Never mind the theater awards, honorary degrees, motherhood and even Dame-hood: Diana Rigg claims her “greatest achievement” so far was landing a 24½-pound salmon. True, that was a few decades ago, when she and her ex had a place by a river in Scotland. But what did she do with the fish?
“My then-husband sent it out to be smoked,” she tells The Post, in her elegant English tones. “And I et it.”
That fish tale surfaces in the Playbill for “My Fair Lady.” Opening Thursday, Bartlett Sher’s sumptuous revival marks Rigg’s Lincoln Center Theater debut, at 79.
Granted, the role of Mrs. Higgins, Professor Higgins’ feisty mother, is a small one. One may wonder why the indelible star of TV’s “The Avengers” — and, more recently, “Game of Thrones,” in which she played Olenna Tyrell — would bother leaving England to do it.
“Why? Because it’s fun!” says Rigg, doffing a leopard-spotted scarf in a dressing room that’s filled with flowers. “I wanted to go back to theater, but I didn’t want to carry the piece. I love the fact that I’m working in front of a live audience.”
Dame Diana — her preferred address since 1994, when the queen made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire — knows plenty about “My Fair Lady.” Forty-four years ago she starred as Eliza, the cockney flower girl of “Pygmalion,” the Shaw play that inspired the Lerner and Loewe musical.
Playing Alfred Doolittle, her hard-drinking dad, was a pre-“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Bob Hoskins, who died four years ago.
“Bob was wonderful,” she says with a sigh. “He actually was a cockney, and he gave me a few lessons. And the lady who played Mrs. Higgins, Ellen Pollock, believe it or not, had worked with [playwright George Bernard] Shaw!
“That’s the glorious part of theater. We hand on stuff to each other. It’s part of our tradition.”
And yet it was television that made her. There’s hardly a male baby boomer alive whose heart didn’t beat faster at the sight of her Emma Peel, the whip-smart, catsuited star of “The Avengers,” a 1960s espionage romp.
“It was a bit frightening,” says Rigg, who was in her mid-20s at the time. “Bear in mind, it was 50 years ago. I didn’t know quite what to do with that degree of lust. I’d been in London to drama school and I was [by] no means naive. But to be given that degree of notoriety was a bit of a shock.”
Shocking, too, was finding out that she was being paid less than the show’s cameramen. She protested — and found herself alone.
“There was no sisterhood, no support from anyone,” she says. Although her co-star, Patrick Macnee, had been “very kind” to her, she says, “He wasn’t going to stick his neck out. He was presumably being paid pots [of money] and was very happy with his salary.”
‘I didn’t quite know what to do with that degree of lust … that degree of notoriety was a bit of a shock.’
After shucking her catsuit in 1968, she became a Bond girl — the only one who landed the spy and became Mrs. Bond. The film was 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” in which George Lazenby played 007 for his first and last time. Rigg doesn’t seem to have thought much of him.
“George was untried, unschooled … he was a model, a male model,” she says. “I was brought on board to help him and to give him gravitas.” Alas, she took that gravitas to the grave: Mrs. Bond was swiftly dispatched.
Happily, Rigg’s prickly Queen of Thorns lasted much longer on “Game of Thrones.” Her 18 episodes over the years earned her three Emmy nominations and found her a friend in Conleth Hill, the show’s eunuch.
“He’s a wonderful gardener,” she says. “Just extraordinary! He has this huge garden in Ireland that I think he does himself.”
She herself doesn’t garden. “I tried, desperately. But things take one look at me and wilt.”
Instead, she tends to her 1-year-old grandson, Jack, whose face beams down at us near her dressing-room mirror. He’s the son of her actress daughter, Rachael Stirling, and stays with Rigg at her home in London and her château in France.
She’s also edited two books: a collection of English poetry (“So to the Land”) and “No Turn Unstoned,” a hilarious compilation of nasty notices from theater critics such as John Simon, whom she once called “that ugly Hungarian.” And then there’s her passion for dry-fly fishing, which she calls “the Mozart of fishing — it’s very delicate and precise.”
She’ll play Mrs. Higgins until Christmas, and then, an inveterate traveler, she plans to take a trip up the Amazon River.
She just may hook a fish along the way.