How Pierce Brosnan became James Bond nine years before his first 007 film
This article is part of Yahoo's 'On This Day' series.
On this day, 13 November, in 1995, Pierce Brosnan made his debut as James Bond in GoldenEye.
Fans had waited a long time for the 17th Bond film to be released in cinemas — six years since the last one, with no pandemic to blame — but it was worth the wait and is considered by many to be one of the very best films in the series.
The fifth actor to play 007 on the big screen made a snappy, confident start as Bond in Martin Campbell’s stylish post-Cold War thriller, bringing in legions of new fans to the decades-old film franchise. With his matinee idol looks, impeccable comedy timing, and serious action chops, the Irish actor effortlessly combined the very best traits of his 007 predecessors, securing another decade of movies for the franchise.
And like the fans, Brosnan had also waited a long time for his debut as Bond. Nine years to be precise. But his flirtation with 007 began many years before that.
Rewind 15 years to Autumn 1980, and Pierce Brosnan was visiting his girlfriend Cassandra Harris, also an actor, on location in Corfu for her new movie. She was playing a Bond girl opposite Roger Moore’s 007 in For Your Eyes Only, and Brosnan found himself dining with the incumbent Bond.
“I remember Roger being extremely cordial,” the Irish actor said, “just charming and effervescent really.”
A year later he attended the premiere with Cassandra, and it was clear he had caught the eye of producer Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli, who earmarked him as a possible future Bond.
Moore went on to make two more 007 films, before vacating the iconic tuxedo after 1985’s A View To A Kill. Several names were in the frame to play Bond at that stage: Mel Gibson (too expensive), Lambert Wilson (too French), and Sam Neill (Cubby wasn’t a fan) to name but a few. But Pierce Brosnan, by then making waves in US crime comedy Remington Steele, was their number one choice.
Steele was a suave and sophisticated conman, who partnered with a female private investigator (Stephanie Zimbalist) to solve crimes. Often decked out in a tuxedo, Brosnan was already playing Bond-lite, and the show played up to this on several occasions.
However, due to flagging ratings, NBC announced they were axing Steele after the end of the 1985-86 season, leaving the door open for Brosnan to be the next Bond, and Cubby Broccoli pounced.
Brosnan flew to the UK, did a screen test, had a costume fitting, and even took part in a photoshoot with Broccoli and screenwriter Michael G Wilson, sealing the deal with a handshake in front of Pinewood’s famous 007 stage.
Pierce Brosnan and Director John Glen at Pinewood Studios following screen tests in 1986 prior to filming for The Living Daylights #Bond #JamesBond pic.twitter.com/ynHikQVQgy
— THUNDERBALLS.ORG (@Thunderballs007) September 8, 2019
The tabloids got wind of what was happening, and ran the story that Brosnan was the next Bond. This gave Remington Steele a ratings boost, and NBC relented. Exercising a clause in Brosnan’s contract, they recommissioned the show for another season, much to Brosnan’s dismay.
Broccoli didn’t want his Bond to be on TV at the same time as his movie was in cinemas so pulled the plug on the deal. “It was such a terrible blow,” Brosnan recalls in the book Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films. “It was such a shock because your life is going in one direction and in just a phone call it’s completely changed around.”
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Remington Steele only returned for six more episodes, and with its star no longer Bond, the ratings tanked once again. It was lose, lose for Brosnan.
British theatre star Timothy Dalton was the next name on the producer’s list, so he got the nod instead and was signed up to play Bond for three movies, starting with 1987’s The Living Daylights.
Eon Productions, the company behind the Bond films, denied that Brosnan had ever been in the frame for Bond, stating that Dalton had always been their number one choice.
“When Timothy came out in the movie, the full impact of it and the onslaught of what happened really came crushing in,” Brosnan adds, who says had to pull over his car after seeing a Bond billboard to ‘scream at the seagulls’.
Dalton’s tenure as Bond was not plain sailing though. His two outings as Bond, which were grittier and more grounded than Moore’s films, failed to find an audience in North America.
After Dalton’s second Bond film in 1989 — the criminally underrated Licence To Kill — a third film was planned for release in 1991, but the franchise’s studio MGM was in dire financial straits, and producer Cubby Broccoli found himself mired in a prolonged legal battle with them over the mismanagement of the international TV rights to the Bond films.
So Bond 17 was a non-starter until the legal battle was eventually settled in 1993, four year after the last Bond film had been in cinemas. By the time GoldenEye began to take shape, questions were being raised at the studio about whether Dalton was still the right man to play Bond in the 90s.
Cubby backed his man, as did Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson, who by this point had stepped up to take over the franchise from their ailing father, but MGM wanted someone new for the new decade.
Walking before he was pushed, Dalton issued a statement in April, 1994 officially resigning as Bond. Eon issued their own saying: “We have never thought of anyone but Timothy as the star of the 17th James Bond film,” but they already had someone in mind.
Although briefly flirting with future M Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson to play Bond in GoldenEye, Brosnan was their man.
Having already done screen tests in 1986, the producers got on the phone to tell him the good news. “I put the phone down and I gave my wife-to-be [Keeley] the biggest kiss,” Brosnan recalled (his first wife Cassandra sadly died in 1991 from Ovarian cancer).
“We opened a bottle of champagne and I went out and had my photograph taken with a huge s***-eating grin on my face.”
GoldenEye even acknowledges Brosnan’s long wait to play Bond with a sneaky Easter egg that you might have missed. It opens with an iconic pre-title sequence with 007 bungee jumping off a dam to infiltrate a Russian complex.
The scene ends with Bond making a triumphant escape, flying off the dam while it explodes behind him.
The film then flashes forward nine years to the present day of 1995, which places the date that Brosnan’s pre-title escapades took place in… 1986.
The year Brosnan was first meant to be Bond.
Watch: The best Bond films, according to the experts