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Bond. Well, nearly...

By Ryan Fleming

This picture of Idris Elba taken in 2018 by Harald Kricher and licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 generic licence is entirely unrelated to the content of this article

Sometimes an actor can become as famous for the roles they did not get as the ones they did. There are many such examples in film going back almost a century. Bela Lugosi backed out of a role after several poor make-up tests leaving Boris Karloff to make his career in Frankenstein. William Boyd, best known for playing Hopalong Cassidy, refused a part for Cecil B. DeMille and Charlton Heston got his iconic role in The Ten Commandments. Dougray Scott was injured in a motorcycle accident and so three weeks into filming Hugh Jackman would get the role for which he is most famous in X-Men.

Kurt Russell as Han Solo. David Warner as Freddy Kruger. John Wayne as Harry Callahan. All things that nearly happened to varying degrees but never did wind up happening, and these alternate casting choices are well known to fans of these films. It has become such a thing that in 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a brief scene revolves around how Leonardo DiCaprio’s has-been TV star nearly got the role played by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape. What is true across most of Hollywood is true for the James Bond series, thus there are several famous actors who are known for nearly landing the role of 007.

Previously we have taken a look at the actors that lost out on the role but wound up playing it anyway, we have taken a look at the American actors that could have played the role, actors that might have been the first to play the role, and the last time we looked at those actors that appeared in the series but not in the main role. This time we shall see a compilation of five famous actors that nearly played James Bond and how they could have changed the series for better or worse.

Turning the clock back to the late 1960s we find the franchise in a very different place – on the left side of the Atlantic Bond was one of the three B’s of cool, along with the Beatles and Batman, and on the right side Bond was synonymous in many ways with the Swinging London vibe of that era. It is no small surprise that when they were first trying to replace Sean Connery the producers began to turn to actors synonymous with the London scene.

One such actor to be approached was Terence Stamp. Where previously producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had to groom Sean Connery, with a lot of help from director Terence Young, into the suave super spy they must have seen those qualities readily available in Stamp. Saltzman took him out for dinner and offered him the role. By his own admission, Stamp might have terrified Saltzman with his ideas. Feeling that the role was so linked with Connery that the audience might reject another actor, Stamp had the idea that he would spend the opening act of the film disguised as a Japanese warrior, or better yet, as he felt, in full yellowface. That way the audience would have time to adjust to him before the make up came off. Perhaps the thought of doing Bond in yellowface twice in as many films seemed a bit too far, but Saltzman passed. If the producers took leave of their senses and accepted the suggestion it is very possible we would not be talking about the franchise today; George Lazenby struggled enough to get over with audiences when lumbered with the line ‘This never happened to the other fellow’ and being dubbed for a good chunk of his film, so we can only imagine the rejection that would have followed a Bond under heavy makeup for a lot of the film. That’s without even considering how it would be looked at by a modern audience.

Oliver Reed as photographed by Jac de Nijs in 1968. Picture from the Dutch National Archives and licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 generic licence

Another staple of Swinging London considered for the role may have been too much like Bond himself. Too much of an alcoholic. Too much of a womaniser. Too much of a brawler. Too much of a gambler. Somehow these facets of his personality would make Oliver Reed an impossible choice to play an alcoholic, womanising, brawling gambler. Whereas Connery and Lazenby had to be groomed to be seen to be James Bond, with Oliver Reed Broccoli saw the exact opposite problem – they had to tone Oliver Reed down to become James Bond. Had they cast Reed likely the tabloid newspapers, who historically managed to spin a joke told by leading lady Diana Rigg to Lazenby that she was having garlic for lunch before their love scene in the afternoon in a whole on-set feud, would have been on him for a story quicker than 007 on a vodka martini. It’s possible his volatile personality would lead to any relationship with the producers not surviving a single film if even that long.

It might seem as though the first actor to take over after Connery was always going to drink from a poisoned chalice. The Scotsman left some very large shoes to fill, as would the first Englishman to take the role and for many years the only actor to approach the same ownership of the role that Connery cultivated in the public.

After Roger Moore left the role following A View to a Kill it came down to three actors that would replace him. The first choice was Pierce Brosnan, who was keen for the role but lost out thanks to circumstances outlined in my first article in this series. The second was Timothy Dalton, who would play the role for two films before the franchise going on an extended hiatus caused him to part ways with the role. The third was one that never actually appeared as Bond, but for some reason seems to always come up in discussions of potential or alternate Bonds.

