Roger Moore played 007 in seven Bond films - although it seemed like more at the time. He was a rare Englishman in a role more often played by Celts and colonials - Connery (Scots), Lazenby (Aussie), Dalton (Welsh), Brosnan (Irish)... Any Canadians? Yes. Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell). For some Ian Fleming fans, Moore was a little too English for a role that benefits from a certain chippiness toward his metropolitan masters. Yet he bestrode the era like a colossus whose legs were almost as unfeasibly long as they are on the Octopussy poster and whose trouser flares were almost as terrifyingly wide as on the Man With The Golden Gun poster.
Before he was the big-screen 007, he essayed the role on telly - for a comedy sketch in 1964 on the great Millie Martin's BBC show Mainly Millicent. So he came to Bond by playing him for laughs, and never stopped doing so - the most genial of men dispatching hundreds of Bacofoil-suited extras in hollowed-out mountain lairs while looking for the laser-countdown button with the big red OFF switch. Sir Roger always denied that he'd been originally offered the part, before Sean Connery, for Doctor No. But it is true that Connery was originally offered the role of Simon Templar in the show that made Moore a global star: The Saint. If you belong to a very precise sub-sliver of British Commonwealth boomers with access to black-and-white teatime telly, you'll cherish him from his first hit TV show, for children, in 1958. Ivanhoe was based on the once massively popular novel by Sir Walter Scott (who has plummeted spectacularly out of favor in the six decades since). As Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Sir Roger of Crans-Montana (his subsequent Swiss tax exile) is not entirely persuasive galloping around Richard the Lionheart's England in a suit of armor: He was never a natural period actor, and even in costume his vocal modulation gives the game away. But the show was a big enough success that it led to a bit of work in Hollywood, including a stint on Maverick as James Garner's Brit-accented cousin.
But The Saint, for six years in the Sixties, was a hit of an entirely different scale, and made Moore the first UK TV star to become a millionaire (hence, in the Seventies, the tax exile). Leslie Charteris had created the Saint in the Twenties, and the books are very much of their day. But Moore's version planted Simon Templar firmly in the Swingin' Sixties with a lot of Continental dolly birds to give it some Euro-cool. Lew Grade, bored by running a local telly franchise in Birmingham, had his eye on the global market and gave The Saint a rare style for the British TV of that period. It started with the stylized graphics and theme tune, and then, upon the initial reference to Simon Templar's name, the animated halo appearing over the character's head, at which Roger Moore would glance amusedly upwards - perhaps the first conscious, and most iconic, deployment of his famous eyebrows.
True, if you paid close attention from week to week, the passenger terminal helpfully labeled "Nice" or "Monte Carlo" or "Geneva" looked remarkably like East Midlands Airport, but Moore's tuxedoed aplomb held it all together. He was almost too dishy in those days - his beauty spot, for one, seems far more prominent in monochrome - and he sensed that he didn't have to do too much but stand there looking suave. Everything he would do as Bond he did as Simon Templar: the quips, the birds, the sports cars. But he did it, more or less, for real. He co-owned the series, which eventually made over a third of a billion pounds (which back then, pre-devaluation, wasn't that far shy of a billion dollars), and he took it seriously enough to serve as producer and director - although, on the one occasion I met him, he characteristically pooh-poohed the idea that he had any talents in either field. The series became less of a mystery-solver and more of a spy caper as it progressed, and indeed in one episode Simon Templar is actually mistaken for James Bond. Sean Connery had been whinging about his Bond burdens since at least Thunderball in 1965, and Roger Moore fully expected to get the call.
But it never came. And, when The Saint ended, Moore signed on for a dull espionage yarn Crossplot (Bond without style) and then took the title role in Basil Dearden's fine psychological thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself. Moore plays a businessman who, after surviving a near fatal car crash, puzzles his doctors by showing two separate heartbeats on the monitor. This impressed critics, for whom the actor, in his journeyman trudge through Crossplot, barely showed any heartbeat at all, or pulse. "It was one of the few times I was allowed to act," said Moore, and, having proved he could, felt no need to go near any similarly demanding role ever again.
In 1971 Lew Grade was looking for a sequel to The Saint and decided to bet on a project called The Persuaders, which I now see was actually called The Persuaders!, which seems oddly emphatic for chaps in the persuasion business. It was a chalk'n'cheese, apples'n'oranges pairing of a Brit toff and a roughneck Yank, and Sir Lew had in mind as his stars Roger Moore and Tony Curtis. He pitched it to Curtis by assuring him that Roger was already on board, which Moore was a bit miffed by, as he wasn't. Grade brushed aside these footling niceties. "The country needs the money, Roger," he told him. "Think of the Queen." Curtis played a streetwise tough from the Bronx who'd struck it rich wildcatting in the oil business. He was so wild he was called "Danny Wilde". Moore, on the other hand, played an Old Harrovian aristocrat who was so stuck up he insisted on calling Danny Wilde "Daniel". I was never sure whether Sir Roger's character was "Lord Sinclair" - ie, a peer in his own right - or "Lord Brett Sinclair" - ie, merely the younger son thereof. "Lord Sinclair" didn't sound quite right, although I subsequently met a fellow by that name who was an equerry to the Queen Mum and turned out to be the 17th Lord Sinclair of that ilk. As for "Lord Brett Sinclair", I've yet to meet a younger son of a marquess or duke called "Brett".
Moore belonged to the last generation of British thespians for whom it was assumed that acting meant presenting as posher than one's origins. Unlike Lord Brett, young Roger didn't go to Harrow but to Battersea Grammar School. He dad was a policeman who went to investigate a robbery at the home of Brian Desmond Hurst, a prolific director whose films include the all-time great, Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. Constable Moore mentioned that his boy Roger quite fancied being an actor, and Hurst hired him as an extra for Caesar and Cleopatra (1945) and then paid for him to go to RADA. That's where he met a young actress called Lois Hooker from Kitchener, Ontario, who changed her name to Lois Maxwell and became the defining Miss Moneypenny. Young Lois and young Roger both poshed up at RADA - although, as snootier critics with more finely calibrated class consciousness were wont to observe, from his Saint days to Lord Brett to Bond he was Lew Grade's and Cubby Broccoli's idea of an English gentleman rather than the real thing.
Moore and Curtis were even less alike off-screen. Curtis at this period was a pothead who would stagger on to set and berate blameless minions for imagined slights. Moore, professional and prepared, brought a halt to one foul-mouthed tirade by sighing in a stage whisper, "To think those lips once kissed Piper Laurie." (They did: see Johnny Dark and The Prince Who Was A Thief.) Still, the series has a magnificent jingly-jangly theme tune, unmistakeably by John Barry. In our audio tribute to Barry, I discuss The Persuaders! with John's successor as Bond's house composer, David Arnold, who likes the music but professes bewilderment at the rest of the show, with Roger Moore doing little than "cocking his eyebrow". No one cocked eyebrows like Roger Moore, but, in fairness to the man, he did occasionally let rip with rare and groovy abandon:
The Persuaders! was supposed to be a hit in America, but instead it was a hit everywhere but - not just Britain and Australia, but Spain and France and Germany, where Moore and Curtis were showered with awards. Nevertheless, the show's failure in the US sealed its fate - and freed up Moore for the role he'd been waiting for almost a decade. The comparisons between the two dominant Bonds of the franchise's first quarter-century have all been made: Sean Connery was tougher and crueler and shpoke ash if he were digeshting a particularly shticky haggish. Roger Moore was softer and wryer, with a rich resonant voice that gave a peerless deadpan quality to even the most leaden puns. He was debonair in all circumstances. In The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), the titular villain comes titularly endowed: he has a third nipple - or, if you prefer, a supernumerary papilla. Doing battle with his old friend Christopher Lee's Scaramanga, Moore's Bond is obliged to go undercover and don a third nipple himself. There's a wonderful insouciance to the way Moore eventually peels off his supernumerary papilla and tosses it aside.
Scholars contend that Moore's Bond sometimes feels like a first draft of an MI6 agent: a gentleman spy speaking the Queen's English and professing to be concerned only about his tailoring (notwithstanding some very un-Jermyn Street flourishes in those disco-era lapels, flares and safari suits). The other Bonds are what you'd add after sleeping on it and adding a few complicating traits: Connery the churlish Scot, Brosnan the Irish chancer. (Whether that extends to Craig the Essex nightclub bouncer I shall leave for another day.) Yet Moore's Bond was huge. Beyond the differences in acting styles, each man was also a reflection of the era. Connery came along at a time when England was suddenly cool again. By the time Moore inherited the role, Swingin' London had slumped into grim socialist near-Brezhnevite decay. In addition, as I mentioned the other day re Austin Powers, instant Bond parodies like Matt Helm and Derek Flint had taken their toll on the conventions of the genre. Moore opted to play both Bond and an affectionate semi-spoof Bond, and pulled it off so brilliantly that, for his entire run, the parodies stopped.
His tenure reached its apogee under Christopher Wood's twinkling pen. The 1977 entry, The Spy Who Loved Me, must surely rank as the apotheosis of the 007 pre-titles sequence, beginning with the hijacking of a Royal Navy nuclear submarine. It's an urgent matter:
M: Moneypenny, where's 007?
MISS MONEYPENNY: He's on a mission, sir. In Austria.
