By Ryan Fleming
Christmas. Merry Christmas.
Somehow a film series about an alcoholic, gambling, womanising assassin became a staple of Christmas television in British households. Back before before every single Bond film seemed to play in constant rotation on one of the ITV channels, there would be as many people tuning in to see Sean Connery and Roger Moore on Christmas Day as there were tuning in to the Queen’s Christmas Message.
By the early 1990s, Goldfinger had joined the fraternity of films that included The Great Escape and Gone with the Wind, where jokes could be made that it of course would be on at Christmas - since it usually was. By the turn of the millennium, there were now so many films in the series, and they were so popular with audiences, that in the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day you would be guaranteed to find almost every film was playing at some point.
As we have discussed in previous articles, the Bond series owes its longevity to its ability to reinvent itself, exemplified by its frequent change of lead actor. However, credit should not be taken away from the success these films saw in the 1960s, success they have perhaps not seen since, with their first actor – Sean Connery.
At a time when Star Power was still at its zenith, it was a major gamble for EON to take their chances on a relatively unknown actor. Especially one that, by the producer’s own admission, had shown up for his screen test unshaven and in rumpled clothes. Yet Connery was chosen, above all else for the machismo that likely would have shown through however he dressed for his screen test. Perhaps Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman recalled the story of how, on the set of his most high-profile role to date in Another Time, Another Place, Connery had been confronted American mobster Johnny Stompanato with a gun. Stompanato had travelled to the UK with his girlfriend, and Connery’s co-star, Lana Turner and came to believe the two were having an affair. The enforcer for the Los Angeles based Cohen crime family stormed onto set pointing a gun at Connery, who immediately disarmed the gangster and knocked him to the ground.
What followed was a loose adaptation of My Fair Lady, only with an American film producer taking a former milkman from Edinburgh and having him styled and dressed at the most fashionable hairdressers and tailors, as well as introducing him to the high life of the London scene. Between Broccoli and Dr. No, director Terence Young would turn the former Big Tam into James Bond on and off camera, and the three of them would go on to create a cinematic legend.
Would it have worked with another actor in the lead role? Would another actor have given the series its longevity that sees films still being made under the EON label close to sixty years after the first was released? Let’s take a look at some of the other options.
Neither the film producers or character creator Ian Fleming were unaware of the potential box office revenue that could be generated from having a name actor appear in the role of James Bond, so it is unsurprising that many of the actors considered for the first of what was hoped would be a successful series of thrillers were big names at the height of their fame.
One such name sought by the producers was Cary Grant. He had recently appeared before the camera for Alfred Hitchcock doing a very Bond-like turn as the lead in North by Northwest, so it is unsurprising that he would have been seen as the ideal candidate. As we have seen in previous articles, and will see again, nothing can catch the eye of the producers of the Bond series like appearing in a role that is James Bond in everything but name. Grant was everything the producers could want from a cinematic James Bond with the added name appeal that would hopefully bring in audiences, there was only one problem. He would only commit to one film, which was understandable a,s at 58 years of age, he would be as old as Roger Moore was when he finally left the role after 1985's A View to a Kill.
Grant would pass. However, this would not be the last time he would be linked to the role. In addition to another Bond-in-everything-but-name turn for director Stanley Donen opposite Audrey Hepburn in Charade, he was also sought to play Bond by director Howard Hawks. Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, was not amongst those whose rights were purchased by Broccoli and Saltzman, having already been secured by the American producer Charles K. Feldman. In the early 1960s, Feldman and Hawks had looked to adapt the film with a script by science fiction author Leigh Brackett (who had previously co-written the film noir The Big Sleep and the western Rio Bravo for Hawks). Hawks wanted Grant to play the role in his film, but Hawks abandoned the project when he saw how Dr. No turned out. It is interesting to consider how the Bond series might have turned out if there were up against another interpretation of the character this early on with a bigger star in the lead role.
Another famous actor that was considered from North by Northwest was James Mason, who had appeared in the Hitchcock film as the villainous master spy Vandamm. Like Grant, Mason would not commit to the requested three films though he was willing to commit to two which was not agreeable to the producers. Also, like Grant, Mason was already in his 50s when he was offered the role, and as we’ll discuss later an older actor might not have given the series the cultural impact it did in the 1960s. This would not be the last time Mason was sought by the producers, as he would be chosen to play the villainous Hugo Drax in 1979’s Moonraker, but was ultimately dropped in favour of the French actor Michael Lonsdale to satisfy the requirements of the French government to allow the film to be produced in France.
Ian Fleming was also allowed something of a say in who would play his creation; one name that was agreeable to both him and the producers was the Welsh actor Richard Burton. Burton would have brought the same machismo to the role as Connery would eventually bring, and in his mid-thirties was one of the younger name actors considered. Burton would pass though believing that the untested concept would prove to be just another film and would not be as successful as the producers hoped, to offset his fears he asked for more money than the producers were willing to pay. Burton would have excelled in the role, if he could be convinced of the potential success of the film, there is no doubt of that. However, what might his well-documented problems with alcohol and sensationalised personal life have brought to the role? The actor might have wound up being more famous than the role, with the tabloids spinning every love scene he appeared in as another extramarital affair like he and Elizabeth Taylor had engaged in on the set of Cleopatra.
Having tried their luck with stars of both screen and stage the producers would eventually turn to television in searching for their James Bond. Danger Man had premiered in 1960 and starred Patrick McGoohan as suave spy John Drake; as we’ve mentioned before nothing sells an actor as James Bond to the producers like playing the role in everything but name. McGoohan would decline the role, the promiscuous character offending his personal morals, and he would never waiver on his dislike of the character referring to him as “contemptible and simplistic”.
