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Diana Rigg: TV’s Sexiest Woman to Mrs. James Bond to ‘Game of Thrones’

On July 16, “Game of Thrones,” the medieval fantasy for people who don’t normally like medieval fantasies, begins its seventh season on HBO. The battle scenes and the dragons are epic, but the series’ success is mostly due to the vivid characters created by George R.R. Martin and the actors.

Especially notable are the powerful women played by Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey — and Diana Rigg.

Rigg, whose birthday arrives a few days after the season premiere — she was born July 20, 1938 — plays Olenna Tyrell, aka the Queen of Thorns. To younger audiences, Rigg is best known for “Thrones,” her role as Mrs. James Bond, and a “Dr. Who” episode. But others remember the TV show that shot her to stardom: “The Avengers” (the real “Avengers,” long before the Marvel team), which was a tongue-in-cheek British spy actioner.

For two seasons, 1965-67, Rigg played Emma Peel, who often wore skin-tight catsuits as she outwitted and outfought evil masterminds. Emma Peel’s name was born as M-Appeal, or man appeal, which was one of the goals in casting the role; she was an ultra-modern woman, in contrast to her crime-fighting partner John Steed, who wore a derby and tailored suits, representing old-school Britain and always referred to her as Mrs. Peel, never by her first name.

In a 2002 TV Guide poll, Rigg tied with George Clooney as the sexiest TV star of all time.

But Rigg was always more than a sexpot, of course. She made her stage debut 60 years ago in a Brecht play, and in the decades since has performed onstage in Shakespeare, Euripides, Shaw, Moliere, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and Ibsen, among many others, as the leading lady of both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in Britain.

In 1970, she and Keith Michell created a mini-scandal by becoming the first West End stars to appear nude onstage, in Ronald Millar’s “Abelard and Heloise.” The following year, Broadway and New York magazine reviewer John Simon, known for his put-downs, referred to her nude scene and wrote, “Diana Rigg is built like a brick basilica with insufficient flying buttresses.”

A decade later, Rigg included that quote in the book “No Turn Unstoned,” a collection of terrible reviews. In her introduction to the book, Rigg wrote, “I still remember distinctly the dismay and hurt I felt on reading John Simon’s review, but after some weeks I began to see the funny side of it, and not much later was quoting it freely.”

Among the many, many people who contributed their worst notices were John Cleese, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen (“The best thing about Ian McKellen’s Hamlet is his curtain call”), Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Elizabeth Taylor, and Roger Moore (who was described as “a lump of English roast beef” in an early film).

In film and TV, Rigg starred with Vincent Price in “Theatre of Blood,” alongside Miss Piggy in “The Great Muppet Caper,” and opposite Edward Norton in 2006’s “The Painted Veil.” But her best-known film role was in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” which remains the favorite 007 film of some aficionados, and her character was more complex and independent than most previous “Bond girls.”

That movie, plus a 2013 episode of “Dr. Who” (with Matt Smith), and “Thrones” give her a triple crown of fanboys, though she somehow missed out on the “Harry Potter” films (though she hilariously acted with Daniel Radcliffe in an episode of Ricky Gervais’ “Extras,” in which they both played themselves).

Rigg has won BAFTA, Emmy, and Tony awards, and in June 1994 was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was also Emmy-nominated for “Game of Thrones.” Her Olenna Tyrell taps into one of Rigg’s specialties: characters who are withering and commanding.

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