Already have an account?
Get back to the

Diana Rigg Young: 10 Captivating Facts About the British Icon Who Played Emma Peel

Plus, fabulous throwback photos of the '60s star


As Emma Peel, the butt-kicking spy in The Avengers, the British actress Diana Rigg was a ’60s TV icon. From 1965 to 1968, she captivated viewers with her mod fashions; her chemistry with her partner in espionage, John Steed (Patrick Macnee) and her dazzling mix of posh femininity and strength.

Rigg was more than just a sex symbol. She also inspired a generation of girls with the power she brought to her signature role, and she’s provided a blueprint for countless strong female characters in the decades since The Avengers ended.

Diana Rigg in 1967
Diana Rigg in 1967John Downing/Express/Getty

Of course, The Avengers wasn’t all Rigg did. She played a Bond girl in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 and the wise and powerful Oleanna Tyrell in Game of Thrones. In between she acted consistently in various film and TV roles in both the UK and the US. Her final, posthumously released role was in the ’60s-set 2021 film Last Night in Soho.

When Diana Rigg passed away at 82 in 2020, fans around the world mourned the loss of one of the faces of the ’60s, and she’s still missed today. Here’s a look back at some facts you may not have known about her fascinating life.

Read on for more ’60s stars!

1. Young Diana Rigg had some seriously highbrow credentials

While TV brought Rigg international fame, she already had some impressive credentials to her name by the time she was cast as Emma Peel. As a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, she starred in productions of King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth, Othello, Twelfth Night and more throughout the early ’60s, and won much acclaim.

From left to right, British actors Diana Rigg as Viola, David Warner as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Brewster Mason as Sir Toby Belch, in the duel scene from Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night', a Royal Shakespeare Company production at Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK, June 1966
Left to right: Diana Rigg, David Warner and Brewster Mason in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1966)R. Viner/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty

She continued to take on Shakespearean parts as well as other prestigious theatrical roles throughout her career.

MUST-READ: Elizabeth Montgomery: 15 Nose-Twitching Facts About the ‘Bewitched’ Star

2. She had mixed feelings about her sex symbol status

Rigg received quite a bit of attention for the skintight catsuits she rocked as Emma Peel, and she was a major crush for many boys who grew up in the ’60s. While she projected confidence onscreen, offscreen she had mixed feelings about being a sex symbol.

Diana Rigg in 'The Avengers' 1968
Diana Rigg wearing one of her signature catsuits in The Avengers (1968)Bettmann/Getty

In a 1999 interview with The Guardian, Rigg admitted that while “Sometimes I see photographs of myself and I think, God, I was really quite tasty,” she “didn’t know it at the time,” and felt “deeply uncomfortable” with all the focus on her sex appeal.

3. She wasn’t the first actress to play Emma Peel

The name Emma Peel instantly conjures up the image of Diana Rigg young, but she was actually the second actress to play her. The actress who was initially cast for the role, Elizabeth Shepherd, was fired after just two episodes, neither of which ever aired, and Rigg landed the role soon after.

Diana Rigg in 'The Avengers' 1964
Diana Rigg in The Avengers (1964)Terry Disney/Express/Getty

The Avengers had also been running for four years already before Rigg joined the show. The character of Emma Peel was brought in to replace John Steed’s previous partner, Cathy Gale (played by Honor Blackman, who also became a Bond girl like Rigg), who left the show in 1964. Rigg ultimately appeared in 51 of the show’s 161 episodes, and made an outsized impression.

MUST-READ: Bond, James Bond: See What Happened to All the Actors Who’ve Played Hollywood’s Top Spy Guy

4. Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee had different views on whether their characters hooked up

Viewers were hooked on the ongoing sexual tension between Emma Peel and John Steed. Surprisingly, the two actors who played them had very different views on whether or not they ever got intimate.

Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in 'The Avengers' 1968
Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers (1968)ABC Weekend Television/Associated British Corporation/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty

When asked in an interview whenever their characters ever slept together, Patrick Macnee said, “Definitely. I should say at least three or four times a week.” Rigg, on the other hand, said, “I don’t think they did… It was one of those glorious, deeply intimate flirtations that spin off into infinity.”

5. She fought hard to be treated equally

Rigg had to fight against the sexism that was prevalent in the ’60s entertainment industry. In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, she recalled, “Not one woman in the industry supported me when I demanded more money after finding out the cameraman on The Avengers was paid a lot more than me. Neither did Patrick, though I never held it against him, I adored him.”

Diana Rigg in 1966
Diana Rigg in 1966Helmut Reiss/United Archives via Getty

Sadly, fighting for her fair share had an impact on Rigg’s reputation. As she put it, “I was painted as this mercenary creature by the press when all I wanted was equality.”

MUST-READ: The 1960s: Your Guide to 60 Classic (and Not So Classic) TV Sitcoms and Where to Stream Them

6. She took karate lessons for her Avengers role

Rigg didn’t do all her own stunts in The Avengers, and she came to the show with more knowledge of Shakespeare than the martial arts. For her role, she took karate lessons for two and a half years, and trained with the show’s stuntmen, though as she said in an interview, “I was still black and blue by the end of most days.”

Diana Rigg practicing marital arts in 1965
Diana Rigg practicing marital arts in 1965Bettmann/Getty

7. She had a scandalous relationship

Rigg raised eyebrows in the ’60s when she spent eight years living with the director Philip Saville — who was married at the time! Rigg and Saville never married, and Rigg’s two later marriages (to artist Menachem Gueffen from 1973 to 1976 and producer turned politician Archibald Stirling from 1980 to 1990) both ended in divorce.

MUST-READ: A Look Back at the Original ‘Get Smart’ Cast— Plus, Fun Facts About the 1960s Sitcom!

English actress Diana Rigg (1938 - 2020) with her husband, Israeli painter Menachem Gueffen (1930 - 2016), UK, 4th January 1974.
Diana Rigg with her first husband, Menachem Gueffen, in 1974.Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

8. Her Bond girl was different from all the others

Bond girls have been a cinematic mainstay for decades, but Rigg’s Bond girl, Tracy, did something that set her apart from all Bond girls before and since, as she was the only one of them to marry 007. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ends with Tracy and James Bond’s wedding, but sadly she gets shot by Bond’s enemies just as they’re driving off as happy newlyweds.

English actress Diana Rigg wearing a lace outfit in a promotional portrait for 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service', directed by Peter R. Hunt, 1969
Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Another thing that made this Bond movie different from all the rest? It was also the only film in the series to feature George Lazenby as the secret agent.

9. She had a short-lived American sitcom

Rigg was so popular was US audiences that in 1973 she got her own sitcom, Diana, in which she starred as a British fashion designer who moves to New York City in the hopes of hitting it big. The show was not a success, and only ran 15 episodes from September of 1973 to January of 1974.

Diana Rigg in 1974
Diana Rigg in 1974Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

10. She received one of England’s highest honors

In 1988, Rigg received was given the accolade of Commander of the Order of the British Empire, one of England’s highest honors, for her extraordinary career. Six years later, in 1994, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Diana Rigg receives her Dame title in 1994
Diana Rigg receives her Dame title in 1994Avalon/Getty

Whether you call her Mrs. Peel or Dame Diana Rigg, there’s no denying just how talented and charismatic she was.

Use left and right arrow keys to navigate between menu items. Use right arrow key to move into submenus. Use escape to exit the menu. Use up and down arrow keys to explore. Use left arrow key to move back to the parent list.