james bond

Was Roger Moore the best James Bond ever? Or the worst?

The history of the 007 franchise would have been vastly different if Timothy Dalton or Oliver Reed had been picked over Roger Moore.

Roger Moore’s obituaries all talk about what a gentleman he was in real life. And so he may have been. But, let’s face it: he was a terrible James Bond. And he knew it. As he once confessed, his range consisted of three basic facial expressions: “Right eyebrow raised, left eyebrow raised, and eyebrows crossed when grabbed by Jaws.”

Moore may have not been the worst of the Bonds – that spot is permanently reserved for George Lazenby, who played 007 unforgettably badly in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – but he came close.

Sean Connery, who is arguably still the best Bond of all time, was once asked to comment on Roger Moore’s version. He diplomatically responded, “Ummm… his is a sort of parody of the character, so you would go for the laughs, at the cost of credibility or reality. [Moore] took a different direction from mine – and he acquired an entirely different audience.”

While Connery punctuated all the Bondian adrenaline and testosterone with a touch of dry humour, Moore pushed the role into farce with his cheesy acting, eyebrow-waggling, atrocious puns and safari suits. After all, who can forget cringe-worthy dialogue like:

Solitaire (in bed with Bond): “Is there time, before we leave, for Lesson No 3?”
Bond: “Of course. There’s no sense going out half-cocked.”

Or this one:

(Bond and Holly Goodhead in a spacecraft, in post-coital languor.)
Minister of Defence: “My God, what’s Bond doing?”
Q: “I think he’s attempting re-entry, sir.”

Or:

(Bond and sexy babe in bed.)
M: “Miss Moneypenny, where is Bond?”
Miss Moneypenny: “He’s on a mission sir, in Austria.”
M: “Well, tell him to pull out. Immediately!”

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

While Connery’s Bond is still probably the gold standard by which Bond is judged, it’s strange to think that when he was originally cast he was considered to be a very risky choice.

Ian Fleming, the author, wanted a major star to play the role, and the actors he had in mind were Richard Burton, Cary Grant or James Mason. But the budget of the first Bond film, Dr No (1962), didn’t allow for that – apart from which the producers wanted an entirely new face for the role. However, given the fact that the character was supposed to be at least 30 years old, finding a good actor who wasn’t already well-known was a difficult task.

The producers did a nation-wide search, even placing wanted ads in the newspapers, and at the end of it they arrived at a former sailor, milkman, coffin-polisher and bit actor. Fleming, when he was introduced to Sean Connery for the first time, was apparently horrified at the thought of this rough young lout (with Scotland forever tattooed on his arm) playing his suave hero.

But when Dr No was released, it was not just a huge box office success, it also triggered a whole new genre of secret agent movies, with titles like OSS 117: Panic in Bangkok, Espionage in Tangier, Requiem for a Secret Agent and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as well as popular TV serials like Mission Impossible and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Play
Dr No (1962).

However, Connery grew bored of the role after just four films, and a new Bond had to be found. So another major search was launched for a new face, which resulted in George Lazenby, a hunky Australian model, who turned out to be a disaster. So within a year, the hunt for a new Bond began once again.

The three actors who were shortlisted this time were Timothy Dalton, a brooding Shakespearian actor who had got great critical reviews for his role in A Lion in Winter, Oliver Reed, who had recently made his mark in The Assassination Bureau, and Roger Moore, who had starred as a playboy-crook in the long-running TV serial, The Saint (which, coincidentally, had premiered just one day before the first Bond movie).

The one who was finally selected was, of course, Roger Moore – and he took the Bond movies off in a wacky, over-the-top direction. Moore’s logic was that “Bond situations are so ridiculous… you have to treat the humour outrageously as well”.

But, as film critic Pauline Kael put it, “His idea of Bond’s imperturbable cool is the same as playing dead.” Over the next 14 years, Moore’s spoofy style, combined with the increasingly fantastical themes and the goofy gadgetry, turned Bond into a cinematic comic strip, and seriously damaged its brand equity in the process.

Play
A View to a Kill (1985).

When the creaking Moore finally retired from the role – aged 57! – the producers had to do some serious course correction to get Bond back on track once again, closer to Fleming’s original hard-edged vision. And the new Bond was Timothy Dalton, who’d turned down the role 14 years earlier.

Dalton was the finest actor to ever play Bond. He was, after all, a classically trained actor from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who had earlier performed Shakespeare on stage. Dalton analysed Fleming’s original character in depth, and played him with never-before psychological intensity, making the character ruthless and reluctant in equal parts. He also demonstrated his seriousness by doing most of his own stunts, thus setting the prototype for the 21st century Bond – which has since been fleshed out by Daniel Craig.

The difference, unfortunately, is that Craig is a crappy actor, and looks like a blonde version of Mike Tyson.

If only Dalton had been chosen instead of Roger Moore, 14 years of Bond would not have been losti n the wilderness of comic strippery.

Play
Licence to Kill (1989).

Here is an even more radical what-if. What if, instead of Roger Moore, the producers had chosen the menacing, green-eyed Oliver Reed?

Reed showed great flashes of talent in the 1960s, but unfortunately burned himself out with too much booze and bad behaviour by the time he was 35. But what if he’d been given the challenge of playing Bond?

Might that have given us a Bond successor who was even better than Connery’s original? And an actor who could have been another Anthony Hopkins? That casting decision has been called “One of the great missed opportunities of post-war British movie history.”

Roger Moore may not have been a great actor – or a great Bond – but he was an entertainer who gave pleasure to millions. And he was a thorough gentleman, till the end. We must salute him for that.

Play
Moonraker (1979).
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