Who was the best Bond? It’s one of those topics of conversation that crops up from time to time leading to arguments over the merits of Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan or the lauding Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig’s darker takes on 007. And just occasionally someone will step up to George Lazenby’s defence. However, in another universe the debate is over Cary Grant or Richard Burton; Mel Gibson or Paul McGann. And just occasionally someone will step up to Robert Bathurst’s defence, because for each of the six actors who have played 007 there’s a whole host who might have done.
The first celluloid version of James Bond saw American actor Barry Nelson playing Jimmy Bond in an episode of Climax! (the US TV show, not the Scandinavian smutfest) based on Casino Royale in 1954. Fleming however wanted to take his hero to the big screen and five years later along with his friend Ivar Bryce and producer Kevin McClory, he began working on a film script imaginatively titled James Bond, Secret Agent. An article in the Daily Express from 1959 claimed McClory wanted Trevor Howard for the role as the star looked as if he had “lived it up enough” to be 007 but Fleming said the actor was “not my idea of Bond” favouring Peter Finch, who is now most well-known for his role in Network.
Later that year when Alfred Hitchcock expressed an interest in directing the film as a vehicle for his regular star James Stewart, Fleming wrote to Bryce, “Of course James Stewart is the toppest of stars and personally I wouldn’t at all mind him as Bond if he can slightly Anglicise his accent. If we got him and Hitchcock we really would be off to the races. Cross all your fingers.” In the end Hitchcock passed on the opportunity deciding instead to shoot a low-key, black and white film you might have heard of: Psycho.
Mr Elizabeth Taylor turned the role down because he thought it would be ‘just another movie’
After Hitchock bailed taking Stewart with him Fleming made overtures to another actor having written, again to Bryce, that “Richard Burton would be by far the best James Bond.” However, Mr Elizabeth Taylor turned the role down because he thought it would be ‘just another movie’ and was not convinced spy movies would be successful. Ironically one of his biggest successes would come thanks to his Oscar-nominated turn in the 1965 film The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
By 1961 Fleming and Bryce had severed their ties with McClory in acrimonious circumstances which led to McClory retaining the film rights to Thunderball (which he would remake in 1983 as Never Say Never Again). By this stage there were three companies attempting to get film versions of Bond off the ground. The first was McClory’s focused on Thunderball. The second was Maribar, a company to which Fleming had sold the rights of Casino Royale and which would eventually make the spoof version featuring Peter Sellars. And the third was Lowndes (later Eon) Productions, set up by Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman which would soon become the official James Bond production house after Fleming threw in his lot with them. The author’s new first choice for the role of the suave, sophisticated gentleman spy was the suave, sophisticated but aging gentleman David Niven. Niven was one influence for Fleming when he was writing his novels and is name checked in the text of both On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice.
Broccoli and Saltzman thought him too old favouring the suave, sophisticated Cary Grant. Who was six years older… Fleming had been inspired to create Bond after watching Grant’s performance as ladies man and British spy Devlin in the 1946 Hitchcock thriller Notorious. Furthermore Grant and Broccoli were friends - Grant was best man at the producer’s wedding in 1959 - but neither of these factors were enough to persuade Grant to take the role. Ironically he was convinced that at 59 he was too old for the part and nor would he sign a contract committing him to more than one film so the search went elsewhere. James Mason, Grant’s co-star in North by Northwest, was then offered the part but as he refused to commit to more than two films he was passed over too. Mason had been hired to play Bond in a TV production in 1958 but it never got off the ground and he passed on the role of bad guy Hugo Drax in 1979’s Moonraker.
Fleming was initially unimpressed suggesting Connery was “an overgrown stuntman”
Roger Moore was considered but dismissed for being “too young and perhaps a shade too pretty” for the role despite being a couple of years older than Sean Connery. While he would finally bag it in 1973 Moore played Bond in a seven-minute comedy sketch on the show Mainly Millicent in 1964. A contest was then held to ‘find Bond’ and the six finalists were all screen-tested however the winner, a model called Peter Anthony, couldn’t cope with the demands and so the Broccoli and Saltzman turned to Connery. Fleming was initially unimpressed suggesting Connery was “an overgrown stuntman” but eventually won round he created a semi-Scottish ancestry for Bond in later novels.
