It’s tough to imagine a man with verve, sophistication and panache like James Bond as a birthday boy, but that’s exactly what he is. In terms of his longevity, he has accomplished something few fictional characters have achieved. In 2023, James Bond as a literary figure turns 70. His movie counterpart turned 60 in 2022.
James Bond shows no sign of slowing down or going anywhere anytime soon. As current Bond actor Daniel Craig prepares to hang up his gun, fans and critics are already guessing who will next take over the role. The James Bond tradition is a long and storied one, and as a character he has managed the rare duality of maintaining his core appeal while also evolving over generations. Bond movies are set in present day, affording them the opportunity to change and update with the times. Not all characters are as versatile, but creator Ian Fleming’s creation is rooted in espionage, a timeless subject that only grows more relevant as technology and weapons becomes increasingly sophisticated.
Starting with the release of Dr. No in 1962, every James Bond movie has been produced by EON Productions, founded in the early 1960s by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Upon incorporating their new company, the business partners purchased the rights to Ian Fleming’s popular spy novel series, James Bond.
Once a deal was signed with James Bond author Ian Fleming, the search for the perfect actor to embody 007 began, and it was no easy task. Playing Bond would require an actor capable of making the audience believe Bond was many men in one: violent, sophisticated, unflappable, athletic and seductive. Many actors had some of these qualities, but a very precious few had them all.
It’s as good a time as any in pop culture history to take a look at The Men of James Bond.
When Dr. No went into pre-production, producers discussed a number of actors, including Richard Burton, George Baker, Patrick Allen, Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard and Richard Johnson. Cary Grant was seriously considered, but he was already in his mid-60s and not interested committing to multiple movies.
Finally, someone brought up the name Sean Connery. He was not an obvious choice. Connery was physically fit enough to play 007, but the producers did not believe he had enough raw sexuality the character required. Ian Fleming had similar doubts and dismissed Connery as “not what I envisioned.” He suggested a young actor named Roger Moore instead.
Things changed when Cubby Broccoli listened to someone much better qualified to assess a man’s sex appeal: his wife. When she saw him, Dana Broccoli exclaimed, “he’s fabulous!” (It is said Fleming’s girlfriend, Blanche Blackwell, also assured him that Connery was indeed sexy.)
With the question of who would play James Bond settled, production on Dr. No moved forward. Director Terence Young was the ideal choice to help craft the first Bond movie. Young was a former combat veteran who had experienced genuine danger in the field. He also dressed in fine clothes, enjoyed good food and drinks, and loved women. He mentored the younger Connery and even coached the actor when it came to how to hold cigarettes, dry humor, conversation—no detail was too small. Under Young’s guidance, Connery struck just the right balance of elegance, intelligence and anti-hero. The addition of humor prevented the movie from becoming overly machismo, but there was still enough rugged masculinity to convince audiences that Bond was capable of both violence and seduction.
Years after their collaboration, Sean Connery gave Terence Young credit for helping bring the Bond character to life. In turn, Terence Young gave Sean Connery credit for making the James Bond series the success it became.
James Bond became a pop culture sensation, but after a few movies Sean Connery was tiring of the role and feared he would become typecast. His instinct to back away from the character that made him famous was correct. He went on to a successful career that spanned decades until retiring from acting in 2012. But he is never far from his legacy.
For a great number of fans, he is still the embodiment of James Bond and the gold standard by which all others are measured.
When Sean Connery decided not return after You Only Live Twice, EON Productions was placed in the unenviable position of trying to recast a role now closely associated with Sean Connery.
Producers took a risk, and decided on a relatively unknown Australian model named George Lazenby, who had no acting experience in movies or television. As Terence Young had once done with Sean Connery, director Peter Hunt believed he could mold Lazenby into the perfect 007.
Efforts were made to make the Connery-to-Lazenby transition as smooth as possible for the audience. For On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, many familiar elements returned: the martini, the same cigarette case seen in Dr. No, the acerbic relationship with M, flirting with Miss Moneypenny. There are also references alluding to earlier plots, signaling this is the same character.
Lazenby’s time as Bond was difficult. He accused the producers of not showing him enough respect; in turn, producers complained of his arrogance. Despite Lazenby’s inexperience and difficulties on the on the set, EON Productions offered him a seven-movie contract. Lazenby’s agent was convinced James Bond’s popularity would never last into the 1970s and advised his client to turn the contract down. Lazenby took the advice and announced his departure from the series before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service had been released.
The name Roger Moore was no stranger to the producers of James Bond. His name had first been mentioned as far back as the casting process for Dr. No, but his busy television schedule prevented him from becoming a candidate. Unlike a decade before, the timing was now right for Moore to become 007. When Live and Let Die hit theaters in 1973, it came complete with a rocking new theme song from Paul McCartney to usher in a new era.
During Moore’s tenure as 007, the character evolved considerably. Scriptwriters tailored dialogue to incorporate Moore’s natural wit. Moore’s Bond was a more amplified version of the character, with his lifestyle becoming more luxurious, the stunts increasingly outrageous and the cigarettes giving way to cigars.
Moore retired from Bond after A View to a Kill in 1985. He was 58 and it was time for a new, younger actor. Moore has left a considerable stamp on the James Bond franchise. For many movies fans, it is Moore’s wisecracking, elegant Bond that remains a favorite era.
Like Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton had once been considered for the James Bond role years before finally winning it. After Sean Connery’s first departure in 1968, theater actor Dalton’s name was put forth as a possibility. At just 24 years of age, Dalton believed himself too young and did not want to follow Sean Connery.
In 1985, Moore retired from his successful run as Bond. No longer 24 and a more seasoned actor, Dalton was finally ready to portray the famous spy.
Timothy Dalton’s vision for James Bond was a darker interpretation more akin Ian Fleming’s books. With Dalton in the lead, Bond was a flawed man on the verge of burnout. Audiences had trouble adjusting to the grittier characterization and realistic violence.
To make the situation even more challenging, after License to Kill in 1989, legal issues prevented the production of new movies. MGM was sold in 1990, and there was a dispute over television rights. Pre-production on another film wasn’t ready to begin until 1993, but by this time Dalton was ready to move on.
Like Moore and Dalton, Brosnan had once been considered to play Bond nearly a decade earlier. Brosnan’s TV detective show Remington Steele was ending, which would free up his schedule. The excitement over his portrayal of Bond backfired, however. The producers of Remington Steele decided that the publicity surrounding Brosnan would benefit their own agenda. Instead of canceling Remington Steele as planned, they ordered another season, effectively ending Brosnan’s opportunity to play Bond before he could even start. That changed in 1994. The chance to play Bond had circled back around and now it was Brosnan’s turn.
Gone was Timothy Dalton’s realism. Although every Bond movie requires suspension of disbelief, the Brosnan era was especially fantastical, and reintroduced humor and lavish adventure.
After Pierce Brosnan retired from portraying James Bond, it provided an opportunity for the franchise to change direction. The new Bond would be grittier and harder edged. Years before, audiences had not been ready for Timothy Dalton’s more realistic portrayal, but preferences had changed and the time was now right.
It was also an opportunity to completely reboot the series—instead of showing the spy fully formed, this James Bond would still be in the process of figuring himself out. He dresses in the storied tuxedo for the first time and discovers his taste for a martini that was shaken, not stirred. He makes mistakes as he learns. The gun barrel sequence does not appear at the beginning of the movie, but at the end—this James Bond has to earn it.
As soon as they decided to reboot the series, producers wanted Daniel Craig to play the new version of Bond. Craig himself was not interested and wanted no part of the movies Austin Powers so effectively mocked. It wasn’t until producers showed Craig the script and assured him of the new, darker direction that he finally agreed to accept the part.
The emphasis on Craig’s physicality was a distinct pivot from the Bonds before him. “Instead of being the lover and being defined by his libido, he’s actually defined by his ability to endure pain,” says Funnell. “He is the most beaten and bruised Bond in history. There’s a lot of emphasis on cuts on his face. You can see a lot of wounds on his chest. His chest is metonymic of all the stress and the struggles that he goes through, that his body is a living archive of trauma. You’re supposed to read that this is a body that has suffered.”
When Craig’s first Bond movie, Casino Royale, was released in 2006, many fans remained skeptical of the new trajectory, but other fans eagerly embraced the new 007. Daniel Craig’s current status as Bond is coming to an end, but he has been credited for breathing life back into James Bond.
The Man Behind The Men of James Bond
Author Ian Fleming was one of four brothers born into a wealthy, well-connected family in the United Kingdom. Ian’s talents were in athletics and charming others, skills he utilized for the rest of his life. He also served in World War II; was gifted at languages; had worked for Reuters news service, where he traveled and honed the craft of writing; and he enjoyed a good drink and a smoke. In other words, Fleming evolved into a man with abilities and tastes not unlike the fictional James Bond, although some exaggeration may have been involved.
Most likely, Fleming took inspiration from several people he knew to create the ultimate spy. When the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, appeared in hardcover on bookshelves in 1953, the original print run was just short of 5,000 and quickly sold out.
THE 1960s SPY CRAZE
As the 1960s dawned, the world of entertainment was primed for the thrilling world of espionage. As the very real Cold War created tension between world powers, average citizens following the news were able to ease their discomfort and satisfy curiosity by indulging in the secret universe of international spies.
In the United States, President John F. Kennedy further fueled interest in the genre when he listed From Russia with Love as one of his 10 favorite books in the March 17, 1961, issue of Life. As he navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis and relations with the Soviet Union, President Kennedy sent a subliminal message to his public when he called attention to the Bond novel. Like Bond, Kennedy was a glamorous, sophisticated war hero capable of serving his country at the highest level. Surely the nation would draw parallels between the two, and infer Kennedy was a man who could be trusted with his country’s safety.
The interest in espionage and President Kennedy’s recommendation of From Russia with Love coincided perfectly with the release of the first Bond movie, Dr. No, in 1962. It was a time when the film industry was also changing—the factory-style of churning out movies under the studio system was nearly dead, production codes were loosening up, and tastes in entertainment were evolving. Dr. No, starring Sean Connery as James Bond, was a blockbuster-style movie before there was such a thing.
Fueled in large part by the popularity of James Bond movies, the spy genre further boomed on television both in the United Kingdom and United States.
From early on, elements closely associated with James Bond movies presented themselves as lasting and crucial characteristics of the franchise—exotic travel, gadgets, luxury cars, beautiful women, theatrical villains and exciting action sequences. His colleagues at the elite M16 intelligence service have also become regular components of the films.
Bond himself has also come to represent an ideal or fantasy on whom viewers can project themselves. These expectations remain intact, and yet the films continue to progress as times change.
Since Dr. No, the Bond movies have spanned decades, generations and actor portrayals of the spy. Bond is more than just a series of books or a movie franchise; James Bond and his world have grown from an icon of literature and cinema into a bona fide academic canon, complete with critical studies of genre, gender, race, power, violence, politics and sexuality.
The impact of James Bond is difficult to exaggerate. In 2018, a survey revealed that 27 percent of Americans had watched the entire James Bond series. Another 47 percent said they had watched at least some of the films.
Ian Fleming died at the age of 56 in 1964 after years of adventures, tough living and drinking. At the time of his death, his books were in the early stages of becoming a cinematic phenomenon. Despite his success, there was one fan he was never quite able to win over—his mother, Evelyn. She died just a couple of weeks before Ian. His life-long nickname for her … was M.