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Bonds, James Bonds

Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan: 007s who've saved the world in her majesty's service.

November 17, 2002|Bill Desowitz | Special to The Times

For 40 years, the suave British secret agent has been a cultural icon, ever since Sean Connery first burst on the screen like a sexual panther in "Dr. No" and identified himself as "Bond, James Bond." With his license to kill, dry martinis and easy way with women and gadgets, 007 has epitomized an ultimate male fantasy, transcending novelist Ian Fleming's Cold War superspy.

Although the world has changed considerably since, Bond remains the same no matter who plays him -- because that's the way we want it.

So expect something old, something new, something borrowed but nothing blue when "Die Another Day," the multibillion-dollar franchise's 20th feature film (not counting a couple of "unofficial" installments), opens Friday, with Pierce Brosnan.

For many people, Connery is the best, the only Bond. He discussed the legend he created by phone from Prague, Czech Republic, where he's shooting "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." Once Connery took the lead, his successors gladly stepped forward: George Lazenby, the Australian model who injected a rare dose of humanity in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969) before heading off into obscurity; Roger Moore, who gamely hung around for a record seven films in the '70s and '80s with a decidedly more ridiculous approach; Timothy Dalton, the Royal Shakespeare Company alumnus who returned 007 to novelist Ian Fleming's gritty roots with only moderate success in "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "Licence to Kill" (1989); and Brosnan, who has chalked up four appearances and counting.

In his wildest dreams, though, did Connery ever think Bond would last this long?

"No, I didn't. And anyone who says he did is a liar." The Oscar winner suggests the timing of "Dr. No" in 1962 was perfect, and it didn't hurt that President John F. Kennedy proclaimed "From Russia With Love" was his favorite novel. "They broke away from the kitchen-sink dramas" in Britain, he adds. "The initial Bonds were refreshing, exciting and funny, and had good stories and pretty girls--a certain kind of style that didn't take anything for granted, although 'Dr. No' only cost a million."

Connery, 72, who says he wouldn't mind playing a Bond villain if the price was right, credits the first director, Terence Young, with defining the sleek and sensual style, and shaping his cool and confident performance.

"Terence was a real bon vivant. He got me a rack of clothes and, as they say, could get me to look convincingly dangerous in the act of playing it. The humor was an added element lacking in the novels. I took it seriously on one level. One had to be menacing, one had to be strong enough to do all this stuff. Or seem old enough to do it."

Although the first three films were fun (he cites 1963's "From Russia With Love" as the best), Connery became increasingly disenchanted with fights over salary and partnership, outrageous sci-fi plots and demanding production schedules. He officially retired his license to kill after six smash outings and has watched only bits and pieces of his successors on TV. "One wound up doing less and less, as it were. And the other thing was that they were always committing to an opening before they had a script ready, which is rather like the studios do now."

"Working very hard to make it look easy" may have been Connery's secret, but it was too great a burden for newcomer Lazenby, who was unprepared for Bondage and a departure from the franchise formula. "I was hooked on the films and had nothing to lose -- I think that in part gave me the drive to become James Bond," he opined in Los Angeles, where he plays a lot of golf. But "for the life of me, I didn't believe I could be as good as Connery -- he was my hero."

Lazenby could handle the action scenes easily enough because of his swagger and natural athletic ability, but admits he was too inexperienced for the more complex emotional demands of Fleming's best story in which Bond falls in love and marries a free spirit played by Diana Rigg.

"At the time, I didn't understand that part of life -- the dark side of what killing does," Lazenby said. "And [Bond] would do it because he had this [dispassionate] quality. And he then showed his emotions and lost it when they [killed] his wife. I understood that he was falling in love but didn't understand the deeper things going on."

Although Lazenby, 63, regrets quitting Bond after only one film (he was advised by a London hipster that the success of "Easy Rider" was going to kill the franchise), he is proud of his final moment as 007. On the first take, he shed tears, but then was instructed by the assistant director -- director Peter Hunt never spoke to him after an early falling-out -- that Bond doesn't cry. On the next take, with Rigg biting his leg for support, Lazenby summoned a more poignant performance. "It's the only one that closely follows the book, which is why the fans adore it so."

'We had a lot of laughs'

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