As James Bond turns 60 years old on Wednesday and all 25 Bond films are about to fire at new audiences this week on Prime Video, what exactly did each of the six Bond actors so far bring to the 007 franchise, cinema, and pop culture? How might their legacy impact the anointing of the next James Bond?
The best James Bond is as much an impossible conversation as the best Bond film, Bond villain or Bond song. With 25 official Bond movies from EON Productions — and one or two sidebar curios that tried to ride the tuxedo coat-tails of 007’s big-screen prowess — maybe it is wiser to look at what each of the six actors brought to the role and where they collectively leave it for the 007th actor to take it on.
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As Bond producer Michael G. Wilson recently reminded audiences in London celebrating the BFI Southbank’s 60 Years of James Bond weekend, the first Bond, Sean Connery, was not a dead cert to succeed.
Sir Sean Connery: Six Bond movies, 1962-1971 (and Never Say Never Again in 1983)
An overly whimsical Disney musical (1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People) and the recommendations of actress Lana Turner had helped the founding Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman notice the lesser-known Sean Connery. However, it was Broccoli’s wife Dana who made that all-important and instinctual push for Connery. And she was right.
Aside from the ‘panther’ poise that Wilson recently alluded to, Connery enabled the Bond role to move off author Ian Fleming’s post-Etonian page. Instead of a post-war overly English Kenneth More or David Niven chap, the Bond producers settled on an actor who typified the working class ‘angry young men’ rising through the cinema ranks.
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Producer Saltzman had already nurtured the likes of Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay through Woodfall Films. And Connery made the 007 role accessible. Most importantly, he was about the now. As the world looks to who could be a new 007, producer Barbara Broccoli suggests the new Bond must be about where the world is right now. Connery was exactly that in 1962.
Perhaps the biggest contribution Connery lent the franchise was its box-office success. EON Productions and their rich SPECTRE boardroom of founding creatives (designer Ken Adam, director Terence Young, composer John Barry, editor Peter Hunt, writer Richard Maibaum and designer Maurice Binder) collectively mastered the Bond genome.
Yet, it was Connery that took that DNA and turned it into dollars. And in doing so, he transformed Bond into a bigger and more globally viable project. It was one that the original producers justly feared jeopardising when Connery first left the role in 1967. However, Connery crafted a hero as ultimately interchangeable as Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, or Batman. The physical and artistic onscreen world of Bond could take another fellow. It just did not know that yet.
George Lazenby: One Bond movie, 1969
That first new agent to walk into those dancing white dots was George Lazenby. A deliberate Connery clone, the actor only wore the tuxedo once in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Putting the fallacies about his acting skills aside, Lazenby brought the first vulnerability to Bond.
It is not just that emotional climax of On Her Majesty's Secret Service that marked Lazenby out as the exposed 007 – a tonal tic which fed into the mournful tone of No Time to Die (2021). Lazenby enabled the role to work with a younger actor too – something Bond’s producers have recently suggested could be the way forward for the next 007.
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Whilst the Lazenby casting failed to take off for various reasons, the appointment did prove the role could survive being re-cast. And that imitating the previous guy was not always the way forward. The seventh 007 will not be Daniel Craig lite. The Bond pendulum will swing in a very different direction.
The Bond producers and some savvy negotiations returned Connery to the role for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. It was a survival mechanism in the face of a critical and box-office reaction to Lazenby. Yet, it was also a manoeuvre that inadvertently launched Bond’s second movie decade — with a title that was all but a Roger Moore 007 caper.
Sir Roger Moore: Seven Bond movies, 1973-1985
When Moore finally took on the role for the subsequent Live and Let Die (1973), he steered the spy through possibly the one era that could have seen our man James flounder at the box-office.
The Bond series has always reacted to other movies and geopolitics. From Russia with Love (1963) is Cary Grant in North by Northwest. And Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967) maximise that sense of Home Counties spy-fi and the space-age kit of Thunderbirds.
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Yet, it was Moore we could suggest is the reason we still have Bond films today. Connery may have proved the box-office might of Bond. But it was Moore who took the role from a time of The Godfather (1972) and The Exorcist (1973), via the movie behemoths that are Star Wars (1977) and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (1982) and kept Bond relevant alongside Ghostbusters (1984) and Back to the Future (1985).
That was not just the 007 brand. That was Roger Moore himself. As Broccoli notes when discussing Daniel Craig in the 2021 documentary, Being James Bond – a 007 must walk into a room like a movie star, but not necessarily realise yet he is a movie star. Moore was a true movie star – more so than Connery ever was in his initial run in the role.
In an age of global uncertainty and very real shadows plaguing us all, could the next Bond take a leaf from Roger’s book and be more of a fun and familiar name than we realise? Might the lighter tone Moore brought to the role be exactly how a new Bond might take that pendulum away from Craig?
Timothy Dalton: Two Bond movies, 1987-1989
Whilst Connery, Moore and Lazenby all did offer glimpses of a harder, edged Fleming-minded Bond, it was Timothy Dalton who first really grappled with the internal emotions of the character as he stitched Fleming’s tone, attitude, and world view into the role.
The Cold War romance of The Living Daylights (1987) and the revenge drama of Licence to Kill (1989) performed well. With the attack on his old pal Felix Leiter, Dalton’s Bond becomes the first 007 to have his own story shaped by that of his colleagues. Cut to the Craig era and all Bond’s Whitehall and CIA cohorts have their stories threaded into his.
Pierce Brosnan: Four Bond movies, 1995-2002
With the subsequent Pierce Brosnan, there was a return to the movie star veneer of the Moore era. And just as the big-scale excesses of Moore’s late 1970s Bond outings echoed across Brosnan’s The World is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002), this fifth incumbent was also the Bond whose films got so big the next move was to scale down.
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Without You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker and Die Another Day going big, we would not have had four subsequent Bond movies that went for a successful novella sense of smaller scale to become franchise classics.
Brosnan allowed wider audiences into the series. His was a Bond that was not first and foremost for die-hard fans.
Daniel Craig: Five Bond movies, 2006-2021
A new Bond will have to work hard to not only not beCraig, but to entice younger fans like Brosnan achieved during his reign.
Of course, Craig garnered his own audiences and popularity. Quite brilliantly so. His is possibly the hardest Bond act to follow because he not only changed and enhanced how the role could be played.
His five films modified and heightened how the films themselves could be made too. The calibre of the artists making these films heightened as Craig went on. It is arguably Craig’s own investment and input into the role that a new actor must bring above looking good stepping off a plane in a tuxedo. Bond is no longer just a sought-after movie role. It is now a vocation and a creative responsibility like never before.
Each and every actor in this rich, sixty-year-old franchise has taken that baton and ran with it in very different ways. As six previously owned tuxedos hang over 25 cinematic coat hooks, Craig’s best gift to the series is now the clean slate he leaves behind.
However, it is still a blank canvas covered in the vital fingerprints of six previous men who will no doubt do their bit for king and country by helping to shape the 007th 007.
Watch a trailer for 60 Years of James Bond