The less-than-legendary actor George Lazenby is in the crosshairs in a new documentary. But taking Bond off the page and onto movie screens had challenges for men who held the job longer.
Lazenby. George Lazenby.
The phrase is familiar, if the name isn’t. Lazenby was the second actor to play superspy James Bond in his two-dozen onscreen adventures—and the only one to play the part once, in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Spiked with a heavy dose of fiction and reenactment, a cheeky new documentary, Becoming Bond, airs on Hulu on May 20. Lazenby’s fellow Australian, Josh Lawson (from Showtime’s House of Lies), plays the actor in his short-lived heyday, with appearances by Bond girl Jane Seymour (Live and Let Die) as Lazenby’s agent, Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin as “Harry” (that is, Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman), and Dana Carvey as Johnny Carson. The 77-year-old Lazenby is also on hand, to reassure us that, yes, all of this actually happened, sort of, as he was on, then off, Her Majesty’s secret service.
How does an actor “bond” with James Bond? Don’t do what model, odd jobber, and first-time actor Lazenby did, which included: Badmouthing Harry and “Albert” (co-producer Albert Broccoli), saying, “the producers made me feel like I was mindless…I much prefer being a car salesman to a stereotyped James Bond”; irritating his co-stars (Diana Rigg: “I truly don’t know what’s happening in George’s mind”; Desmond “Q” Llewelyn: “I draw a veil over the chap”); showing up bearded and long-haired for the premiere, more John Lennon circa 1969 than James Bond; and, before his brief tenure went sour, turning down a seven-picture deal worth potential millions, as his agent thought the series wouldn’t survive the 70s and the onset of “radical feminism.”
In 2017, as the rumor mill churns regarding Bond 25, 007 is still big business at the box office, if not in a persona that author Ian Fleming would recognize. The Bond of Casino Royale (1953), his first novel, is not the Bond of Casino Royale (2006), the first of Daniel Craig’s four films to date. With his pugilist’s physique, blue eyes, and dirty blonde sex appeal, Craig attracted as much attention emerging from the sea in one scene as Ursula Andress did rising from the waves in Bond 1, Dr. No (1962). Fleming described the character as six feet tall, slender, “cruel” mouthed, dark-haired with blue-gray eyes, and thinly scarred on his right cheek. He had in mind Hoagy Carmichael, whose many Tin Pan Alley hits included “Skylark”—a far cry from the star of Skyfall (2012).
Fleming drew from his own life and career as a naval intelligence officer to create James Bond, whose name (“brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon, and yet very masculine”) was appropriated from an American ornithologist. Hollywood’s Cary Grant was considered, but Broccoli and Saltzman decided to recruit locally. As it happens, an excellent British thriller, Hell Drivers (1957), cast three candidates. (Amazon Prime users can stream it for free.) Rugged Stanley Baker, who disliked travel, turned it down, as did the more cerebral Patrick McGoohan, the future star of TV’s Secret Agent (he disapproved of Bond’s womanizing). In a much smaller role, in just his third film, was Sean Connery. Neither suave nor debonair when he met the producers, but possessing the right “devil may care” attitude, Connery got the job, and was molded into shape—principally by director Terence Young, a bon vivant who showed the 30-year-old Scotsman how to be a player in London’s smart set.
Through Connery, Young brought humor to the character, which was not part of Fleming’s outlook. (Seeing that it worked, Fleming, who died as Goldfinger awaited release in 1964, leavened his last Bonds.) But Connery could not laugh off the series’ turn toward outlandish gadgetry, and departed after his fifth contracted entry, You Only Live Twice (1967). With Lazenby’s run cut very short, Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever (1971), declaring “never again.” In 1983 he starred in an entry made outside the official series, 1983’s Never Say Never Again—after which it was indeed “never again” for the actor.
Never Say Never Again sparred with that same year’s Octopussy in a “Battle of the Bonds.” The 13th Bond picture in the cycle won at the box office, but it’s unlikely that Roger Moore, returning to the role for the sixth time, took the competition seriously. (Elsewhere he and Connery tied, as both played the part a record seven times.) Whereas Connery fretted over the lack of character development, Moore reconnoiters a “crocodile submersible” in Octopussy, and appears in a gorilla suit and a clown suit. The star of TV’s The Saint had started more seriously, in Live and Let Die (1973), but the ruthlessness of Connery and Craig didn’t really fit him. He found his niche in his third film, the extravagant The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), “a glitter sci-fi adventure fantasy” (Pauline Kael) with one-liners and gadgets galore. “The Bond situations are so ridiculous, so outrageous…I’m not that cold-blooded killer type, which is why I play it mostly for laughs,” he said. He was, however, more comfortable with audiences laughing with him than at him, and at age 57 Moore, the oldest actor to play Bond, retired with A View to a Kill (1985), the “series bummer” (Kael).
There would be neither gorilla nor clown suits for Timothy Dalton, whose overall appearance and serious approach to the role recalled vintage Fleming. But Moore’s tongue-in-cheek tenure was difficult to escape. More deadly, and also more romantic, than Moore in The Living Daylights (1987), Dalton doubled down on darkness for 1989’s Licence to Kill, pursuing drug dealers in a violent, vengeance-fueled scenario more in line with the popular Lethal Weapon and Die Hard films of its day than a typical Bond film. His second Bond was his last, frustrating fans left wondering what might have been had Dalton’s old school approach had more of a chance.
An interminable six years passed before GoldenEye (1995) brought Pierce Brosnan to Bond, after his day job as TV’s Remington Steele kept him from assuming the mantle for The Living Daylights. The hard-as-nails femme M (Judi Dench) dismisses Bond as “a Cold War dinosaur,” and the tension between them is the intriguing focal point for their four films together. But fresh ideas were a problem for Brosnan’s financially successful, critically lackluster stint, something he lamented, as he tried to get more risk-taking talent like Quentin Tarantino involved. By his fourth and final film, Die Another Day (2002), the series was treading water with invisible cars and ice palaces, as if suffering a disco hangover from the Moore era.
Casino Royale hit the definitive reset button on the character, with Craig instantly finding a hard-hitting groove that has energized the series. (He’s also the only actor to move past an adaptation of Casino Royale: Barry Nelson was the first actor to play Bond, in a live TV version of the novel in 1954, and David Niven spoofed the part in a 1967 comedy.) But the sluggish Spectre (2015) finds the series at another crossroads—should Craig return to the role, the grit and vibrancy he’s brought to it for a decade will need to be matched by scripting up to his standard.
“This never happened to the other fellow,” remarks Bond at the start of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. And it never happened to Lazenby again, unless you count his gag appearance as “J.B.” in a 1983 TV movie based on a “Bondmania” knockoff from the 60s, Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. But he never had to worry about longevity—On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the very best Bonds, the kind of back-to-basics Bond film that Connery wanted to make, and Lazenby doesn’t louse it up. He throws a mean punch (a talent that attracted the producers), cries, and manages to look tough in a ruffled dress shirt. He’s also the only actor to have been nominated for anything significant playing Bond (Golden Globe, Best New Actor). Lazenby may only have gotten one shot, but he hit the target.