Photo: United Archives/Helmut Reiss/United Archives via Getty Images
Dame Diana Rigg died peacefully at the age of 82 on September 10, leaving an esteemed acting career as her legacy. After breaking out as Emma Peel in British spy series The Avengers and playing the only woman to marry James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she found success on stage and screen alike, winning a Tony for playing the title role in Medea and an Emmy for a supporting role in the BBC miniseries Rebecca. She acted until her death, playing Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones, and has two performances (in the BBC miniseries Black Narcissus and Edgar Wright’s horror film Last Night in Soho) yet to come out. But Rigg was also known for speaking her mind offstage, never tempering her direct sense of humor, and smoking 20 cigarettes a day, even late in life. Her public comments and interviews are an endless treasure trove, so creating a list of her best moments is an almost impossible feat, but here’s our attempt at selecting five of the best Diana Rigg stories.
Rigg kept it no secret that she disliked her experience shooting On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with George Lazenby. (It was the only Bond film for both actors.) “He kind of thought he was a film star immediately, and started throwing his weight around,” she told the BBC in 2011, of Lazenby’s first film role. When the movie came out, a rumor swirled that she purposefully ate garlic before scenes with him — started by Lazenby himself, after a producer wouldn’t let him promote the movie in the U.S. Rigg denied it in a 1970 open letter to the Daily Sketch. “No, George, I did not eat garlic on purpose,” she wrote. “No, George, I was not, as you said, guzzling champagne in some warm bar when we had the row.” Lazenby later denied the story in a 1981 interview with 007 magazine. “Diana Rigg was having lunch about four or five tables away and she yelled quite loudly, ‘I’m having garlic today George, I hope you are.’ You know, it was just a joke,” he explained. “[The press] took it down as if she ate garlic so she could put me off, but I don’t quite remember smelling garlic on her, and it was quite a lot of fun with her and she’s another bright lady.” Remembering Rigg upon her death, Lazenby alluded to the incident. “We were good friends on set,” he wrote on Instagram. “Much was made of our supposed differences, but that was the Press looking for a news story.”
On Rigg’s nude scene as Héloise in the 1970 Broadway production of Abelard and Héloïse, New York critic John Simon wrote, “Diana Rigg, the Héloïse, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses, and suggests neither intense womanliness nor outstanding intellect.” Rigg was uncomfortable with nude scenes at the time, later saying, according to the BBC obituary, “I come from Yorkshire, and no one from Yorkshire takes their clothes off except on a Friday night.” But the line inspired her to put together the 1982 book No Turn Unstoned, compiling actors’ self-submitted worst reviews. Most of the submissions came from British actors — Glenda Jackson, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson among them — and the few Americans to participate included Katharine Hepburn. She later turned the book into a one-woman show for 2014’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “I was never tilting my lance at them — nothing like that — I just wanted to encourage young players, by showing that we all get it at one time or another,” she told the Telegraph at the time.
When Rigg returned to Broadway in the 2018 revival of My Fair Lady, she took on the non-singing role of Mrs. Higgins, alongside Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle. Ambrose didn’t perform the Sunday matinee shows to rest her voice, which bothered Rigg, according to an email the New York Post obtained. “I learnt, courtesy of a newspaper, that our leading lady will not be appearing in future Sunday matinees,” she wrote. “It is time managements put their audiences first and insist on the old adage, slightly adapted by me, ‘The show must go on — with ALL principals.’” The Post also interviewed Rigg, who clarified — but didn’t walk back — her comments. “I’m flying the old flag for a generation of actors who performed even when they were at death’s door,” she told the paper, adding that she busted a vocal cord in rehearsals for Medea in 1994. “But I suppose it’s a tradition that has been lost. It’s the norm these days, so I guess I should just shut up.”
Rigg admitted last year that she never kept up with the series that brought her final breakout role as Olenna from seasons three to seven. She “hadn’t got a clue” about the plot, she said when she accepted a special award at the Canneseries TV festival. “Just like with The Avengers, I wasn’t watching Game of Thrones and had absolutely no idea of its influence in the world,” she said. She also remembered her “incredibly difficult” screen test, “listing all the things my marching army would need … the sheep and the cows and the soldiers.” Rigg added, “I read that and thought, ‘These guys are testing an old actress to see if she can get it into her head.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to do it in one take.’ And I did.”
Upon the news of her death, writers shared their own stories of meeting Rigg. “Circa the GoT s3 premiere, I found myself in an elevator w/Dame Diana Rigg, wrapped from head-to-toe in wool to stave off a bad cold,” Rolling Stone TV critic Alan Sepinwall tweeted. “‘I’m looking for the chemist,’ she told me. ‘I believe his name is … Duane?’” (We’ll guess she meant a Duane Reade pharmacy.) Vulture’s Mark Harris shared his own story on Twitter. “2 years ago I sat next to Diana Rigg at a Tonys party. She was in My Fair Lady–at 80,” he wrote. “She told me it was a great role because she could get tons of reading done btw scenes. Then she gave me her phone and said, ‘Find Uber on this and get me the hell out of here.’”