Sam Neill had played historical super spy Sidney Reilly in the 1983 miniseries Reilly, Ace of Spies. As I have mentioned in prior articles nothing seems to attract the attention of the Bond producers more than appearing in a role close to Bond himself. As one of the many figures to inspire Ian Fleming to create James Bond in the first place, perhaps there is no role closer to James Bond than Sidney Reilly. However, the Kiwi actor was not overly keen on the role. He later said his agent practically forced him into doing it. If Dalton had not landed the role for whatever reason and instead it landed at the feet of Neill, it is possible he would decline it himself. Even if he did accept his time may not be harmonious with the direction and lacklustre returns the series was seeing in the late 1980s. If those same legal wrangles put the series on hiatus Neill may be even less willing to return to the role than Timothy Dalton was for GoldenEye.

Was taking the role after Moore in the late 1980s also a poisoned chalice? Perhaps only partially. The, admittedly declining, audience did prove more used to change in the intervening twenty years. It was more due to circumstances out of the control of the producers and actors that any Bond taking over in 1987 might only see a couple of films made. Certainly, without the legal disputes we almost certainly would have seen a third film from Timothy Dalton, and if Pierce Brosnan had the role then maybe we would even have seen a fourth or a fifth depending on how long the actor wanted to stay.

Pierce Brosnan did wind up doing four films in the role of course, after he replaced Timothy Dalton in the mid-1990s. After the poor critical reception of his fourth, Die Another Day, he was rather unceremoniously fired by the producers to make a clean slate. He remains the only Bond actor to be fired and his scapegoating to have a clean slate for the next film stands in stark contrast to the begging of Daniel Craig to return after a divisive response to his fourth film, Spectre. Of course, Daniel Craig was not a certainty for the role after Brosnan was fired.

One actor who had long been chatted about for the role since he first appeared in an evening suit in 1998’s Croupier was Clive Owen. In the 2000s his career took off in full and he was one of the favourites amongst the chattering classes. Conflicting information has come out since, with Variety reporting at the time that Owen had passed due to not being granted gross profit points, but Owen himself later saying that he was never approached about the role. It is difficult to see Owen come to an agreement with Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson if the Variety reports are accurate, and even if they did, they might be more inclined to jettison the actor. It is not thought of much now but the third Craig film, Skyfall, was delayed by a few years thanks to MGM’s financial troubles in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis – an actor with whom either of the producers was not as enamoured of as they were Craig might have been replaced.

Daniel Craig was younger than Clive Owen, thirty-seven to his forty-one, and both were younger than the fifty-two-year-old Pierce Brosnan in 2005 when the twenty-first Bond film was in development. It was already decided that the next film was to be an adaptation of Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale, so there was some thought given by Wilson and director Martin Campbell that a younger actor should take on the role of the spy just starting his career. One of the youngest actors they looked to was one that had yet to find his breakout role – twenty-two-year-old Henry Cavill. In 2019 Cavill opened up about his screen-test, saying he did not prepare well for it and was actually told by director Campbell that he looked out of shape. Cavill admitted he took the feedback on board and would eventually rise to prominence playing Superman in the DC Extended Universe starting with Man of Steel.

Perhaps a younger actor would have hammered home the soft reboot of the series that Casino Royale became. Perhaps if Wilson and Campbell had gone to bat for a younger actor like Cavill we might have seen the sort of grooming for the role not seen since Lazenby. The acclaim of Casino Royale owes much to the direction of Campbell and the scaling down of the film as compared with Die Another Day. Campbell was already a successful director at introducing a new Bond as seen in GoldenEye, so perhaps whatever actor appeared in the role would have received a leg up from him directing the film in which they made their debut. Perhaps with a younger actor we might have seen more than five films in the fifteen years since Daniel Craig first took the role.

With the twenty-fifth film in the series, No Time to Die, due out this year and after a long intransigence from Daniel Craig following Spectre there are strong indications this will be his last film. Speculation is already rife amongst the chattering classes and the commentariat over who will replace Craig, all we have heard from the producers so far is that Barbara Broccoli thinks Tom Hiddlestone is too smug and the character should remain male. The field is narrowing!

Perhaps soon we shall return to this series of articles running through all the names suggested to replace Daniel Craig after fifteen years and five films, the most films of any Bond since Roger Moore and the longest time in the role of any actor. It remains to be seen whether or not it will be a poisoned chalice. Whatever you might think of him and his performance, Daniel Craig has left some big shoes to fill in the role.

Who will step into the role? No idea. This series has survived for more than fifty years by reinventing itself.

Who should step into the role? Surprise me!


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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