Fri, Nov 17, 2006 - Page 16 News List

Who has the James Bond quality?

By William Arnold  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

For the record, 10 actors have played the role of James Bond before Daniel Craig. If we subtract Barry Nelson in the one-hour 1954 TV version of Casino Royale and the four actors in the 1967 Casino Royale spoof, that leaves five.

A library of books has been written comparing these five interpretations and chronicling what the role has done to the various actors' lives and careers, and it would be presumptuous of me to try to explore such a vast slab of cultural history in a sidebar to a movie review.

However, as a long-time Bond-watcher and one of the few journalists to have interviewed all five pre-Craig Bonds, I do have some thoughts on the subject and this new Bond start seems a proper occasion to put them down. So here goes:

SEAN CONNERY

When this 32-year-old Scottish actor first appeared as Bond in 1962's Dr. No, it electrified the world. It was simply one of the cinema's great meetings of an iconic star with a signature role, like Clark Gable as Rhett Butler or Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine.

His Bond exuded a charisma the movies had never seen before. He was sexy, suave, smugly debonair, supremely arrogant, sadistically cruel, relentlessly aggressive and capable of wryly tossing off tongue-in-cheek one-liners like no actor in history.

Eight years after Connery walked away from Bond, I went to LA to interview him on the set of a bad movie called Meteor, and, as I spent the day observing him, it was easy to see that all the aspects of the Bond persona are very much reflections, or slight exaggerations, of his own character.

Connery was in a foul mood that day — he was going through a difficult lawsuit — and after he'd kept me at arm's length for many hours, his frustrated publicist finally took me to Connery's trailer so I would be unavoidable. At the end of the day, finding us there, his privacy violated, Connery literally exploded.

He screamed, he grabbed the poor publicist by the shirt collar, he filled the confined space with his rage, he literally threw us out. It was the only time in my life I've ever feared that a celebrity might physically harm me. And yet, it also was thrilling. I thought: I'm being attacked by James Bond!

Years after that, I tried again and this time he was a pussycat and even apologized for that incident, blaming a bad turn in his lawsuit. But I was not fooled. Underneath the charm, there's a panther inside this man and this panther is James Bond.

GEORGE LAZENBY

After establishing himself as the Fifth Beatle (Connery's favorite expression for his relationship with Bond) in five films, Connery temporarily decided in 1967 that he'd had enough, and the producers briefly replaced him with this unknown Australian model.

Lazenby only made one Bond picture, 1969s On Her Majesty's Secret Service. If you look at it today, he's not half as horrible as everyone remembers and the movie itself works off the performance of Diana Rigg, in the largest and best of the early Bond-girl roles.

Despite his scathing reviews, the producers were willing to stay with him and Lazenby might have grown into the role. But it was the year of Woodstock, and he saw Bond as an irrelevant anachronism to everything that was now cool. He grew a beard for the publicity tour, bad-mouthed the movie and demanded to be let go from his contract.

When I interviewed him long after his Bond experience on the set of a low-budget kung fu movie, I found a big, likable Aussie who fully realized he had muffed his chance at the big time and blamed only himself, but was somewhat resentful that his name had become a show-biz synonym for "spectacular bad casting."

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