Struggling to find name actors who would commit to the role and to multiple films for a salary the producers liked Fleming would suggest his own preference of David Niven for the role.
Though he might seem the oddest choice of all the name actors mentioned so far Niven is the only one of them who would actually go on to play the role, just not in the series of films produced by Broccoli and Saltzman. That adaptation of Casino Royale that Howard Hawks was consider directing would eventually resurface after a lot of development hell as a comedic take on the film released in 1967, directed by many people due to its even more troubled filming. The role of James Bond, or rather, one of the roles of James Bond portrayed in that film, would be played by David Niven. Niven would give other Bond-like turns in films like The Pink Panther and Murder by Death, but already in his early forties and lacking the sex appeal actors like Grant, Burton, or Connery would bring to the role the series might not have been as successful with him in the lead role.
Trying and failing to link a bona fide star to the role, the producers and Fleming would turn to lesser known actors to fill the shoes of James Bond 007. There would still be a lot of actors considered before they eventually settled on Sean Connery.
It was a gamble to go for a lesser known actor in the role of James Bond, and it very well could have backfired on the producers. Credit must be given to the producers for seeing something in Sean Connery that would work, to Connery himself for his interpretation of the role, and to director Terence Young, who essentially taught Connery how to be Bond based on his own lifestyle. Would another actor have been able to adopt the mannerisms and personality that would see Bond become synonymous with cool in the 1960s?
Terence Young might have turned Sean Connery into James Bond, but the Scotsman was not the directors first choice for the role. That was Richard Johnson, who might have brought the same qualities as Connery to the role but with the added bonus that he was already closer to the Bond ideal. Johnson passed as he was under contract to MGM at the time, but he would later claim, somehow simultaneously self-centred and humble, that he was the right man for the role but the wrong man, Sean Connery, was able to make the role funny and this was a major contributor to the success of the films. Almost sounds as though he was saying he was too right for the role!
An actor favoured by Ian Fleming, whilst not a major star still a known actor, was Richard Todd. Todd had previously starred in The Dam Busters which is perhaps his most well-remembered film role today. Scheduling conflicts would prevent Fleming’s preference from going anywhere beyond just a preference. Todd might have been a compromise between wishing for an actor to sign on for three films but still be known to audiences, though Todd was much more well-known in the United Kingdom than he was in the United States. However, he would have cut a much more old-fashioned sort of hero than the interpretation we got from Connery or would have gotten from Richard Johnson. He was also already in his forties by the time production would begin.
This sort of arrives at the lightning-in-a-bottle that was captured with the casting of Connery. Here was a young actor with little baggage in the way of prior roles, one that was groomed for the role, and because it was far removed from himself, was able to bring a degree of charm to it that someone who was more like the character might have failed to do by taking it too seriously. One that would agree to do multiple films and would allow for a performance that would be indicative of changing attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic during the 1960s, and bring with it plenty of sex appeal. As Adam West, another actor considered for the role of Bond, would later opine in the late 1960s there were three Bs – Batman, The Beatles, and James Bond – that were the definition of cool to that generation.
Was there any other actor that might have been able to bring all the same qualities to the role and give the franchise the same success it enjoyed in the 1960s? There was perhaps one.
Though this actor has personally said he was not offered the role at any point before the 1970s, according to Cubby Broccoli, one of the actors he had looked at for the role but rejected for being too young and perhaps too good-looking was none other than Roger Moore. There is no reason to believe these are mutually exclusive however, since Moore’s headshot might have been one of many that crossed Broccoli’s desk in the early 1960s but was not followed up to the point that he would be offered the role.
How would Roger Moore have fared taking the role in 1962 rather than 1973? And would he have brought the same popularity to the series as Sean Connery? Let us examine the evidence. Although he had a number of starring roles in US television, Moore was not that well-known of an actor until he struck it big with The Saint in 1962 – itself a role very much in the vein of James Bond that would see him be offered that role multiple times during the series run before he would eventually accept it.
Like Connery, he was in his thirties, and though you might think that the mid-Atlantic accented Moore, with his laidback demeanour would require no grooming to be James Bond, keep in mind those traits were cultivated over years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The Cockney son of a policeman had only broken into acting by accident after his father had investigated a robbery at the London home of Irish film director Brian Desmond Hurst – Hurst would cast Moore as an extra and would later pay his fees at RADA. There was almost always a tongue-in-cheek element of parody to Moore’s on-screen persona, as you might expect from someone who had went to such efforts to hide his original accent, which Moore claimed was much more akin to Michael Caine than the one that would make him famous.
Roger Moore getting the role at the start of the series rather than Sean Connery would not have harmed the success the series would have during the 1960s. We might get a very different performance from Moore as a younger actor without The Saint and The Persuaders behind him; perhaps he might be better at portraying Bond’s cruel streak that he failed to do in Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun.
Even if Moore gave the series the same success as Connery, his time would eventually come to an end, though; changing tastes as the 1960s drew to a close might dictate as much. This does leave us with the somewhat amusing possibility that Broccoli might drop Moore from the lead role in the late 1960s or early 1970s citing his advancing age, whilst he was still younger than he had been when Broccoli offered him the role historically!
For the Bond series to have the longevity it did, it was imperative that they succeeded in their casting choice the first-time round. They did historically, and many would still cite Sean Connery as their favourite Bond actor and a case of the producers getting it right first time. The examples we have looked at show how the absence of even one aspect that Connery brought might not give the series the same success it would see with him. It also raises the possibility that the only one who could have filled Connery’s shoes completely in the role at the start would be the one actor that would come closest to challenging his place as the most famous and popular Bond of the original run of films – Roger Moore. Without either of them, there might be not James Bond on television at Christmas to fall asleep in front off after too much food and drink. Christmas (and Boxing Day) just wouldn’t be the same without 007.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP