year he died of a heart attack. 

Magee’s acting career started in his thirties in the 1950s when he toured with Anew McMaster. A pivotal point in his career was when he met fellow Irishman Samuel Beckett. After recording several of Beckett’s works for BBC radio, Beckett was inspired by Magee’s delirious voice and wrote the one-man monologue Krapp’s Last Tape specifically for Magee. The two shared in common not only their Irish ancestry and cultural heritage yet also an absurdist attitude, in Magee’s case towards acting and in Beckett’s case towards playwriting. 

Krapp’s Last Tape premiered on stage in 1958 and on television in 1972. Though there is no footage of the play during the 1950s when Magee was in his thirties, Magee’s performance in 1972 at the age of fifty was probably closer to the role Beckett envisioned since Beckett was fifty-one when he wrote the play and the character’s age is sixty-nine years old. The character is an alcoholic, a similarity shared by Beckett and Magee. Donald McWhinnie directed this 1972 television version (and later directed Magee in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts). Magee’s physicality in his performances is on display as the play opens with Magee’s brows furrowed as his hands tremulously unpeel a banana. The shakiness of Magee’s hands and how he is startled at the sight of a banana are alcoholic characteristics, an aversion to food in favor of drinking and restless limbs as a result of intoxication. Magee paces back and forth nibbling upon the banana as if it will aid his digestion and/or his thoughts. He is disgusted with the banana and impatiently throws the peel to the floor. Then he compulsively unpeels another banana, briefly biting into it without fully eating it. One of the first lines in the monologue is the character concentrating on the word “spool”, Magee pauses to draw out the word between his lips, enunciating the vowels and fluttering his eyelids as if he was inhaling the aroma of a vintage wine, lingering upon its fragrance. Magee listens intently to a recording of himself at age thirty-nine mocking himself in his twenties. Magee laughs maniacally along with his thirty-nine year old self’s resolution to drink less. Rather than reacting to the memory of his mother’s death, he instead opens a dictionary to search for the word “viduity” that he spoke on the tape. He also stops the tape when the word “chrysolite” is spoken to describe an attractive young woman’s eyes. Magee, without saying a word, expresses despair, fascination, and frustration with the poetic memory of a pier at the end of March. He angrily fast forwards the tape, appearing to be fed up with his younger self’s rambling and rhapsodizing. In a memory of another woman when his younger self says to her “let me in”, Magee sadly slumps his face to the table, his hand clutching the tape recorder. Magee then records a new tape where he insults his thirty-nine year old self. Magee’s sour voice reciting Beckett’s nostalgic story of holiday holly is an Irish contrast and parallel to Dylan Thomas’ remarkable recording of Child’s Christmas in Wales.

Krapp’s Last Tape

While the playwright Samuel Beckett had been inspired by Magee’s voice, the playwright Harold Pinter was inspired not only by Magee’s voice but by his presence on the stage in relation to other actors. While Beckett’s monologue for Magee in Krapp’s Last Tape expressed his absurdist view of the existential emptiness of life, Pinter’s request for Magee to play the role of McCann in The Birthday Party is the eccentric essence of what critics have called Pinter’s “comedy of menace” in one character. The director William Friedkin was so inspired by Pinter that he chose to adapt the play as one of his first films in 1968. Friedkin kept Magee in the role of McCann because he recognized, like Pinter, that Magee not only best fit the personality of this character because of his Irish identity but also because Magee was the most menacing member of the cast. Though Robert Shaw as the tortured and troubled protagonist Stanley and Sydney Tafler as the genteel yet tyrannical Goldberg each have fiery outbursts in their dialogue, it is Magee as McCann who is consistently the darkest character, even as he takes orders as an underling from Goldberg. Pinter’s bitter, cynical dissection of the human condition satirizes Judeo-Christianity and its repressive, restrictive systems in the characters of Goldberg (a Jewish name) and McCann (an Irish Catholic name). From one of his first appearances in the film, when he methodically tears a newspaper into strips, Magee’s character is sinister and strange. When Robert Shaw’s character attempts to stop this process of tearing, Magee’s intense reaction shocks him. Later in the film, Magee physically threatens Shaw when he corners him like a caged animal in the living room. One of the most bizarre plays ever written, the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia in this film is more disturbing than many horror movies. This is Robert Shaw’s most remarkable role and arguably Patrick Magee’s best performance. He not only expresses viciousness in his role, he also expresses vulnerability in a scene when he is drinking whiskey while reflectively and ruefully reminiscing, mumbling and singing an old Irish song.

