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Dame Diana Rigg is one of the most incredible actors of her time: an impeccable interpreter of Shakespeare and other classical stage work and a thinking man’s sex symbol as Mrs. Emma Peel, the catsuit-wearing crime fighter on The Avengers. However, while many people admired her in the 1960s for her stunning good looks and sharp banter, most viewers don’t realize that Rigg was reportedly the first actor to do Kung Fu on screen.

Diana Rigg played Emma Peel in the 1960s TV show ‘The Avengers’

Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in 'The Avengers' filming a train scene
Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in ‘The Avengers’ | R. Viner/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Diana Rigg played the role of secret agent Emma Peel in 51 episodes of the British 1960s television series The Avengers, starring alongside Patrick Macnee as John Steed. She joined The Avengers in Season 4, taking the place of Elizabeth Shepherd, who had only been in the role for two episodes before being fired. It’s unclear why Shepherd left; speculation centers on her alleged unpleasant personality or the presence of a possible scandal.

While Rigg’s success in the series was undeniable, she hated how public her success on the show made her life. As she admitted to CBS News in an interview published in 2018, she was not at ease with her role as a sex icon: “I was uncomfortable with being a sex symbol. That I was, because how is a sex symbol supposed to behave? I haven’t got a clue!” Rigg was also unhappy with how ABC Weekend TV, the show’s production firm, handled her.

Diana Rigg was reportedly the 1st person to do Kung Fu on screen

While Honor Blackman was the first woman to introduce martial arts to U.K. television, according to IMDb, Diana Rigg was the first person ever to do Kung Fu on-screen. Ray Austin, the stunt coordinator for The Avengers, approached the show’s executives in 1965 and told them he wanted to introduce “this stuff called Kung Fu.” However, the producers insisted that Peel, like Cathy Gale before her, continue to focus on Judo. Instead, Austin defied the producers and taught Rigg Kung Fu in secret.

Instead of a traditional straight punch to the jaw, Rigg’s character would employ a variety of Kung Fu moves, and after defeating the bad guy, she would bow in respect. Peel frequently rescued her male counterpart, John Steed, and in the process, gained notoriety as a feminist and a style icon in her own right.

Many like to think that it was Rigg who inspired Bruce Lee to do Kung Fu on-screen, as it wasn’t until the Fall of 1966 that Lee started appearing on The Green Hornet. Rigg was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Drama Series for both of her seasons on The Avengers.

Rigg’s acting career beyond ‘The Avengers’


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While Diana Rigg’s brief appearance on The Avengers brought her initial stardom, she had spent decades as a celebrated, Shakespearean-trained actor. That was demonstrated by her varied body of work, the pinnacle of which was her performance as Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones.

On the big screen, Rigg was well remembered for her role as Countess Teresa Tracy di Vicenzo in the 1969 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the only woman to marry James Bond. She frequently focused on the classics in the theater, packing Broadway and the West End. In 1994, Rigg earned a Tony Award for her performance in Medea.

Unfortunately, the actor died at 82 from lung cancer on Sept. 10, 2020. In her final role, she played the antagonist and older version of Anya Taylor-Joy’s character in the British psychological horror film Last Night in Soho. Even though The Avengers is what most people remember her for, Rigg’s body of work established her as one of the industry’s most accomplished and admired actors.