After five films Connery left the role in part because he was no longer on speaking terms with Cubby Broccoli and the hunt was on for the new James Bond. Broccoli and Saltzman again turned to Richard Burton but were unable to match the fee he was asking for. They briefly considered Oliver Reed but Broccoli said they didn’t proceed because “we would have had a far greater problem to destroy his image and remould him as James Bond. We just didn't have the time or money to do that.” They then approached a young British actor called Timothy Dalton however at the age of just 22 he felt the task of replacing Connery was too great. Moore also passed as he too did not want to be the man to follow Connery. One of the unlikeliest names in the frame was gangly Peter Snow of election night swing-o-meter fame. Snow revealed that he met Cubby Broccoli at a house in Mayfair but was told he was too tall. “The fact I couldn’t act didn’t help,” pointed out Snow. John Richardson, who starred as Raquel Welsh’s love interest in One Million Years BC, then became the front runner but Australian George Lazenby, at the time the world’s highest paid male model, was offered the part after the producers saw him in a Fry’s Chocolate advert.
Folklore has it that Lazenby was sacked because On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was so bad, although many argue the film is one of the best. In fact Lazenby, who had been offered a seven-film deal, left after just one as his agent persuaded him spy movies would be passé in the 1970s. Michael Gambon was one of 10 young stage actors interviewed by Cubby Broccoli for the role although the future-Dumbledore passed, telling the producer he was no good for the part as he was “bald, had a double chin and had girls’s tits” to which Broccoli replied: “so has Sean Connery, we just put a wig on him”. Jeremy Brett who would become synonymous with TV’s Sherlock Holmes was also considered revealing: “It's the sort of role you cannot afford to turn down, but I think if I had got it, it would have spoiled me.” While Brett was passed over, American actor John Gavin was signed up for the role, however when Connery was lured back with a mega-money deal Gavin stepped aside (and had his contract paid in full). Ten years later Gavin was appointed US ambassador to Mexico by another actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan.
Clint Eastwood, who had just made Dirty Harry said he thought the role should be played by a British actor
Following Diamonds are Forever, failure to persuade Connery to stay on for a seventh film saw Broccoli and Saltzman head across the Pond again but what should have been the hottest role in Hollywood was passed up by a trio of American actors. Burt Reynolds, yet to quite hit his moustachioed 1970s purple patch; Adam West, who had just hung up his Bat-suit; and Clint Eastwood, who had just made Dirty Harry all said they thought the role should be played by a British actor (Reynolds claims this is the biggest regret of his career and that it still causes him to wake at night in a cold seat). Cubby Broccoli then employed the tactic he had used for Dr No and looked to an unknown actor. When he appeared on Top Gear in 2010 Sir Ranulph Fiennes the explorer claimed he made it down to the final six to replace Connery but was rejected because he had “hands like a farmer”. So, not because you had no acting experience, Ranulph? His cousin, Ralph Fiennes auditioned for GoldenEye following his Oscar-nominated turn in Schindler’s List but lost out to Pierce Brosnan. He Fiennes (Ralph not Ranulph) does however appear in Skyfall with the smart money suggesting he’s to replace Judi Dench as Bond’s boss, M.
It was also following Connery’s final departure that Michael Billington who was screen-tested for the part more than any other actor not to be offered the role first came into serious contention. He had done a photo-shoot audition before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but was passed over. Then he was invited for a screen test before Live and Let Die and despite Press speculation he would be offered the part it went to Moore. He screen tested again before Moonraker in 1979 with several potential Bond girls including Sylvia Kristel. Two years later there was again speculation linking him to the role before For Your Eyes Only after he was flown to Corfu for a wardrobe fitting and photoshoot but again Moore resigned late in the day. His last screen test came before Octopussy by which time he was in a relationship with Barbara Broccoli, Cuby’s daughter, but once again his hopes were dashed when Moore signed on again although. Billington, who found a measure of fame in UFO and the Onedin Line, was sanguine about being overlooked saying: “With all the will in the world, I couldn’t quite see myself dressed as a circus clown clutching a Faberge Egg.”
