"This never happened to the other fellow." Those were the first words out of George Lazenby's mouth as Bond, James Bond, when he took over the role from Sean Connery in 1969 for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. In the film's opening scenes, he's beaten senseless by goons on a Portuguese beach after saving a suicidal countess, who thanks him by racing away without looking back. A new DVD of the film, counted as a lost classic by many faithful Ian Fleming fans, was released last month. Finally, Lazenby, arguably the best Bond ever, will receive the respect he deserves.
As a child of the '70s, I was a latecomer to this view. Raised on the vapid Roger Moore as Bond, I preferred Indiana Jones. My discovery of OHMSS came shortly after watching GoldenEye, the 1995 picture that featured Pierce Brosnan in his first turn as Bond. Few remember the controversy that embroiled Brosnan, fresh off the set of Mrs. Doubtfire and still best known for his lead role in television's Remington Steele. As a TV star with Irish roots, Brosnan was viewed as a lightweight. Die-hard fans wanted a macho basher closer to the Connery-Lazenby mold to retake the role. Adding to Brosnan's woes, the traditionalists were not happy to see spymaster M played by a woman, Judi Dench.
As the actor Daniel Craig prepares to take over the Bond mantle—and his license to kill—in Casino Royale, he has emerged as a target for insufferable Bond purists. At Craignotbond.com, a site that hopes to spark a boycott of the upcoming film, the petulant attacks run down not just the actor's ability ("My suspicion is that he is just not a very good actor. …")and looks ("Everyone I know thinks he is stone ugly. …"), but even his manhood ("Very fey."). On the other side, CraigisBond.net offers this assessment of the British up-and-comer: "Everybody who's seen Craig's performance in Steven Spielberg's Munich has witnessed that Craig is the right man to do the job."
Craig might be comforted to know that even the Adonis-like Lazenby had to live down a range of pointed, physical criticism. "He's tall, dark, handsome and has a dimpled chin," wrote New York Times film critic AH Weiler in 1969. "But Mr. Lazenby, if not a spurious Bond, is merely a casual, pleasant, satisfactory replacement." Yet, I stand with the crowd that believes that if Connery had not returned to her majesty's service with Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 (having failed to spark his career with roles other than 007), Lazenby would have continued playing the part for many years to come.
The producers of On Her Majesty's Secret Service were concerned about having a virtual unknown carry the film—prior to winning the role, Lazenby was a top-earning underwear model and former combat trainer with the Australian armed forces. Seeking box-office ballast, they brought in the leggy Diana Rigg from The Avengers to play the countess, and a relatively youthful Telly "Who Loves You, Baby?" Savalas to play Bond's nemesis Blofeld (complete with fluffy white cat). Lazenby outclasses his peers. With his swimmer's build and model's insouciance, the actor cuts a supremely confident figure amid dangerous car chases, superb ski scenes set in the Swiss Alps, and, notably, when he infiltrates Blofeld's mountaintop hideout disguised as a kilt-wearing expert in genealogy and winds up entertaining a bevy of international beauties while uncovering a plot to poison the world. But there's more to Lazenby as Bond than simply repeating the formula that earned United Artists more than $82 million during Connery's early tenure playing the part.
While it's not fair to call the Connery movies a corruption of Fleming's novels—in fact, with Connery's early success, the author even acknowledged the actor by giving Bond a Scottish birthright—the films, like the stories, had started to grow increasingly cartoonish by the time of Fleming's death in 1964 (several years before Lazenby's arrival.) With a new actor on deck for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the first-time director Peter Hunt took a chance to re-establish Bond as the brutish agent described in Fleming's early novels. The director also slowed the action down enough to allow this characterization to take hold. While Connery remains the prohibitive favorite for many fans, it took just this one movie for Lazenby to make the character his own. He turns away from the sly, self-conscious wit that made his predecessor a box-office draw and allows the wear and stress of being a secret agent to show through. Plus, given Lazenby's training as a martial artist, his fight scenes remain a high point for the franchise.
To the great pleasure of Ian Fleming readers, the film likewise hews closely to the 1963 novel. The audience is treated to Bond's professional doubts (he threatens to resign, and ultimately is forced to team up with villainous Draco to defeat Blofeld), and we witness Bond falling in love and getting married—for the first, and I imagine, the last time. OHMSS closes with Lazenby cradling the corpse of his bride, and the look of resignation on his face shows an emotional unraveling that the other fellows who played the role never came close to touching.
Despite his tremendous screen debut, Lazenby did not go on to have a successful acting career. When Connery came back to the franchise, the Australian didn't make another big-time movie until the 1977 spoof Kentucky Fried Movie. A scan of the Lazenby page in the Internet Movie Database turns up bit parts in forgettable TV series and a few international films, although nothing on par with his first professional coup. It's a slide that Daniel Craig is more than likely aware of. A more encouraging predecessor is Pierce Brosnan, now the most successful ex-Bond, who appears to be aging gracefully and gaining recognition for his talent. That's a far better fate than Timothy Dalton, whose brief tenure as Bond is rightly forgotten today.