Rigg’s daughter said she died of cancer after being diagnosed in March. “She spent her last months joyfully reflecting on her extraordinary life, full of love, laughter and a deep pride in her profession,” Rigg’s daughter said.
Rigg had a lengthy and multi-faceted career that included famous turns on television, film and the stage. She won a Best Actress Tony for playing the title role in the 1994 adaptation of the Greek tragedy, Medea, and an Emmy for playing Mrs. Danvers on a 1997 mini-series adaptation of Rebecca. Rigg earned four Emmy nods alone for portraying Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones, and at the age of 80, in 2018, picked up another Tony nod for her turn as Mrs. Higgins in My Fair Lady on Broadway.
Rigg was born near Doncaster, England, in 1938 and spent some of her early years in India, where her father worked as a railway engineer. She returned to England after World War II, and after finishing school, studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Rigg spent several years in the Royal Shakespeare Company, but during the early Sixties began to branch out into television.
Her big break came when she was cast in the British espionage series, The Avengers, as secret agent Emma Peel. The role made her an international star and a late-Sixties sex symbol, as well as a pop culture figurehead for the burgeoning women’s rights movement. Last year, in an interview with The Guardian, she recalled her fight for equal pay on The Avengers, saying, “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 [co-star] Patrick [Macnee], although I never held it against him, I adored him. But I was painted as this mercenary creature by the press when all I wanted was equality. It’s so depressing that we are still talking about the gender pay gap.”
With the success of The Avengers, major film roles followed. In 1969, she was cast in the James Bond flick, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, as Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, the only Bond girl to properly marry 007 (there’s a wedding in You Only Live Twice, although it’s technically a ploy). Over the next several decades, Rigg hopped between stage and screen in a way that showed off her range. During the Seventies alone, she earned a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the acclaimed 1971 satire The Hospital, turned around and starred in Vincent Price’s campy horror-comedy Theatre of Blood, and earned high praise for her work in theatrical productions like Abelard and Heloïse, The Misanthrope and Jumpers.
Rigg continued at a similar clip during the Eighties and Nineties. She made memorable turns in films like The Great Muppet Caper and the Agatha Christie mystery, Evil Under the Sun, as well as the BBC miniseries Mother Love. In 1988, she was made a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, while in 1994 — the same year she won a Tony for Medea — she had her title upgraded to Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
Even as she settled into the later stages of her career, Rigg never stopped working. Her performance as Olenna Tyrell on Game of Thrones introduced her to a new generation, while she also popped up as herself on Ricky Gervais’ Extras, guest-starred on Doctor Who, and regularly appeared in theaters in both London and New York.
Speaking with Variety last year, Rigg said she was excited to keep her acting career going as long as she could: “My relish is for the job and hopefully to do it as well as possible. I had a lot of fun when I was young and had nowhere to go but up. And I’m having a lot of fun now because the critics can say what they like. I just get on with life and enjoy it.”