© The Daily Mail – 12th April 2009
For most of his 81 years, Sir Roger Moore has played invincible leading men. But behind the scenes he has cheerfully hidden a list of real (and imagined) ailments.You are late,’ says Sir Roger Moore in a deep growl. I apologise. I had thought the interview was at nine o’clock. ‘I am just off to the funeral parlour,’ he continues.
I am flummoxed.
Of all the things Sir Roger Moore has lost over the years (appendix, tonsils, adenoids, a sensitive snip in a circumcision and more recently his prostate), his sense of humour is not one of them. ‘If you don’t have humour,’ he says, still laughing, ‘then you may as well nail the coffin lid down now.’
Today, the 81-year-old actor is best known for the film role he calls ‘Jimmy Bond’ –the part he played in six 007 films from 1973’s Live And Let Die until his last, A View To A Kill, at the ripe old age of 57.
Home for Sir Roger is typically Bond-like – in winter it’s a chalet in the exclusive Swiss resort of Crans Montana, shared with his glamorous fourth wife Kristina; then in spring it is in tax-exile haven Monaco; and summers are spent in a house in the South of France.
However, the action hero and death defying-007 could not be more at odds with Sir Roger who, unlike most men, is refreshingly candid about his health – or lack of it – and even thanks some 18 doctors – ‘just half of the number who have kept me going’ – in his autobiography. ‘I was going to call it Out Of The Bedpan,’ he joshes.
Illness, he admits, has permeated every part of his life, although it is hard to distinguish whether the hypochondria that ‘flows through my veins’ started before the string of scrapes and near-death experiences that have punctuated his life.
‘I believe it is better to be prepared for illness than to wait for a cure,’ he declares, ‘and you certainly save on hospital beds that way.’
He catalogues the ailments and operations he suffered as an only child growing up in Stockwell, South London, which must have terrified his parents Lily and George, a policeman.
Mumps, measles, chickenpox – ‘I nearly died of double bronchial pneumonia at the age of five’ – and unsurprisingly he shudders at the mention of chloroform, which was used to put him under for surgery to circumcise him at the age of eight after an infection.
Then there was the tonsillectomy, adenoidectomy, yellow jaundice and the time he split his jaw open in a Jeep accident as an 18-year-old doing National Service in the Army. ‘Oh, and then they whipped out my appendix in Hamburg.’
Sir Roger cannot let his teenage years go by without mentioning that he has always had a slight weight problem, despite standing at 6ft 2in. ‘I was considered chubby as a teen,’ he sighs. But surely not too chubby. For after RADA training, he supplemented his income as a jobbing actor with work as a knitwear model.
Then came leading-men roles in the Fifties with MGM, which saw him star in the TV series Ivanhoe (1958) and films such as The Sins Of Rachel Cade (1961).
But what if he had not become a luvvie? ‘I’d have opened a pharmacy, of course.’
Weight, or the abundance of it, seems to be a recurring problem for Sir Roger. While actress Jane Seymour was warming up her tarotcardskills for the role of Solitaire in Live And Let Die, Bond producer Cubby Broccoli warned Sir Roger he needed to ‘lose a little weight and get into shape’.
‘Why didn’t you just cast a thin, fit fellow and avoid putting me through this hell?’ he retorted.
A strict diet and punishing exercise regime began. ‘It’s very tempting to over-eat all the bad things when you’re on a film set,’ says Sir Roger, referring to his role as Simon Templar in the TV series The Saint, which ran from 1962 to 1968. ‘Bacon rolls for breakfast, steak-and-kidney pie for lunch, tea and buns and so forth.
‘I’ve always loved food and I realised at one point that I needed to lose a little weight, so I asked a doctor for something to help. He prescribed appetite suppressants; stimulants. They gave me enormous energy and I didn’t need to sleep – I was drugged up to the eyeballs.’
The terrifying realisation that the pills were incredibly addictive was enough to prompt him to wean himself off them and work hard to get fit – without help.
‘Each day I’d get up at 6am to do my exercises – callisthenics, sit-ups and all sorts of other regimes, as I hated gyms and much preferred to keep fit at home. I can’t do the callisthenics any more as my back started to hurt about three years ago.’
These days, he still plays tennis and is a keen walker – he joined the Crans Montana golf club just so that he could walk the course (without clubs) – and swimmer.
He cites his old chum Frank Sinatra, who became religious about swimming lengths underwater –to teach himself extreme breath control. That’s how he managed to sing such long phrases without running out of air’.
Dieting is becoming harder and harder, he says. ‘I do a lot of cooking; we eat a lot of fish, but I try not to make fattening things. I’ve got a good appetite, and of course it is great business for the tailor who has to keep letting out your trousers.’
He cites chocolate as his biggest weakness. Then, as if talking about beautiful women, he sighs: ‘But I don’t indulge in it any more.’
Smoking remained part of his daily diet until he began filming The Persuaders in 1971 and made the terrible faux-pas of asking co-star Tony Curtis for an ashtray when visiting his house in LA.
‘The one, elusive ashtray was found,’ says Sir Roger, ‘but meanwhile Tony slipped a book across the table to me. The front cover had a horrid picture and he told me it was a diseased lung caused by smoking.
‘It turned my stomach and I decided it was time to stop smoking cigarettes – although I continued with cigars for some years.’
During filming he also had a recurring attack of kidney stones. And even Bond baddie Jaws could never have inflicted an injury as painful as this. He has now suffered three bouts, the first, he believes, brought on by the intense heat of the desert, when he was shooting the 1961 cowboy film Gold Of The Seven Saints.
‘It was excruciating, diabolical agony; I had my knees under my chin,’ he says.
He still bears the scars of the surgery to remove the stones, which can occur when excessive waste such as calcium or uric acid crystallises in the kidney. He was told to drink plenty of water and avoid strawberries, spinach and chocolate, all of which contain high amounts of oxalate.
While filming Live And Let Die in New Orleans, he suffered his first injury as ‘Jimmy Bond’ during a big jet-boat chase, when he lost steering power and flew straight into a boathouse wall, cracking his front teeth and twisting his knee.
‘There I was, a fearless 007, hobbling on a cane to my boat and then pretending to be indestructible for the cameras,’ he recalls. ‘Who says I can’t act?’
On that same set, he once again succumbed to kidney stones but was discharged from hospital with painkillers, one of which had the peculiar side effect of turning his urine bright blue.
‘I was still zonked out,’ he recalls, ‘and in unfamiliar surroundings, so when I got up for a pee at two in the morning, I opened what I thought was the bathroom door when it was the wardrobe and relieved myself.
‘The next morning I discovered my mistake when I found my lovely clothes had turned various shades of patchy blue!’
Even as late as 1979, when Sir Roger suffered his third and last (to date) bout of kidney stones while filming Moonraker, the only alternative to surgery was to ‘pass’ the stone, whereas today, laser treatment can break down the hard matter.
‘It was before a flight to Rio on Concorde when I felt that awful pain I had so hoped to avoid experiencing ever again – renal colic.
‘The airport doctor gave me a shot of morphine before I was taken off to hospital for three days. A mixture of muscle-relaxants, painkillers and a few colic attacks later and eventually I passed the stone.’
And was that his most painful encounter to date? ‘No. I remember one time my son Christian was ill and being treated by a doctor on a boat off Portofino. The doctor looked at my nose and saw that it was moving strangely.
On closer examination, he found I had a wart growing inside which had to be removed. He sent me off to an Italian hospital, where the nuns strapped me down before it was lanced with a needle. That was sheer torture.’
Slightly more mysterious was the side effect of playing Rod Slater in the film of Wilbur Smith’s novel Gold, when he spent time down the mines in Johannesburg.
‘You can’t beat a bit of realism,’ he says. ‘Although it was a little too real on one occasion when my nipples started becoming rather sensitive before turning an odd colour.’
Ever curious, he popped into a chemist and revealed his problem. ‘He told me it was arsenic poisoning from the water in the mines.’
Although so much of Sir Roger’s illness was kept under wraps and off camera, film aficionados might want to check out some of the scenes in the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me, in which you can see that his face is swollen –with shingles.
‘I was feeling very rough,’ he says. ‘I awoke with a very swollen face and slits for eyes. Unfortunately I had scenes scheduled and they said they’d shoot over my shoulder. If you look closely you’ll see, over my shoulder, my swollen face. I really wasn’t well and after seeing the doctor I was told to have bed rest.’
After decades of filming in exotic locations, plus the fact that his portrayal of James Bond always had a Caribbean tan, has he added a dermatologist to his team of medical experts?
‘Oh yes, I have to, and worse than that, I was given a tanning machine by a cosmetic surgeon some 30 years ago. Now, of course, you start to pay the price and I watch my skin carefully.’
Despite good, stoical, gallows humour, Sir Roger is now in the years when illness reflects his age. Like 35,000 other men in the UK over 65 who are diagnosed each
year, he discovered he had cancer of the prostate gland in 1993, the removal of which he describes characteristically as a ‘pain in the arse’.
Fortunately, the cancer had not spread to other tissue or bones.
He was 78 when he collapsed on Broadway in 2003 while doing a song-and-dance routine (dressed as Marie Antoinette) for The Play What I Wrote – a tribute to Morecambe and Wise.
Of course, the audience thought it was all part of the show, but paramedics rushed him to hospital where tests revealed he was suffering from an abnormally low heart rate.
Symptoms can include dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath as oxygen is not pumped efficiently enough to the rest of the body from the heart.
He was fitted with a pacemaker, which sends an electrical signal to the heart, causing it to contract if the heart rate falls. Blackouts can be a symptom of an irregular heart rhythm, a condition that causes more than 100,000 deaths every year in the UK.
‘If you suffer a blackout it is probably due to a sudden shortness of blood to the brain, caused by a problem with the heart,’ he says. ‘This is exactly what happened to me. There are many ways to treat this condition –reflex anoxic seizure – including, as in my case, having a pacemaker fitted.’
Whatever his own physical ailments, Sir Roger’s work as a Unicef ambassador, which saw him knighted in 1999, must have put his trials into perspective, travelling the globe raising money for needy children.
And has his role as 007 afforded him better treatment than most?
‘I do get looked after in a rather nice way as they don’t want to be responsible for signing the death certificate of James Bond.’
And given the extensive time he has spent with the medical profession, will he be so generous as to leave his body to science?
‘I have no objection,’ he smiles, ‘although everything is so worn out, I’m not sure they’d take me.’
Interview © Sarah Hartley – The Daily Mail