M: Tell him to pull out. Immediately.
Cut to Bond in a romantic Alpine ski chalet and, er, in no great hurry to pull out immediately. But, in those pre-iPhone days, his watch starts emitting an urgent tickertape unspooling from his wrist in flagrante. It instructs him to return to headquarters. And so he rises from his labors and starts donning his ski-suit, much to the distress of his panting dolly bird: "But, James, I need you."
"So does England," he says sternly, and starts skiing down whichever Alp it is to the accompaniment of Marvin Hamlisch's disco version of the Bond theme. He is pursued by Soviet agents, but fortunately his ski-poles fire some sort of high-tech bullet that cause the Russkies' chests to burst into flames. Also he manages to do a somersault and land back on his skis while killing a couple more Commies. (Moore was an accomplished skier, but I'm not sure he did that stunt himself.) Unfortunately, skilled as he is, he's outnumbered by the KGB extras, and they're closing on him, and there's a huge cliff up ahead, with nothing beyond.
And then Bond just skis off the edge and as he drops down through the sky he kicks loose his skis and pulls the cord and his parachute opens - a massive Union Jack chute, which is a bit of a giveaway for a secret agent in deep cover but, as Christopher Wood noted with pride, elicited huge cheers from audiences in the decrepit strike-ridden hellhole of pre-Thatcher Britain. It was always his favorite moment from the Bond films. And as the Union Jack fills the screen Maurice Binder's silhouetted guns and girls begin twirling and Carly Simon sings "Nobody Does It Better".
I'm not sure anybody did. That opening represented Roger Moore's Bond at his best - as did the post-world-saving tags. It became the fashion to end the films with the Minister of Defence or Prime Minister or even the Queen on hand to congratulate 007 via satellite on the success of his mission - only for the camera to alight on Roger Moore getting all double-agenty with whatever bit of Cold War totty had managed to survive to the finale. As Moore and his dancing eyebrows explain at the conclusion of The Spy Who Loved Me, he was "just keeping the British end up, sir." After which, a larky sailors' chorus does some end-of-the-pier gang-show version of "Nobody Does It Better" and the credits roll.
For Moonraker's close two years later, Bond was returning from outer space. Christopher Wood had never been entirely comfortable with the space business - his view was that 007 is meant to look dapper and move smoothly, and you can do neither in an astronaut's suit. Nor can you easily engage, from behind the visor, in sparkling banter. But Star Wars had been a monster hit and Cubby Broccoli felt his franchise would benefit from a slice of the space-opera action, so Wood gave it his best. Everyone's gathered back at NASA for the return of Bond and his American counterpart from another planet-saving mission, and inevitably, "as this is the first joint venture between our two countries, I'm having it patched directly to the White House and Buckingham Palace."
"Well, I'm sure Her Majesty will be fascinated," beams the cabinet minister.
Time to run through the final checks:
Houston calling. Confirm your position.
But Bond's and Dr Holly Goodhead's position doesn't really need confirming, does it? And, when two weightless intertwined bodies come floating across the giant monitor, the Minister is aghast: "My God! What's Bond doing?"
Cut to Q, engrossed at his own computing screen:
I think he's attempting re-entry, sir.
It was the highest-grossest Bond film to date.
It all got a bit too wrinkly and formulaic by the mid-Eighties.There was a lot of truth to Ronald Reagan's jest: approaching the end of his second term and asked whether he'd be returning to acting, the President responded that he'd quite like to play Bond but worried that he was too young for the part. Sir Roger retired and accepted the lead in Aspects of Love, Andrew Lloyd Webber's follow-up to the boffo Phantom of the Opera. He had a pleasant singing voice, and I would like to have heard it on stage. But a few weeks before opening he belatedly took M's advice and pulled out immediately, contenting himself for the next three decades with unambitious cameos and nights of urbane anecdotage until a few months before his death.
For a man who professed to have minimal acting skills, his insistence that he had minimal acting skills might have been his greatest performance of all. There was always more to it than the eyebrows. As Timothy Dalton demonstrated in the Eighties and Val Kilmer in the Nineties, James Bond and Simon Templar are trickier to pull off than you might think. Through England's lowest ebb and the darkest days of the Cold War, Roger Moore rogered more and kept the British end up. His position is confirmed.
~If you disagree with Mark's movie columns and you're a Founding Member of The Mark Steyn Club, then feel free to let him know. Founder Membership isn't for everybody, but one thing it does give you is access to our comments section. So, if you take issue with him on Roger Moore, then feel free to dispatch him like a Soviet ski extra in that Spy Who Loved Me sequence. (Mark even weighs in himself in the comment threads occasionally, as you can see in his reply to Patrick Archer here.) For more on The Mark Steyn Club, see here.