As Moore had originally signed a three-film deal Billington was effectively collateral damage in the on-going contract brinkmanship between the incumbent star and Broccoli which created speculation around several actors in the lates 1970s and early 1980s. Considerable support grew for Lewis Collins who’d played Bodie in The Professionals prior to For Your Eyes Only in 1981. Collins had said he wanted: “a new character, starting from scratch - an Eighties version of Bond, getting away from the gadgets a bit” but his stripped-back take on 007 was dismissed by Broccoli for being “too aggressive”. Ironically it was ahead of its time with both Dalton later in the decade and Daniel Craig in the more recent reboot treading that path. Dalton was approached for a second time but turned the part down because he didn’t like the tone the Bond films had taken with Moore in the title role. Another actor considered for Octopussy was American James Brolin who screen tested opposite Maud Adams and tennis-player-turned-actor Vijay Amritraj. Brolin later claimed that, like several actors before him, he had signed a contract before being discarded after Eon persuaded Moore to come back and face-off against Connery who was staring in the unofficial Never Say Never Again.
Robert Bathurst who would go on to find fame in Cold Feet and Joking Apart was persuaded to audition
When Moore finally hung up his Walther PPK for the final time, following the critical slating received by A View to a Kill, Sam Neill screen tested for the part. However he has subsequently described it as a “miserable experience” that he was “pushed into by an agent” and that he would have been a “terrible Bond”. Pierce Brosnan was offered the part after a three-day screen test but the publicity generated by the announcement rekindled interest in his US TV show Remington Steele and so the producers of that took up an option to make a new series on the last day. This in turn led to Broccoli withdrawing the offer saying “Remington Steele will not be James Bond”. Broccoli turned again to Timothy Dalton but as the actor dithered once more, Robert Bathurst who would go on to find fame in Cold Feet and Joking Apart was persuaded to audition although he has said he felt this was only done to put pressure on Dalton. The tactic paid off and Dalton put his name to a three-film deal but quit before the last one could be made following a hiatus of five-year caused by a legal wrangle.
Another actor up for the part was Mel Gibson when he was an up-and-coming youngster. MGM were keen on him but Cubby Broccoli, who seemed to be more than a little obsessed with people’s physical characteristics, rejected Gibson for being too short. Perhaps he had been influenced by the US tabloid The Globe which printed an article headlined The Incredible Shrinking Bond showing how the height of Bond actors had from Connery’s peak of 6ft 2ins to Mel’s 5ft 8ins. While Gibson lost out to Dalton for the role of 007 he did replace the Brit in the life of Oksana Grigorieva, with whom Dalton had had a son. That didn’t end so well for Gibson either however.
Brosnan was the first choice for GoldenEye. He had been on the radar since he visited his wife Cassandra Harris on the set of For Your Eyes Only in 1981. Having missed out on The Living Daylights he stopped acting to care for Cassandra when she fell ill with the cancer which would claim her life in 1991. Four years after her death he felt ready to take on the role of 007 in GoldenEye. He wasn’t the only choice though. Paul McGann who impressed at auditions was a strong second choice and was ready to step into the role had Brosnan turned it down or been unavailable.
For a long time Clive Owen was considered the “heir apparent” but he too walked away over a contract disagreement
Thanks to the films’ success Kevin McClory re-emerged with yet another attempt to remake Thunderball – this time with Sony in a new venture with the comic-book name Warhead 2000 AD. There was considerable speculation that Sean Connery would also return either in the lead role or as the villain at the handsome age of 67. The Daily Express ran a story that it would in fact be Connery’s 35-year-old son, Jason, who would bag the top job although his agent quickly quashed speculation. The two other names in the frame were Clive Owen and Liam Neeson although he passed because he didn’t want to star in action films, which is odd because he does little else these days. Somewhat predictably the whole thing ended in court and ultimately Sony and McClory lost their rights to make a Bond film.
After four films and one video game Brosnan left the role after a series of protracted contract negotiations later suggesting he felt he’d been “dismissed”. For a long time Clive Owen was considered the “heir apparent” but he too walked away over a contract disagreement. Producer Michael G Wilson suggested the following search at one point mushroomed to a long-list of some 200 actors with the names ranging from Sam Worthington and Hugh Jackman to Jason Statham and Colin Firth. Henry Cavill was in serious contention but at 22, it was felt he was too young, even for a reboot. Amid some controversy including an internet campaign led by danielcraigisnotbond.com the current incumbent got the job. And he hasn’t done so bad.
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