Birthday Party

Master of Menace

My first experiences of Patrick Magee’s performances were his portrayal of the tortured writer Frank Alexander in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange and his appearance as the blind patient George Carter in Freddie Francis’ adaptation of the EC Comics Tales from the Crypt

In the former film, as Patrick Magee’s character is quietly sitting at his typewriter, the doorbell rings and a gang of goons wearing clown masks viciously beat him, gag him, and force him to watch their violent rape of his wife. This rape scene is one of many reasons that I think Kubrick’s film does not deserve its rabid cult following. Though I think this film is grossly overrated, Patrick Magee’s role is responsible for the most memorable moments. Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is later beaten by his own droogs and ironically takes shelter from a storm in the house of Mr. Alexander (Patrick Magee). As Alex bathes, he sings the same tune from the earlier scene when he assaulted Mr. Alexander and his wife. Patrick Magee’s primordial reaction is strange and visceral. He sits outside the door in his wheelchair with his eyes rolling backwards into his head, face shaking as if in a seizure, fists clenched, and his tongue extended in disgust. In the following scene, Mr. Alexander serves his guest pasta. “Food alright?!” He shouts, barely able to contain his rage. “Try the wine!” Patrick Magee’s mouth and teeth, wild white eyebrows and hair, enhance the fury of this scene.

A Clockwork Orange

During the scene where he auditorily tortures Alex (locked upstairs in a bedroom) by blasting Beethoven at ear-splitting volumes, Patrick Magee’s madness is once again shown through his odd facial features–eyes rolled backwards into his head, face simultaneously smiling, spasming, twitching. Though I think Kubrick’s film does not deserve its critical acclaim and cult following, I think Patrick Magee’s performance does deserve plaudits. The actor resembles the classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach in this scene (the two artists both have late March birthdays).

A Clockwork Orange

I much prefer Freddie Francis’ Tales from the Crypt to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick’s film has many flaws, in my opinion, from its shock tactics and show-off stylizations to a plethora of ridiculous, unnecessary scenes (the rape of Mr. Alexander’s wife, the cat lady bludgeoned with a penis sculpture, the sped up menage a trois, etc.). Though Kubrick’s film is based upon an acclaimed novel, while Freddie Francis’ film is based upon macabre comic book stories, Tales from the Crypt actually achieves biting class commentaries. Peter Cushing shares the most heartbreaking, melancholy performance of his career as Arthur Grimsdyke whose working-class clothes and old house are considered an eyesore by his bourgeois, upper crust neighbor who decides to depress him and destroy his life, driving him to commit suicide. 

Patrick Magee gives an even more memorable performance in Freddie Francis’ Tales from the Crypt than Kubrick’s film because of his restraint and vulnerability. Patrick Magee is the blind patient George Carter who, despite his dearth of sight, is keenly aware of the inequality that he and his fellow men are suffering because of the new strict superintendent Major Rogers. Major Rogers (as his name suggests) is used to dealing with soldiers as their superior. Patrick Magee explains his perspective poignantly (“We feel things more acutely. If food is bad, it tastes worse to us. If a room is dirty, we feel every speck. If an insect scurries across the floor, we hear it. And if it’s cold, we feel the cold more. Why don’t you sell that painting and buy us fuel or extra blankets?”) Major Rogers forces the already feeble and frail old men to accept rations for their daily food intake rather than regular meals. Patrick Magee responds to this inequality by barging into Major Rogers’ study. “You eat steak while we get nothing but slop! You eat meat and drink wine!” To add insult to injury, Major Rogers forces them to go to bed early and turns off the heat (“after all, you can’t see anything.”) One of George Carter’s friends freezes to death. Patrick Magee calmly and coldly organizes the other blind men to construct a razor-blade studded maze as revenge against Rogers.

Tales from the Crypt

Patrick Magee’s performance as the blind patient George Carter in Freddie Francis’ Tales from the Crypt left a vivid impression upon me. 

