Bond Series Turns 50

James Bond Ultimate Edition 3 cover

On more than one occasion I’ve read or heard it said that the all-time greatest movie trivia question is “Who played James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service?” Of course, the reason for that assessment is multifold. For one, the James Bond series is the longest running, uninterrupted movie series in the history of the medium.  Secondly, in terms of total box office gross, it’s also the most successful series of all time. Finally, for such a tremendously popular franchise, the answer to the question is incredibly obscure, despite the fact that the movie was a huge hit.

For moviegoers under the age of forty, give or take, it’s hard to describe the impact of the Bond films during its first two decades of life. It singlehandedly created the spy genre craze of the sixties, which was both a mo

Quantum of Solace cover

vie and television phenomenon. Sean Connery, still the actor most identified with the character, went from unknown Scottish actor to international star virtually overnight. The release of each Bond title meant lines down the block for any theater lucky enough to have booked it (that’s when movie theaters were the stand alone, not multiplex type). And, every entry had a new Bond girl who received reams of publicity and became an instant celebrity, though few managed to parlay that momentary fame into long-lasting career success. In a word, any Bond release was an “event.”

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the franchise, which started with the release of Dr. No in 1962. On Friday, Skyfall, the third entry to star Daniel Craig, will receive its U.S. release. Skyfall is the twenty-third film in the “official” series, produced from the beginning in various combinations, or solo, by Harry Saltzman, Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, Michael G. Wilson and Cubby’s daughter, Barbara Broccoli. For the record, there have been three so-called “unofficial” Bond productions: two films and one TV show. In fact, the first time Bond appeared on screen was on American television. Barry Nelson starred as “Jimmy” Bond in a one-hour adaptation of Casino Royale for the anthology series Climax! in 1954. That same story was later used as the basis for another “unofficial” outing, a swinging sixties comedy starring David Niven and Peter Sellers.

For many, Sean Connery was, and will remain, the only true James Bond. Connery starred in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and (after a one-film “retirement”) Diamonds Are Forever. Later, he would unretire again to reprise the role in Never Say Never Again, one of the “unofficial” Bond titles. Starting with Live and Let Die in 1973, Roger Moore essayed the role in seven films, also including The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, and A View to a Kill. Timothy Dalton, who the producers had originally hoped to sign as Connery’s replacement many years earlier, finally got his chance in the late-eighties with The Living Daylights and Licence to to Kill.

An unprecedented six years elapsed between Bond films after Dalton’s two turns. Skip to the mid-nineties, when Pierce Brosnan assumed the role in GoldenEye. In a case of history repeating itself, Brosnan had been the producers’ original choice to replace Moore in the eighties, but was contractually obligated to the NBC series Remington Steele and couldn’t extricate himself at theCasino Royale cover time. Starting in 1995, Brosnan took up the Bond mantle for four films. In addition to GoldenEye, he starred in Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, and Die Another Day. In 2006, Daniel Craig made his debut as the super spy in Casino Royale, followed by Quantum of Solace two years later, which brings us up to date with Skyfall.

So, there’s been a fair amount of continuity with the casting of James Bond, but not nearly as much as with the supporting roles. For instance, Bernard Lee played M, 007’s boss, eleven times, from Dr. No until 1979’s Moonraker. Robert Brown then followed with four turns as M before Judi Dench began her run of seven films, commencing with GoldenEye and continuing to the present release.  As for Q, the supplier of all the nifty gadgets, Desmond Llewelyn stands almost alone. Although he didn’t originate the role, he played Q a staggering nineteen times, from 1963’s From Russia with Love until 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, only absent from Live and Let Die. No other actor has played Q more than a single instance.  Likewise, Lois Maxwell played saucy secretary Miss Moneypenny fourteen times, from Dr. No through A View to a Kill, an uninterrupted twenty-three year span.  Caroline Bliss then played the role in the two Dalton Bonds and Samantha Bond (quite a coincidence, that) took over the character for Brosnan’s four-film run.  Those supporting roles and the actors who have played them for such lengthy periods are what have helped create the onscreen continuity of the Bond series.

Other keys to continuity in the series include the always rousing pre-credit action sequence (which has more action than many action movies have in their climactic scenes), the use of the instantly-recognizable James Bond theme music in every single film since Dr. No, and the gun-barrel credit sequence used in most of the Bond movies. Of course, the Broccoli family has long considered making the Bond films to be the family business. It’s an extended family, as many of the behind-the-scenes crew and creative talent have been used again and again. Of those, screenwriter Richard Maibaum was paramount in transforming the Bond world of the novels into the Bond world of the screen. Maibaum wrote or co-wrote thirteen of the first sixteen films in the series, ranging from Dr. No. to Licence to Kill. Next week, Media Musings will feature an article I wrote after interviewing Maibaum just prior to the release of Licence to Kill in 1989. That article, which was never published, will appear here for the first time.

Well, that about wraps it up for this post on James Bond.  Wait a moment, it seems as though I’ve forgotten something. Hmmm, what could it be? Oh, yeah, now I remember. So, who did play Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? The answer is Australian model-turned-actor George Lazenby, who opted out of playing further Bond entries – due to what he called mistreatment on the set – and into self-imposed obscurity, as his surprisingly long, but excessively undistinguished acting career attests.

The Des Moines Public Library owns all of the "official" James Bond movies, save Skyfall, which will be added in a few months. We also own Connery's "unofficial" Bond appearance, Never Say Never Again. And, if you want to see Pierce Brosnan, pre-Bond, check out Remington Steele. The first mention of every title in this post is linked to our catalog, so have at it!