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Since the very beginning of the franchise, Eon Productions has looked to secure James Bond actors for multi-picture deals. However, producers Harry Saltzmann and Albert R. Broccoli were always open to the possibility of changing the lead actor to keep new movies coming.
Speaking to Variety about recasting the role in 1968, Broccoli said: “I don’t think Bond will ever be passé. No more so than Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan.”
Ahead of this weekend’s re-release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, we doubt that Eon will ever repeat the one-and-done casting of Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby.
It was a very different story with each of the other Bond actors, going all the way back to 1962's Dr No.
Sean Connery: A multi-picture James Bond
Back in 1961, there was a very slim casting budget for Bond. Cary Grant, David Niven, Patrick McGoohan, and Richard Johnson all turned the role down for various reasons, and 28-year-old model Peter Anthony, winner of an open 'find James Bond' casting contest, was ruled unsuitable by the producers.
On the other hand, Scottish star Sean Connery was an actor with many stage and screen credits already under his belt. When he met the producers, his macho personality, panther-like poise, and refusal to do a screen test impressed the duo (and most importantly, their wives) and they snapped him up for a $50,000-per-movie six-picture deal.
The movies made Connery a global star, but he felt underappreciated on the terms of that initial deal, and he was released from his contract during the filming of his fifth film, You Only Live Twice.
George Lazenby: Model misbehaviour
Broccoli and Saltzman cast the net wide when looking to replace Connery, considering actors as varied as Oliver Reed, Terence Stamp, John Richardson, and Timothy Dalton (we’ll come back to him). Heck, even Dick Van Dyke was reportedly asked about the role by Broccoli while shooting another Fleming-inspired Eon production, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Having acted in a Fry’s Chocolate Cream TV advert, Aussie model George Lazenby made his big-screen acting debut in 1969's On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He went along for the Bond role on his agent’s recommendation, taking the trouble to visit Connery’s barber and tailor first, and bowled the producers over (not to mention a stunt coordinator who he accidentally punched for real during his screen test) with his confidence.
In all respects, Lazenby gives a singular performance in On Her Majesty's Secret Service – aside from the unexpected himbo energy he brought to the role — in what is now considered one of the series' best entries. However, his relationship with the producers became fractured, and upon advice he declined all offers of a multi-picture deal, believing that Bond wouldn’t last much longer than the 1960s.
Roger Moore: You know my name
After the Lazenby debacle, producers enticed Connery back one more time for 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, but it was soon time to find another new Bond. Distributors United Artists were displeased by the previous recasting, and executives floated some American names for 1973’s Live And Let Die — specifically, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, and Adam West.
Eventually, the studio agreed that a British actor should play Bond. Michael Billington came close to getting the role (and later appeared as KGB agent Sergi Barsov in The Spy Who Loved Me), but Roger Moore, then best known for the TV shows Ivanhoe, Maverick, The Saint, and The Persuaders satisfied both Eon’s requirements and UA’s interest in a star name.
Moore is arguably the Bond actor who was most famous at the time he took on the role, but over time, 007 still became his most iconic character. He eventually bowed out after seven Bond movies with 1985’s A View To A Kill. UA, newly acquired by MGM, again suggested some non-British Bond actors to take over in the shape of Mel Gibson and Christopher Lambert.
Meanwhile, Eon screen-tested Sam Neill and an actor by the name of Pierce Brosnan.
Timothy Dalton: The Shakespearean Bond
Brosnan was originally cast as James Bond for 1987’s The Living Daylights, after leaving his lead role in the recently cancelled US TV series Remington Steele. Ironically, NBC renewed the show and exercised their option over Brosnan because of the interest in him as Bond had boosted Steele's ratings, ironically scuppering his chances of playing 007 at that time. The new season ran for just five episodes before being cancelled again.
Meanwhile, Timothy Dalton was first offered the lead in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but considered “[himself] too young and Sean too good”. He stepped in for The Living Daylights and 1989’s Licence To Kill, and his portrayal of Bond as Fleming’s vulnerable and hard-edged character is rightly held as a forerunner to Daniel Craig’s take.
Pierce Brosnan: Second time lucky
Happily, Brosnan got his shot after Dalton announced he was stepping down in 1994, taking the lead in 1995's GoldenEye. Other actors up for the job included Sean Bean (who played GoldenEye’s villain instead), Ralph Fiennes (who played M in the Craig era), and Paul McGann (who went on to star in Doctor Who in 1996), but Brosnan finally got his due.
He played 007 four times, returning in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, 1999's The World Is Not Enough, and 2002's Die Another Day. Although his final Bond film was a financial smash, it was eviscerated by critics, and after seeking a better deal for a fifth film, producers decided that a reboot was in order
Daniel Craig: A new direction
After deciding to reboot the series with Casino Royale, producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson sought a new Bond for the 21st century.
At the time, Wilson said they considered more than 200 actors, but Broccoli now maintains she was gunning for Daniel Craig early on, having enjoyed his work in an array of very un-Bond-like films often playing the villain. She cites Craig's turn as a hitman priest in 1998's Elizabeth as the moment he caught her attention.
Rehearsals whittled potential 007s down to Daniel Craig or Henry Cavill, but Craig triumphed and was announced to the press in 2005.
Despite the initial backlash, Craig’s portrayal has proven hugely popular — and financially successful — to the extent that they’ll need to recalibrate the whole series again with the next recasting.
The next James Bond
Perhaps the most recent Bond casting points to where we’ll likely find his replacement. Earlier this year, Broccoli told Variety they were taking some time out first because: “It’s not just casting a role. It’s about a whole rethink about where we’re going.”
Craig also enjoyed considerably more input than his predecessors, helping to polish the script on 2008's Quantum of Solace, finding the director for 2012's Skyfall, and acting as co-producer on 2015's Spectre and 2021's No Time To Die.
Eon is no longer looking for a leading man to lock in for a multi-picture deal so much as a creative collaborator for the next era of the long-running franchise.
Read more: 16 actors who could be the next James Bond
Short of bringing in an actor-director pairing for a one-off auteur take, we doubt that another Lazenby is in the offing.
There are now very few prerequisites for who can play Ian Fleming's famous creation though. "[Bond] can be of any colour, but he is male,” Broccoli told Variety in 2020. “You think of him as being from Britain or the Commonwealth, but Britain is a very diverse place,” co-producer Michael G Wilson added.
On Her Majesty's Secret Service returns to cinemas nationwide from Friday, 20 May. All 25 Bond films from 1962's Dr No to 2021's No Time To Die will be released in chronological order beginning mid-April, and will be projected in 4K.