Rancho Mirage’s Rupert Macnee has a story that could easily be the subject of one of his documentary films.
Macnee, 73, was born and raised in London. He went off to boarding school at 13, thanks to a generous godmother, and found his way to Princeton University, where he earned a degree in public and international affairs—before heading into a career as a freelance documentary filmmaker. (Full disclosure: I have had a personal relationship with Rupert Macnee for nine years.)
But his backstory includes him feeling abandoned by his actor father, Patrick, who became famous after playing secret agent John Steed in the British television series The Avengers; hiding with his mother and younger sister from knocks on the door demanding rent; learning from his way-ahead-of-her-time lesbian godmother how to write proper letters, as well as fish, shoot and behave like a proper gentleman; and desiring to make films, starting when he and a friend made historical dramas complete with swordfights at the age of 14.
“My mom had been illegitimate, as had her mother before her, and had always felt like an outsider, growing up in foster homes,” Macnee says. “She was an actor by training and had met my father that way, but gave that up when my younger sister was born. My mother was ambitious for me, hoping I might become a doctor, and focused on my being educated and going to university. We never had enough money, and we moved around a lot, but she was always there for us and fiercely defended us.
“My father left and moved to Canada to get on television there and in the U.S. when I was just 4, and didn’t really return until I was almost 13 and heading off to boarding school. He and my mother had met in drama school and had toured together for a while, but they divorced while he was gone. His advice to me was to always be prepared to cut the ground from under your own feet—which may explain why I spent most of my career as a freelancer.
“I was attracted to being in the same business as him, but not as an actor. My whole life, I’ve been around people in the business. I’m used to that world.”
At 18, after boarding school, Macnee took a gap year and worked as an intern in film and television in London.
“My stepfather had been to college at Berkeley, and I thought it would be exciting to go to the ‘new world,’ so I went to the American Embassy in London and applied to universities including Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. I wanted to study sociology, because I thought it would be interesting to have that perspective as a filmmaker. Princeton wanted me, and while there, I made several films, did a disc-jockey show, and even got a grant from the Ford Foundation to establish a filmmaking class in the Creative Arts Department. Almost everyone in our initial group went on to a career in film and television.
“After Princeton, I went to CTV in Toronto. I was a researcher for a 30-episode half-hour series about animal wildlife, and about a year and a half later, I went to Los Angeles as a film editor. Editing is time-consuming, and you spend a lot of time by yourself. That’s been a large part of my professional life.
“In 1971, I visited my uncle in Ecuador and worked at a radio station in Quito, doing a daily music show. That was one of the best decisions in my life—getting an appreciation for a world beyond Europe and North America, seeing people who had literally come out of the jungles. I came back to L.A. and worked on a film about drugs with a group of former UCLA students I had met in 1968, when I had taken a TV-production course there. I moved to England in 1972, and then back to Toronto in 1973 to work as producer of 100 30-minute films for syndication—50 of them hosted by Glenn Ford and 50 hosted by Jonathan Winters. In 1980, I again worked with Winters in L.A. on a pilot.”
Macnee’s career also includes producing 50 hours of An Evening at the Improv; a stint at NBC in their promotions and marketing department; working on a documentary comedy about diabetes that shipped 1.2 million units to benefit the American Diabetes Association; and jobs in Seattle and Lincoln, Neb., with PBS stations. He also wrote and produced several scripts throughout the 1990s, including work related to Kawasaki disease, including a film in 2006 in India.
“My mother would say I was fulfilling her desire for me to be a doctor!” Macnee says. “… I’ve been lucky to have traveled all over the world in the course of my work—Thailand, South America, England, Scotland, Germany and every state in the U.S. Two places I’ve never been that I’d love to see are Italy and Uruguay.”
Macnee has kept journals all his life, going back to the “R. Macnee Weekly” he “published” at age 11. While at Princeton, he studied history, because he remembered learning to think like a historian at boarding school.
“I crammed at 4 a.m. every day for a year, and realized I was not just learning about things that had happened, but learning how to understand the things that had happened,” he says.
Macnee has been going through those journals and boxes full of memories during the pandemic, and he’s come across many drawings he’s done throughout his life, including original Christmas cards he’s sent out each year since 1977.
“Growing up without a TV meant I had to find my own fun,” Macnee says. “I’ve always done writing and drawing, and discovered so many things I didn’t even remember doing. I’ve scanned about 50 years’ worth of drawings into my computer, and started sending them out to friends every morning. Suddenly, I’ve found myself with a new persona as an artist. I also did the illustrations for a book a life-long friend, Richard Heller, published about his experience during the pandemic.”
Much of Macnee’s family ended up in the Coachella Valley. His mother lived in Palm Desert and Rancho Mirage until her death in 2012. Macnee left his home in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2010 to come and help his sister care for their father, who had been diagnosed with dementia in 2003, and who died in 2015.
“Once I was living here, I decided to get an master’s in career and technical education at Cal State, hoping to teach video production for use in training and marketing,” he says.
Growing up with a famous parent can be particularly challenging, Macnee says. “I remember clearly deciding at about age 8 that I never wanted to have children. I didn’t want them to go through what I had gone through, feeling abandoned. Yet one of my best memories is when, at 11, I got to fly from London to Los Angeles and spent five weeks with my dad, complete with hamburgers, surfing and walking on the beach. It made me want to be where you could be, whatever you wanted to be.
“He taught me that every job will have an ending—and I’ve learned that every ending can be a new beginning.”
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show The Lovable Liberal airs on IHubRadio. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.