By Ryan Fleming
"Bond. James Bond.”
With that line one of the most enduring characters in film history was introduced to audiences in 1962. Here in 2019, the descendants of those audiences are awaiting the release of the next instalment of this series, some fifty-seven years after audiences first met "Bond. James Bond."
It can be difficult to keep a series of films based around a single character running for such a long time – the Bond franchise is perhaps alone in maintaining the success of a film series whilst rotating the actor that plays the lead role.
To date, six actors have played James Bond in the twenty-four(soon to be twenty-five) films in the series produced by Eon Productions. Sean Connery played the role in five films from 1962 to 1967, and once again in 1971. George Lazenby gave a single performance in 1969 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Roger Moore played Bond in the most films of all Bonds, from 1973 to 1985, with a total of seven. He was succeeded by Timothy Dalton, who portrayed Bond in two films between in 1987 and 1989, before the series went on hiatus. Coming back from hiatus in 1995, Pierce Brosnan took on the role and would return for a total of four films until 2002. Since 2006 Daniel Craig has played the role in four films, with a fifth to be released in 2020, making him the longest running actor (chronologically) in the role.
Unsurprisingly for a series with such longevity, and with changes in lead actor becoming an integral part of the series, there have been many actors throughout the years who have not quite landed the lead role - but have come close. The actors I shall profile in this series of articles are by no means an exhaustive list, but each possesses possibilities for changing the trajectory of the series.
Before we even get to actors that never got the role however, it is worthwhile to reflect on the fact that of the six actors to actually land the role, three of them actually missed out the first (or indeed second) time they were considered. We could have had Roger Moore as Bond in the late 1960s, Timothy Dalton in the early 1980s, or Pierce Brosnan in the late 1980s, had the stars aligned.
When Sean Connery declared he would not return to the role following You Only Live Twice, series producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli already had an actor in mind to take over the role. He had been playing the very James Bond-like Simon Templar in ITC’s The Saint for a number of years by that point, but Roger Moore did not want to be the man to replace Sean Connery at that point. The role instead went to male model George Lazenby, after Broccoli saw him in an advertisement for Fry’s Chocolate Creams. The untested actor would not have a great time during the production of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and eventually he would announce prior to the films release that he would not be returning to the role despite being offered a contract for seven films.
This led to a brief return of a very out of shape Sean Connery following a salary offer so big he could not turn it down (not the last time we would see this scenario happen in the franchise) in Diamonds Are Forever, before Roger Moore eventually landed the role in Live and Let Die.
What if Moore had been willing to accept the role when it was offered in the late 1960s?
For one thing we might never have seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service after You Only Live Twice, as Broccoli had originally been intending to adapt The Man with the Golden Gun before political instability in Cambodia ruled it out.
The series might have taken on a more comedic tone sooner, in a similar way to when Moore eventually took the role, but the series had already been heading in this direction with Diamonds Are Forever. Moore might have sought some assurance that he be allowed to play the role very differently from both Connery and his own performance as Simon Templar, meaning that we would not have seen the same attempts to make Moore appear tough that we saw in his earliest films.
What might this mean for the longevity of the series? Having a better actor in the lead role would surely have better secured the future of the franchise than did On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? This, though, is perhaps wishful thinking and does a disservice to what is actually a very good film in the series, but considering the series' actual lowest ebb financially (thus far) came in the mid-70s with The Man with the Golden Gun – Moore’s second film – perhaps broader trends in the series (and in film in general) meant audiences simply wouldn't turning out in droves for 007 as they had in prior years.
If this decline still happened and Moore had run out whatever contract he agreed with Broccoli, then the latter might be more willing to listen to his co-producer Harry Saltzman's suggestion to put the series on hiatus. Could Cubby even decide to move into other ventures as Saltzman did? Who knows when we would get another Bond film? Or who would step into the role under such circumstances? Certainly it would not have come back with the bang that was 1977s The Spy Who Loved Me with Roger Moore.
For someone who first played the role in 1987 and then only for two films, it can be surprising to hear that Timothy Dalton had been contemplated for the role as early as twenty years earlier. He was one of the actors considered following the departure of Connery and then Lazenby, but in both instances, it was felt that in his early 20s, he was far too young for the role. He would get another chance in the dawn of the 1980s, but trends in the series would see his opportunity to play the character be limited.
1979 had seen Roger Moore become the first Bond to go into space with Moonraker; despite such outlandishness, the film was a major success - helped in no small part by the boom in space related fiction following the release of Star Wars. As described in my prior article on the potential repercussions of Star Wars NOT breaking box office records in 1977, Roger Moore had been agreeing to play the part on a film-by-film basis following The Spy Who Loved Me. Even with the success of Moonraker, he considered not returning for a fifth film.
With this as a possibility, many actors tested for the role, and Dalton even got so far as to be offered the job by Broccoli, but after seeing the direction the series seemed to be going in with Moonraker, Dalton declined the part. This was a shame in some ways, since Moore’s eventual fifth film For Your Eyes Only would be a very scaled back affair compared with Moonraker, turning out to be much more akin to one of the series early thrillers than the later action spectaculars.
