Choosing to Be a One-Hit Wonder
The strange story of single-shot James Bond, George Lazenby.
When I was a kid back in the 80s, my older brother was really into the James Bond franchise. He loved the movies, he bought the soundtracks on vinyl (I think mostly for the cover art), and he displayed a number of Ian Fleming’s books on a shelf in his room (whether or not he actually read them, I’m not sure).
I, on the other hand, was not a fan. In fact, I thought the films were pretty corny. I know my take isn’t a popular one, and that I’ll probably irritate some readers by voicing this sentiment (since people tend to have strong feelings about the Bond movies), but Sean Connery and especially Roger Moore always struck me as, well, too cartoonish to be convincing secret agents.
I get that, in part, they were being true to Fleming’s character and the formulaic wishes of filmmakers, but the brow-angling smugness, overly-animated facial expressions, and awkward fight scenes (only saved in the editing by stuntmen who didn’t look very much like the actors) made it hard for me to take them seriously.
Timothy Dalton (who I thought was just okay) later took over the role from Moore, followed by Pierce Brosnan (who I felt was unconvincing as well) and eventually Daniel Craig (who I’d argue all day was the best Bond). But as a lot of movie-goers (and even younger or more casual Bond fans) sometimes forget, another actor played Bond in between Connery and Moore. I’m talking about George Lazenby, who starred in exactly one film from the franchise: 1969’s On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Lazenby struck me as an edgier Bond — gritty, less polished, and more physically convincing. He didn’t make silly faces, and the confidence he brought to the character wasn’t reliant on the witty one-liners and Bond’s trademark womanizing. He felt more like what I imagined an actual secret agent would be like.
Likewise, the movie itself strayed a bit from the Bond films that came before and after it. The action and stunts (Lazenby performed many of them himself) were less stylistic, and the story didn’t end with Bond killing the bad guy, and his bosses subsequently unable to contact him because he was busy sleeping with the female lead.
On the contrary…
Spoiler alert: Bond actually gets married at the end of the movie (as his colleagues watch on emotionally), and retires from MI6. Just minutes after the ceremony, however, the surviving villain unexpectedly reappears and murders his new bride (while trying to kill Bond). The film ends with Bond holding her lifeless body in his arms, unable to accept the fact that she’s truly gone.
If my memory serves me right, I don’t think movie-goers would see that more personal side of Bond again for almost four decades, when the Daniel Craig era began with Casino Royale.
Over the years, I sometimes wondered why Lazenby had only starred in that one Bond film. I never bothered to research the answer, and I suppose I just kind of assumed he didn’t connect with audiences at the time (for whatever reason), and that the film under-performed at the box office, so producers moved onto Roger Moore.
When I discovered the other day that there’s a 2017 Hulu documentary on Lazenby called “Becoming Bond” that explains the entire story, I knew I had to check it out.
If you’re already familiar with this Hollywood tale, I apologize for not giving you something new this week. But I suspect most people, like me up until about a week ago, have never heard it. Hopefully you’ll find it as fascinating as I did.
As it turns out, On Her Majesty's Secret Service actually did quite well (and is still considered by many to be one of the top Bond films). Lazenby had been widely embraced by Bond fans, critics, and movie producers.
In fact, he was offered a very lucrative contract to do six more Bond films after that. But he turned it all down, effectively choosing to become a one-hit wonder.
The documentary is pretty interesting (though I think it wastes entirely too much time on Lazenby’s sexual escapades as a young man). What was most compelling to me was the fact that On Her Majesty's Secret Service was Lazenby’s first ever acting job. Seriously, he didn’t have a single acting credit to his name when he was selected for one of Hollywood’s most high-profile, sought-after roles.
Lazenby, a high school drop-out and auto-mechanic (later a car salesman) from Australia, moved to London in 1963 to pursue an ex-girlfriend. By chance, he was discovered by a photographer who liked his look and persuaded him to try his hand at modeling. He did, and by 1966, he was making a good living in the profession, and was recognized as one of the country’s top models (posing mostly for product magazine ads).
Much of the documentary is made up of reenactments (some overly comical), and from what I read after watching it, there were some rather significant creative liberties taken by the director. But the commonality between all accounts of Lazenby’s rise to the role of James Bond is that it too came about largely by chance. He happened to run into the right people, in the right places, at the right times, and was encouraged by some of them — based almost entirely on his looks and personality — to audition for the part.
The fact that he’d never previously acted was known by some, and allegedly unknown by others, but he was apparently so impressive at his screen test that — in the end — it didn’t matter.
So, at the height of his Hollywood stardom, with a guarantee of making millions and millions of dollars and establishing himself as a pop-culture icon, what was it — exactly — that compelled the former mechanic to shrug his shoulders and effectively say, “Meh, no thanks”?
According to him, it was his sense of individuality. He didn’t like the commercial nature of the franchise, he didn’t like that his suggestions on-set weren’t valued by the filmmakers, and he didn’t like that he would have to maintain a Bond-like physical appearance for the promotion of the film and future films.
In fact, in a show of defiance after the movie’s completion, he grew long hair and a beard that he wore to the premier and other public appearances.
In promotional interviews, much to the anger of film executives, he was upfront about his disinterest in ever playing Agent 007 again. His conduct was so peculiar that a lot of observers suspected it was all part of an elaborate publicity stunt.
But it wasn’t. Lazenby was done.
The documentary leaves the impression that his acting career was over after that, but while many in Hollywood indeed lost interest, Lazenby did go on to star in a number of other movies and television series. Most were pretty forgettable though.
He was in his late 70s when Becoming Bond was filmed, and in the documentary, he does express some regrets about his career decisions back then, as a 30-year-old novice in the industry who didn’t always listen to the best advice. He’s faced a lot of personal and financial struggles in the decades since, but he at least presents himself these days as being mostly content with life. Whether or not he really is, who knows.
In a few ways, Lazenby’s story is similar to that of actor David Caruso, who (after years of mostly bit acting parts) took the television world by storm in 1993 with his award-winning portrayal of Detective John Kelly on NYPD Blue. But when Kelly left the critically acclaimed, highly-rated series a year later, it wasn’t to preserve his free will or free spirit. It was because he believed he had become such a hot commodity in the entertainment world that the next logical career step was to become a leading man in high-paying feature films.
Unfortunately for Caruso, that film career never really panned out.
I guess I’ve always had a fascination with these flash-in-the-pan type stories. It’s not because I revel, like some, in the misfortunes of those who appeared to have it all, and then kicked their successes to the curb for seemingly foolish reasons. On the contrary, I see it more as individuals making their mark on the world, and then not letting that mark define the rest of their life.
Are the decisions foolish in some cases? Sure. But other times they pan out just fine, and bring individuals to new professional — or perhaps more importantly, personal — heights. It’s the nature of risk-taking, I guess.
Anyway, if you’ve never seen it, I recommend you check out Lazenby’ sole stint as James Bond. Also, I can’t emphasize enough just how great that first season of NYPD Blue is. I consider it one the best seasons of any show, ever (as you may have guessed by its repeated mention in my books). Caruso is so good in it, in fact, that I half understand why he thought he could become an A-list film actor once the cameras stopped rolling.
I’ll end by asking the obvious question this week… Who do you think was the best James Bond? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
Obligatory Dog Shot
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This week, I figured I’d bring the funk.
I haven’t featured many albums from this genre, but believe me, I’m into it. 1975’s “Cut the Cake” album by Average White Band, perhaps best known for its James Brown-esque title track, is a fun and funky listen.
It’s a great slice of the era (pun intended), and it’s still hard to believe that these guys are Scottish.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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