By Ryan Fleming
“Bond. Jimmy Bond.”
Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the version of the line we got historically, does it? It lacks something. The suave, sophisticated sound of James Bond. By contrast Jimmy Bond seems bland, boorish. Really, it sounds utterly American and if there is one thing James Bond is not, it is American. Even with speculation running rampant on who might be the eventual successor to Daniel Craig one constant is that all those rumoured or speculated or touted for the role share one characteristic – they are all British. To many though, the idea of an American actor is unfathomable.
But is it really?
Many fans of the series will know that the first filmed iteration of the character predates the EON series of films, and that in the adaptation of Casino Royale for the CBS anthology programme Climax! Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 is reimagined as CIA agent Jimmy Bond. Fewer might know that several years after this was broadcast Fleming was invited to develop the character into his own weekly series.
There is even a precedent for American actors in the EON series of films. Paradoxically, series producer Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli was more than willing to go for an American actor but when the idea was put forward by their American distributors, he would reject it out of hand. There were plenty of actors offered the role by Broccoli who turned it down feeling the role should remain British; Broccoli himself would later cite the same reason when trying to be coerced into casting an American. The actors we will take a look at are only a handful of many actors considered but represent times when the field for Bond actors might be wider than just these islands.
It can come as something of a surprise to find out that the first actor to play James Bond was American actor Barry Nelson. The character was suitably Americanised for US television, which led to Bond’s CIA contact from the novel, Felix Leiter, becoming a British contact – Clarence Leiter. There’s something very amusing about the fact that someone somewhere in this adaptation felt that it would be too incongruous to have a British character named Felix. The Climax! adaptation of Casino Royale need not have been relegated to a historical curiosity, and might instead have led to a series of adaptations of the character on the small screen long before EON Productions brought the character to the big screen.
In 1958, four years after the airing of “Casino Royale” and a couple years after Fleming failed to get Moonraker adapted as a motion picture despite tailoring the novel to what the British film industry would be capable of producing – more on that in a later article – CBS invited Fleming to the United States with an offer to adapt his character into thirty-two one hour television episodes over a two year period. Fleming was keen and agreed to the deal, almost immediately beginning to write outlines for episodes at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica. For whatever reason, CBS eventually abandoned the idea. Fleming would turn several of these outlines into short stories eventually published in 1960 with another as the collection For Your Eyes Only.
What if CBS had run with the idea and US television saw James Bond adapted as a weekly television series in the late 1950s? More than likely the role would have been fulfilled by an American actor, but since the programme never made it past even the earliest stages of production no actor was never linked to the role in this context. The idea of an American James Bond would be the norm however rather than the exception, and even if EON still sought to make a big screen adaptation (CBS was seemingly uninterested in adapting Fleming’s novels) they might be unwilling to take a chance on a lesser known actor or even make the character as identifiably British as they did historically.
CBS passed on the chance to adapt James Bond and EON later struck gold with their interpretations of the character in film as portrayed by Sean Connery. When Connery tired of the role and departed the series, and later when his successor George Lazenby was let go after one film, it seemed there were as many American actors under consideration as there were British actors. Lazenby himself was of course Australian, the only actor born outside of these islands to play the role, so the role having to be played by a British actor was not as ingrained as it seems to be today.
One of the earliest attempts to find a replacement to Connery was also one of the oddest. By his own admission, fresh off starring in another Ian Fleming adaptation Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dick Van Dyke was offered the role by Cubby Broccoli himself. Is an American comic actor really any odder than an Australian model? Certainly, Van Dyke would have been perhaps the biggest contrast with Sean Connery, but the actor himself would scupper his chances when he reminded Broccoli of his unique take on an English accent four years earlier in Mary Poppins. Broccoli immediately withdrew the offer.
When On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was proven to be undeniably the only outing for George Lazenby’s interpretation of the role, Broccoli was on the hunt again for a new lead actor. That the latest film was also the least successful to that point also encouraged some hotshot booking on Broccoli’s part. He was encouraged to make the series appeal more to a US audience, a far larger market than the UK one then as now. This even carries forward to the finished film, Diamonds Are Forever, with its Las Vegas setting and large American supporting cast scripted by an American because Broccoli felt a British writer wouldn’t ‘get’ the setting.
Though the role would eventually go to a returning Sean Connery – a bloated, balding, bored Sean Connery at that – Broccoli seemed determined to bring an American actor into his more American iteration of the series. Amongst those considered was Adam West, only a few years removed from his star-making turn as Bruce Wayne in ABC’s Batman. It was not entirely out of the blue, like many Bond actors that would come later West had appeared as a very James Bond like role before – in a series of adverts for Nestle Quik. West would turn the role down, becoming one of the first people to cite the idea of the character being British. Diamonds Are Forever would have been a perfect fit for an Adam West interpretation; the film is as camp as Christmas as it is and, in some ways, feels more akin to a Roger Moore Bond film than a Sean Connery one. When one imagines a West turn as Bond, comparisons with his transatlantic spirit brother Roger Moore are unavoidable, but, as mentioned in my previous article, the early 1970s represent something of a nadir for the series that would eventually see Broccoli’s co-producer Harry Saltzman depart the series, and perhaps a switch to both camp and American in the actor playing James Bond might have been too much at once.
