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Brosnan. Pierce Brosnan.

Pegged as the best Bond since Sean Connery, the former "Remington Steele" star takes a hard look at himself.

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Bond leaps forward, gun blazing, and running through a hail of gunfire he reaches the enemy rocket launcher. Coolly, expertly, he wheels it around, arms it, aims it and zeroes in for the kill.

"Cut! Good. Good."

Brosnan looks pleased. So does Roger Spottiswoode, the director of Tomorrow Never Dies, the 18th installment of the adventures of James Bond, of Her Majesty's Secret Service. They do two more takes, then Brosnan, his shirt soaked with sweat, comes over to say hello.

"Hard work, " I say.

Brosnan smiles. "It's an honest way to make a living."

In person and up close, Brosnan is just as handsome as he is on screen. The cool blue eyes, the strong jaw, the easy smile, the jet-black hair that tends to tumble down his forehead, Gable-style. But seeing him here on the big sound stage at Pinewood Studios, just west of

London, is still something of a shock. In Goldeneye, his Bond was light and lean, and you could see traces of that coltish charm he used to exude as detective Remington Steele, the TV role that first endeared him to American audiences. No longer. Brosnan has put on weight and muscle. He's a tall man, six foot two, and he now has the brawn and bearing, the rugged maleness, to look every inch as powerful and charismatic as Commander Bond.

Bond, of course, is a mammoth role to fill. Ian Fleming gave his hero a larger-than-life aura, and on screen Sean Connery imbued the role with a panache and wit as deadly as Bond's fabled Walther PPK. When Roger Moore took on the mantle for seven films, he played Bond in a lighter tone, at times bordering on self-parody. Timothy Dalton? George Whatshisname? Well, let's just say they added little to the Bond myth and mystique. Brosnan is a different story. His Goldeneye was made for $50 million and has grossed more than $350 million worldwide in theatrical sales alone; video and TV revenues are even higher. The budget this time is $75 million, but no one seems nervous. The consensus is that Brosnan has grown into the role, he truly is Bond now, with the mantle, the aura and the bankability. Indeed, all over the set you hear the same verdict: "Brosnan is the best Bond since Connery."

"Pierce owns the role now," Spottiswoode says between takes. "He's wonderful. He has great confidence. Wit. Irony. And he's a terribly nice man."

A few hours later, near the close of this long day's shoot, the man of the hour is back in his trailer, taking a breather. He takes off his shirt, towels down and checks his schedule with Adrian Bell, his personal assistant. Then he wraps the towel around his shoulders, stretches back on a big couch and lights a fine cigar, an El Rey del Mundo from Cuba. A perfect time for a smoke and a comforting way to decompress, to climb out from under the weight of the Bond persona.

Brosnan is 44 now, with a lot of character in his face, and he immediately comes across as a man's man, solid, balanced, comfortable with himself. Even with a high-profile $75 million investment riding on his shoulders. With visitors, either on the set or now in his trailer, Brosnan is exceptionally warm and gracious, and he gives no hint of arrogance or pretense. He's also a proud papa. As soon as he settles in for a chat, Brosnan is eager to show off the latest photos of Dylan Thomas, his new baby boy. And he coos, unabashedly, about Keely Shaye Smith, Dylan's mother and Brosnan's partner for the past three years. "Quite a photographer, isn't she? Wonderful eye."

Unlike some Hollywood actors with gargantuan egos, Brosnan comes off as both a refreshing surprise and a bit of a mystery. Could this new Bond actually be modest and gentle at his core? Could the actor now embodying one of the screen's biggest legends not have a head the size of Manhattan? What gives here? The answers soon come forth. For Pierce Brosnan has the Irish gift for gab; he's a born raconteur. Words flow from his lips like Guinness from a spout. And his candor is astonishing, almost as astonishing as the story he unfurls.

"Childhood was fairly solitary," Brosnan begins, puffing on his cigar. "I grew up in a very small town in southern Ireland. I never knew my father. He left when I was an infant and I was left in the care of my mother and my grandparents. To be Catholic in the '50s, and to be Irish Catholic in the '50s, and have a marriage which was not there, a father who was not there, consequently, the mother, the wife suffered greatly. My mother was very courageous. She took the bold steps to go away and be a nurse in England. Basically wanting a better life for her and myself. My mother came home once a year, twice a year. Consequently, there was a certain amount of early loss in that young boy's life.

"It wasn't all bleak. We lived on the outskirts of the town of Navan, so there was the countryside to play in. My grandfather was a really wonderful, kind, gentle man, and very well respected in the community. My grandmother was a darker person, I really can't speak very clearly about her, but she had a certain magic as well. Because I was so solitary, and we lived, as I say, on the outskirts of town, across the River Boyne, one was an outsider. An only child.

"Then my grandparents died, one after the other. And I lived with an aunt. Then I lived with an uncle. Eventually, though, they wanted to get on with their own lives and they didn't have room for a young boy. So I was sent to live with a woman named Eileen, who had a place in a poor part of town. She had her own children and she also had lodgers. She agreed to take Pierce in, and I moved upstairs with the lodgers, all grown men with jobs. One worked in the mill. One worked in a local bank. And then there was another bed for whoever came in visiting. There was this long room, and there were these iron beds with old mattresses on them. This is where the three lodgers were. At the very end of the room, there was my little bed. With a curtain around it, with newspapers pinned on it, so the light wouldn't shine in when the guys came home.

"I grew up being taught by the Christian brothers, who were dreadful, dreadful human beings. Just the whole hypocrisy. And the cruelness of their ways toward children. They were very sexually repressed. Bitter. Cowards, really. I have nothing good to say about them and will have nothing good to say about them. It was ugly. Very ugly. Dreadful. I learnt nothing from the Christian brothers--except shame.

"It sounds pretty bleak all of this, but that's what it was. No wonder I'm an actor. But you learn to be happy within all of that; you learn how to create your own happiness. And you learn to forgive. You learn to rise above it. And you learn to view people with a different kind of clarity, because they've hurt you and because there was no one there for you to go to. There was not this symbol, the father figure, or the mother. So you learned to find your own independence and survive. If you didn't know, you acted as if you did know.

"And Eileen was great to live with. I was surrounded by kids and out in the streets. And yet it was kind of strange, a bit like David Lynch in a way. Eileen was a big-bosomed woman, baking bread with the apron wrapped around her. A big, warm momma. And those were my last three years in Ireland."

Brosnan puffs on his cigar. These childhood memories seem so fresh, so vivid to him, even after all these years. "I made the big mistake of telling some of this in the early days of 'Remington Steele.' So the doors have been opened and it is so hard to close those kind of doors. But as you go back through the doors, when you get asked the questions, it comes with a certain form of therapy, when you think about it, when you conjure it up, when you paint the picture as the years go on...Catholic upbringing. Choirboy. Altar boy. The whole nine yards. It was an Irish childhood.

"I lived there until the age of 10 and then, finally, when my mother passed her finals, in 1964, I went to live with her in London. The reunion with my mother was joyous. Finally, I had my mother. And that was my first journey, out of Ireland, to England. When you go to a very large city, a metropolis like London, as an Irish boy of 10, life suddenly moves pretty fast. From a little school of, say, seven classrooms in Ireland, to this very large comprehensive school, with over 2,000 children. And you're Irish. And they make you feel it; the British have a wonderful way of doing that, and I had a certain deep sense of being an outsider.

"My mother was working full-time as a nurse. We had a small apartment in a house in south London. There was an old lady in there, Mrs. Slanie, and when I would come home from school she would take care of me and bring me into her living room with chintz and all these knick-knacks and bric-a-brac. She had budgies (canaries), she had two of them, and I'd sit with her after school. It was a world I just wasn't used to. She was very English. The tone of her voice, everything just so. And I got to know the street, the street we lived in. Slowly but surely I made friends and had a group of friends.

"In Ireland, I had been brought up on a diet of old Mother Riley and Norman Wisdom movies, which would not translate to readers in America, but they're black-and-white comedies made here. In the summer of '64, my mother and Bill, my stepfather, took me to the movies and I saw Goldfinger. And here I sat in this cinema, on Putney High Street, with this spectacle, this magical event taking place before my eyes, called James Bond. The music, the women, the shimmering silhouettes of nakedness, and this wonderful woman lying on the bed. Three, four weeks before, I had been in Ireland, in a tiny town, and here I was in the great metropolis, London. Now, maybe the seed was sown there, I don't know, but I thought James Bond was very cool.

"I wanted to be a commercial artist, I wanted to be an artist. I still am, I still paint. At 18, I was working at this little studio in Putney, south London. I was a trainee commercial artist. I went into work one morning, I was hanging my coat up, and I was talking to a fellow colleague who was in the photographic department. We were talking about movies. I loved movies. I had no real dreams to be an actor, but I suppose being in movies had a magical quality to it. And he said, 'Well, I belong to a theater company. A theater club actually. You should come down.'

"And I did. I went down that evening. It was a winter's evening and I hopped on the subway, the tube, and entered through the doors of this very funky, happening place, where there were Black Panther evenings, experimental theater companies, and there were jugglers and mimes. It was in the late '60s--'69, '70, I think--and I joined this workshop.

"I was petrified. I had been asked to be in school plays but always declined. I thought they were rather... I just had no desire to be in plays. But here I found myself in this workshop. A rather dark studio, with about 30 other people doing voice and movement exercises, which were completely alien to me. But so exhilarating. There was no censorship or shame allotted to one and you could be anything you wanted to be.

"So I went that Thursday. I went twice a week. I went three times a week. I went down to the Oval House Theater Club every night after work and eventually gave up the job in commercial art. And we formed a theater company. I was the youngest member, working with people who were actors, who were teachers, musicians, writers. We formed a company called the Oval House Theater Company. During the day I would work. I was a waiter. I cleaned houses. I worked in a factory, a bottling factory, just to supplement my income. It could only be a job, really, that you could do either in the morning or in the late evening.

"When I found acting, or when acting found me, it was a liberation. It was a stepping stone into another life, away from a life that I had, and acting was something I was good at, something which was appreciated. That was a great satisfaction in my life.

"I did fringe theater for about two years. And because I didn't have any formal training in acting, I decided to go to drama school. I went for three years, at a place called The Drama Centre, in north London. I did repertory theater and slowly got roles on TV and in films."

And then came Cassandra Harris. "We met in 1974, shortly after I left drama school. I met her through David Harris, one of Richard Harris' nephews, who had always spoken at drama school about his aunt. One day I was reading for a part in Chelsea, and he said, 'You must come out and visit.' I went out to visit and I walked into his house, his aunt's house, and on the dressing table there was this photograph of this beautiful woman, with two little children beside her. And I said, 'This is your aunt? My God, what a fine looking woman.'

"I think it was a few days later that I actually met Cassie. She'd come back, she'd been working abroad on a film. I saw her coming down the staircase and I thought, 'What a beautiful-looking woman.' I never for an instant thought she was someone I'd spend 17 years of my life with. I didn't think of wooing her, or attempting to woo her; I just wanted to enjoy her beauty and who she was.

"But David Harris started doing a bit of matchmaking and it was, 'Really? She does like me? Really, she thinks that? Oh, how fascinating.' I was doing a play in the West End at that time, and I began visiting the cousin a lot. He was a friend from grammar school but not one of my best buddies. But he became a best buddy. And before we knew it, you fall in love. It just worked. It took a certain courage on both our parts. Cassie was Australian. She had trained as an actress in Australia and done television. She had her own talk show, 'Beauty and the Beast.'

"She left Australia and came to London. She was walking down the street one day, by the London Palladium. Car pulls up. Black man gets out. Says, 'You're beautiful; I want to take your photograph.' She went back to her apartment and says, 'Some black guy came out and gave me his card. It says Sammy Davis Jr. Who's Sammy Davis Jr.?' He wanted to take her picture for a magazine.

"We courted, we wooed, we set up a little house together, in Wimbledon, we posed as man and wife. We lived with Cassie's young children, Charlotte and Christopher. I'm acting, she's acting. I'm acting more than she is, as she's bringing up the children. And suddenly I had a family. And two children. It didn't feel like that. It just felt so right, only because Cassie had such faith in me and we had such a wonderful outlook on life. I didn't feel like a father, I wasn't a father; I was just Pierce. And then I became Daddy Pierce. And then I became Daddy." The couple married in 1977.

Money was tight and that worried Brosnan. "We were scratching along. And it would be, 'Are you sure you picked the right man here, woman? So far so good? Are we hanging in here?' Because she could have had anyone. There were lots of men around her at that time when I met her. Merchant bankers. Actors. She moved in circles which I was not accustomed to. But I was an actor. I was a purist. I was hungry. And I was determined and I was ambitious. I was also someone who was loving, someone who was caring, someone who was funny, someone who was artistic. Someone who had dreams and passion. She had gone through a lot of suffering herself, a lot of negative pain."

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