According to Ivan Little, “Magee struggled financially, in part due to his drinking and gambling, and he accepted roles in low budget British horror films.” Dr. Conor Carville at the University of Reading confirms this observation: “his immersion in the new British horror genre meant he moved in underground circles…an undercurrent of desperation in his career, as he took on such roles for the income they provided.” Patrick Magee’s first roles in the horror genre were actually American. He was Dr. Justin Caleb in Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial debut Dementia 13 and Alfredo in Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptation The Masque of the Red Death. His role in Dementia 13 (similar to his role as Superintendent Walsh in the British thriller Seance on a Wet Afternoon) is that of a detective or investigator. There are brief, devilish displays of his humorousness (what some critics might call hamminess) in his role as Alfredo alongside Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Masque of the Red Death. He playfully holds a dagger to a beautiful damsel’s teeth and says “Let me speak to you about the anatomy of terror” as he is scoffed at by Price who then has his own take on terror. When the dancer Esmeralda knocks over his goblet, he exclaims about drowning in wine. Jane Asher’s character is creepily confronted by Patrick Magee with a diabolical laugh and sinister smile when she is lost in a castle corridor.

Masque of the Red Death

Because of his role in Dementia 13, he was typecast as a doctor in three British horror films during the early 1970s (as Falkenberg in Demons of the Mind, Dr. Rutherford in Robert Bloch’s Asylum, and Dr. Whittle in And Now the Screaming Starts). Asylum is arguably one of the more creative Amicus anthologies (although its stories are not as strong as Freddie Francis’ Tales from the Crypt), however, Patrick Magee does not have much screen time. The same is true for And Now the Screaming Starts. These are more muted roles for Magee.

Patrick Magee is menacing as a mad doctor in the episode “Killer in Every Corner” from the British television show Thriller (written by Brian Clemens of Avengers fame who also directed one of the most entertaining Hammer horror films during this same time period, Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter). Patrick Magee plays Marcus Carnaby who outwardly appears to be a charming, convivial, and erudite professor and a gracious host to a group of young adult students who are visiting him at his country estate. However, inwardly, Magee’s character is calculating and cruel as he conducts experiments for his psychological research. In the most disturbing scene, Magee watches through the small window outside the cell door as one of the students is slowly murdered by an inmate. Magee carefully catalogs the scientific data in a clinical, detached fashion, the intensity of his stare making an event that has happened in many horror movies much more uncomfortable for the viewer. This episode could have been even more entertaining as a full-length film.

Thriller – “A Killer in Every Corner”

In Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, Magee once more plays an experimental researcher, this time a deranged and disheveled pet shop owner Leo Raymount who is obsessed with werewolves. In contrast to his role in Thriller where the character’s sadism was masked beneath a veneer of hospitality, here his raggedness and sickness are on full display making him seem more insane rather than the genius the character believes himself to be. Leo’s resentment about a lack of recognition for what he perceives to be his scientific successes is compellingly conveyed by Magee’s feverish, frenzied performance. This is another episode that could have easily been extended into a full-length film.

Beasts – “What Big Eyes”

Patrick Magee’s least typical role in the horror genre is a psychotic preacher in Beware My Brethren. The reverend is not just verbally threatening to his congregation with the typical apocalyptic sermons, he is also physically threatening to the main character’s mother. While the sexually dysfunctional young man kills every woman he meets because of his belief that they are sinners, he draws the line when Magee refuses to allow his mother to receive lifesaving medication. Although the film was released in 1972, the distrust of modern medicine by a fundamentalist Christian is still relevant fifty years later in the suspicions surrounding coronavirus vaccinations. The climax is a crucifixion of Magee’s minister.

Beware My Brethren

Essential Filmography

  • The Birthday Party (William Friedkin, 1968)
  • Krapp’s Last Tape (Donald McWhinnie, 1972)
  • Tales from the Crypt (Freddie Francis, 1972)
  • Thriller – “A Killer in Every Corner” (Malcolm Taylor, 1974/1975)
  • Beasts – “What Big Eyes” (Donald McWhinnie, 1976)
  • Beware My Brethren (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1972)
  • The Masque of the Red Death (Roger Corman, 1964)
  • Asylum (Roy Ward Baker, 1972)
  • And Now the Screaming Starts (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
  • Seance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964)
  • Dementia 13 (Francis Ford Coppola, 1963)
  • Demons of the Mind (Peter Sykes, 1972)
  • Marat/Sade (Peter Brook, 1967)
  • A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

About The Author

Mark Lager’s film writing has been published in CineAction, Cinema Retro, and Film International. He has also written a Southern Gothic screenplay (“To Death With You”) and a short novella about the crisis in Syria (The Dust Shall Sing Like A Bird).

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