What if Dalton had taken the role at that point? Moonraker not being made provides a convenient point of divergence, but so too would the idea that Broccoli might have been able to convince Dalton that the series was returning to more grounded plots following 007s first foray into outer space. The 1980s were not a very profitable time for the Bond series: of the five lowest grossing films in the series, three of them are from this decade (the other two are 1969s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and 1974s The Man with the Golden Gun).
Those three are the latter of the five films released during the decade, including both of Dalton’s outings. Would Dalton taking over the role in the early 1980s have seen the franchise remain on firm financial footing without the decade of stagnation; the change in actor going some way to freshen up the series? In comparison, in our timeline, we hadan increasingly old looking Roger Moore returning again for Octopussy and A View to a Kill .
If Kevin McClory still attempted to make his unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again with Sean Connery it might have actually failed even worse than it did against Octopussy in our timeline, if it was going up against a refreshed series with a new lead.
Timothy Dalton taking over the role a few years earlier might leave the series better off when he left than it was after he actually took the role in 1987. Perhaps Dalton could even leave the role before he took it historically, and still be succeeded by the same man that took over from him in 1995.
Like Moore and Dalton, Pierce Brosnan was considered for the role some time before he actually took up the reins. In fact, before he eventually took the role, he had come closer than anyone else to it without actually succeeding. For want of a phone call Pierce Brosnan could have been portraying 007 from 1987 onwards.
1985s A View to a Kill had been a critical and financial disappointment, and there were those that felt Roger Moore (now pushing 60) was simply too old for the role. Among them were Roger Moore himself; with the revelation that he was now the same age as the mother of the actress that was playing his love interest, he decided to bow out from the role after more than a decade.
There were three front-runners for the role – Timothy Dalton (who, of course, was the one who would eventually land it), Sam Neill, who I shall be covering in a future article, and Pierce Brosnan. At the time, Brosnan was the star of Remington Steele on NBC (like Simon Templar, an almost James Bond-esque role), and was already known to Broccoli by virtue of his wife Cassandra Harris appearing opposite Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only. With Remington Steele cancelled, Brosnan put in a three-day screen test, before finally being offered the role by Broccoli, which he gladly accepted.
However, the announcement of Brosnan landing the role caused an interest in the cancelled programme that led to NBC (somewhat selfishly) choosing to exercise a clause in Brosnan’s contract that committed him to an extra series. This clause was only three days from expiry, and as Brosnan tells the story, he was literally on the way out of his apartment in Los Angeles with his bags packed when the phone call came in. Broccoli did not want his series lead to be associated with another character... and withdrew his offer. This also meant that Remington Steele’s lead, Stephanie Zimbalist, had to drop out of the female lead role in Paul Verhoeven’s upcoming film RoboCop.
If Brosnan had left his apartment a few minutes earlier, NBC might not have been able to track him down during those three days and - depending on the exact terms of the contract - he might have been able to refuse and land the role of James Bond almost a decade earlier than he did historically.
How would the franchise have fared with Pierce Brosnan rather than Timothy Dalton in the lead role for the tail end of the 1980s?
Arguably, his films might see the same lacklustre performance as Dalton’s did. Arguably, the damage had already been done with A View to a Kill, and it would either need for the franchise to take a break in releasing films, or for multiple less-successful films to be released before they could rack up enough good notices to change the downturn at the box office.
The franchise suffered some bad luck with 1989s Licence to Kill being released in a year jam-packed with blockbusters. It was released in mid-June, some three weeks after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, three days before the release of Ghostbusters II, just over a week before the releases of Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and three weeks before the release of Lethal Weapon 2. With such a packed summer and the Bond franchise in a transitional period is it any wonder it struggled at the box office?
This disappointment led to Broccoli questioning whether he should continue to produce the films at all, and less than a year later, the series would become embroiled in a bitter corporate legal dispute that would see him step down from the series in favour of his daughter Barbara and stepson Michael G. Wilson, who would produce the films whilst he dealt with the legal dispute. The events that led to the series hiatus might be as out of Brosnan’s hands as they were out of Dalton’s. However, one difference might be that when the seventeenth film did eventually go into production, Brosnan could be willing to return for more than one further film - an issue which was a major factor in Dalton being replaced for 1995s GoldenEye.
GoldenEye was the big bang the series had needed since Octopussy twelve years earlier. In many ways, though, it was the start of a new series, acting as the first link in a new chain of films, following a previous chain of sixteen links forged between 1962 and 1989 with nary a break in between. The lingering influence of Cubby Broccoli on the production is still obvious, however, especially compared with those that came out following his 1996 death, right down to James Bond being played by the one that got away back in 1986: Pierce Brosnan.
It might come as a surprise to many that the Bond films, so synonymous with the cinema of the United Kingdom from the 1960s to the 1980s, had in that time been produced by an American – Cubby Broccoli hailing from New York City. There had even been times when the series seemed to be geared more towards an American audience such as Diamonds Are Forever and Live and Let Die, yet James Bond had never been played by an American.
Not that there had not been instances where American actors had been offered the role as we will find out more in the next article in this series.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP