If Sir Roger Moore couldn’t help twinkling when he played James Bond for seven films and thirteen years, perhaps it’s because this unpretentious sophisticate sees through everything, including himself, and enjoys the humor of it all. On the phone from a Manhattan hotel, where he was suitably registered under a pseudonym, Moore says, “Quite honestly, I do everything the same and I think everything comes out the same, whether I’m flinching as James Bond or raising my eyebrows as Simon Templar.”
Simon Templar, known as the Saint, was the pop icon Moore created earlier in his career, a smart-set Robin Hood fleecing the filthy rich and protecting innocents of any kind on TV for seven years and a hundred and eighteen episodes. With the role, Moore learned both the pleasures and restrictions of being the video-era equivalent of a glamorous, old-fashioned matinee idol. When Fred Zinnemann was readying his film adaptation of “The Day of the Jackal,” Frederick Forsyth’s bestseller about a professional sniper hired to assassinate Charles de Gaulle, Moore lobbied to be part of it. “I wanted to do the Jackal, and John Woolf, who was producing, liked the idea. But Freddy Zinnemann, the director, didn’t like me at all.” When he ran into the filmmaker two years later, Moore asked, “Why wouldn’t you want me?” And Zinnemann told him, “You’re too well-known. And you can’t walk through a crowd and not be noticed. You don’t look ordinary.” And Moore thought, “He was absolutely right.”
So when Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli landed him as their replacement for Sean Connery, he immediately saw the ironic comedy in the big-screen Bond. “First of all, my whole reaction was always—he is not a real spy. You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is. That’s just hysterically funny.”
Moore has put his fond reflections on his most famous role in a volume called “Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies,” timed for the series’ golden anniversary and his own ruby anniversary as 007. In the book, he says the best Bond is Connery’s. “Sean was Bond. He created Bond.” Connery fashioned Bond, Moore writes, into “an instantly recognizable character the world over—he was rough, tough, mean, and witty.” Moore says if he had seen “Skyfall” before finishing the book, he would have amended that statement. “Now they’ve found the Bond—Daniel Craig…. I always said Sean played Bond as a killer and I played Bond as a lover. I think that Daniel Craig is even more of a killer. He has this superb intensity; he’s a glorious actor.”
The new Bond films are realistic thrillers; Moore’s Bond films were larks. “I always felt you should let the audience share the joke,” he says. His Bond films were also very movie-conscious movies, in a brash, satirical way, right from his first, “Live and Let Die,” a blunt riposte to the blaxploitation craze of the early nineteen-seventies, with Bond as the Great White Action Hero trailing the black Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) through Harlem, New Orleans, and the voodoo-dominated Caribbean.
It’s difficult to mesh effrontery and excitement without being crude or silly, but at least one Moore Bond film got the balance just right. “The Spy Who Loved Me,” costarred Barbara Bach as Soviet agent Anya Amasova, who teams up with 007 to defeat Kurt Stromberg (Curt Jurgens), a megalomaniac shipping magnate with a marine lair as gorgeous and intricate as Captain Nemo’s as well as a tracking system and supertanker that enable him to swallow up nuclear submarines. It was a great escapist fantasy, with comic-book logic and comic-book surprise. The action moved seamlessly from one spectacular frame to the next, continually delighting and surprising the audience, as designer Ken Adam and director Lewis Gilbert created a sci-fi fantasy world that could compete with “Star Wars.” When the filmmakers paid homage to older Bond adventures, they exploded the proportions. The Oddjob figure, the exotic thug, became Richard Kiel’s towering “Jaws”—a steel-toothed assassin with a mighty grimace-grin. This Jaws just refused to die. Audiences laughed at his indestructibility, and began to applaud it.
Reading “Bond on Bond,” you realize how much the filmmakers’ reading of Moore’s own personality contributed to the charm of “The Spy Who Loved Me.” He is genuinely delighted with gadgets, like the Seiko watch with the ticker-tape pager that alerts 007 to his assignment. He is alternately courtly and waggish with women; he confesses in his book that he called Barbara Bach “Barbara Back-to-Front.” Moore can also be infectiously droll. We discover that when Anya and 007 drove out of the sea in their souped-up Lotus Esprit (which can turn into a submarine), Moore was the one with the nifty idea to drop a little fish out of the car’s window.
Whenever Moore got to the set, Gilbert would ask, “What do you have to say today?”—and then assured him, “We’ll find something funnier.” So in “The Spy Who Love Me,” as Bond sees a mess of scaffolding collapsing outside the temple complex of Karnak, Moore thought he should mutter, disdainfully, “Egyptian builders.” The problem was, Egyptian censors had already approved the script and wouldn’t allow variations, especially not for an “Egyptian builders” joke. So Moore mouthed the line and Gilbert recorded it and dubbed it afterward. “The sound man said, ‘I wasn’t able to hear his line with all the bloody scaffolding falling down; Lewis, you’re going to have to do it again.’ Lewis just said, ‘Shut up.’ And my friends in Egypt said ‘Egyptian builders’ got the biggest laugh of the movie.”
Because of Moore’s bounding affection for the series, I wonder out loud whether Moore would ever consider doing another character in a Bond film, say, Bond’s uncle—or, Moore says, interrupting, with a laugh, “his grandfather, it would have to be now. But no, it wouldn’t fit with the realistic thing they’re doing.” Doesn’t this franchise go through cycles? Might it turn back toward extravagant humor? “Well,” Moore, eighty-five, answers goodnaturedly, “they’d have to do it pretty quickly!”
Michael Sragow – The New Yorker, 8 Nov. 2012