Another actor to turn down the role at this time was a pre-moustache Burt Reynolds; as he tells it, turning it down for the same reason as West in that he was fearful audiences might not accept an American Bond. In his final years, Reynolds said he regretted his decision at the time, feeling that not only could he have played the role, but he could have played it very well. I am inclined to agree, seeing the actor around the time in films such as Deliverance, he could almost pass as the brother of Sean Connery and a suave turn would be well within his acting capabilities. Unlike West, the idea of a Bond actor in Diamonds Are Forever with the same bastard streak as Connery, but in infinitely better physical shape with infinitely more enthusiasm for the role, might have made for a better film and represented the kind of rebirth the series would not really see until The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977.
There was one actor placed under contract for the role before Sean Connery could be lured back, Mexican-born American actor John Gavin. Perhaps best known for his role in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, Gavin had previously done a turn as a superspy in 1968s OSS 117 – Double Agent. Broccoli and Saltzman were all set to roll the dice on him in the lead role, only for United Artists to step in and almost demand Sean Connery return - seeking some insurance at the box office. Gavin’s contract was honoured despite not playing the role, and there was consideration of bringing him back in to play the role in Live and Let Die, but between them, Broccoli and Saltzman made the decision to bring Roger Moore into the role instead.
Perhaps United Artists might have tried to torpedo any actor whose name was not Sean Connery after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but the time when the producers were trying to appeal to a US audience represents a time when the series was apparently most interested in bringing in an American actor to the role. It would not be the last time the idea of an American actor in the role was mooted.
Fast forward a decade, and the Bond series found itself in a similar situation with the departure of Sean Connery. After five films since 1973, it seemed as though Roger Moore would not return to the role for the next film, and the search was on for the next James Bond. Amongst the many linked to the role around this time were Timothy Dalton, as discussed in my last article, Michael Billington, as will be covered in a future article, as well as American actor James Brolin.
As a Hollywood leading man of some note, Brolin might be one of the more high-profile actors to be linked to the role. Unlike many actors we have a fairly good idea of how Brolin would have been in the role with his screen tests available on the Octopussy DVD as well as online. He affects an English accent in the role; from the screen tests, it appears shaky at times, but with time to develop it, an actor of his calibre would have been able to make people forget he was from Los Angeles rather than London. Roger Moore leaving after For Your Eyes Only and Brolin taking over for Octopussy may have alleviated the issue of an ever more visibly aging James Bond lasting until the mid-1980s. However, regardless of his reception, a leading man like Brolin might have wished to move on in the same way some actors in the role have and EON might still have been looking for a new actor to fulfil the role before the 1980s were out.
Brolin would lose the role through no fault of his own when a longstanding legal dispute over the rights to Thunderball would result in Kevin McClory making his own James Bond film for 1983 in the shape of Never Say Never Again. Which actor would take up the lead role in this competing production? Sean Connery. The thought of competition at the box office was enough to frighten EON into seeking the same box office insurance United Artists sought for Diamonds Are Forever with the return of Roger Moore to the role for Octopussy, and James Brolin never played James Bond in any film. Moore would return for one final performance in A View to a Kill, but Moore’s increasing age had perhaps proved a detriment to the series by that point.
Following A View to a Kill the search was on again for the actor to replace Roger Moore. Historically, the role went to Timothy Dalton, beating out the other two front runners Pierce Brosnan, as covered in my previous article, and Sam Neill, to be covered in a future article. Another actor, the one favoured by distributor Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, was Mel Gibson. Broccoli refused to offer it to him, feeling the character should be played by a British actor. This might have been a ploy to avoid casting the five-foot nine-inch tall actor in the role, given that just four years earlier Broccoli was ready to put an American in the role and eighteen years prior he had indeed cast an Australian.
Gibson was born in New York but spent most of his formative years in Australia where he was more identified with in the 1980s starring in films such as Mad Max and Gallipoli. If the studio had forced Gibson upon Broccoli, the relationship would not have been a happy one, and it’s understandable that Broccoli might not have felt Gibson a good fit for the role. A butterfly of this would be Gibson likely not starring in Lethal Weapon, since Broccoli was notoriously controlling of what other roles his lead actors could appear in whilst starring as Bond.
This creates an oddly cyclical problem, since the Bond series response to The Living Daylights underperforming at the box office... was to take the series down the route set by Lethal Weapon when they wrote Licence to Kill. However, without the infectious charm of the Gibson double act with Danny Glover Lethal Weapon might well not have been as successful as it was – so we might end up with a flailing Bond series having no direction to lean into. The series might even have gone into hiatus earlier, especially if Broccoli and his leading actor were not getting on.
American actors have played or been linked to the role of James Bond since the character first debuted in live-action format. It was only when the series returned with a bang in Goldeneye, and with Broccoli’s passing, that the idea that the role needs to be played by a British actor really took root. Conveniently forgetting the Australian, George Lazenby, and Irishman, Pierce Brosnan, who have played the role historically.
Would this be the same if the likes of Burt Reynolds or James Brolin had taken the role at some point? Perhaps it might depend on the success of the actor in the role but having another avenue open to EON might allow them a wider pool of actors to choose from today. Even more important than getting the right actor for the role today is getting the right actor at the very start, and the next time in this series I’ll be taking a look at some of the actors that might have replaced Sean Connery as the first actor to play James Bond in film.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP