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The Good Life

License to Thrill

How the James Bond phenomenon became the industry’s longest running—and most exciting—film franchise
By Marshall Fine | From The Bond Legacy, July/August 2020
License to Thrill
Photo/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Sean Connery was the first man to play James Bond on the big screen, and this moment by an Aston Martin in Goldfinger sums up the very essence of agent 007.

Through almost 60 years, more than 20 movie thrillers and a half-dozen casting changes, James Bond has done one thing unswervingly well: spoil the plans of his enemies. From his first screen appearance, portrayed by the dashing Sean Connery in Dr. No, a rogues’ gallery of villains, from megalomaniacal tycoons to brutal drug lords to vicious dictators, have battled cinema’s greatest secret agent on land, underwater and in outer space, unleashing every weapon imaginable, from knives and garrotes to lasers and nuclear weapons—even a man with steel teeth. And yet he’s never been bested.

Agent 007 may now be facing his most formidable foe. A pandemic has postponed the release of the 25th official James Bond film, No Time to Die, from March until November. But if history has taught us anything, it is never count him out. Just as with every 007 cliffhanger in which the bad guy leaves the spy to die only to have him escape, you can bet Bond will bounce back, more powerful than before.

And when audiences finally get to see No Time to Die, they will encounter a saga unsurpassed in motion-picture history.

Through 24 official James Bond films, from Dr. No (1962) to Spectre (2015), the series has earned a North American total of almost $2 billion on more than 600 million tickets. Adjusted for inflation, that would total $5.9 billion, according to media analytics giant Comscore Inc.

Bond
The suave standard Connery set in Dr. No has remained the template by which other actors in the role are judged. (Photo/Collection Christophel/Alamy)

No Bond film has lost money. The four most recent outings with Daniel Craig have earned $1 billion at the U.S. box office, and more than triple that worldwide.

“In the modern era, this is the gold standard, the all-time champion for longevity, viability and interest,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore. “I can’t think of another series of films that started in the 1960s and is still viable, relevant and hugely exciting.”

“What’s so extraordinary is that they are all made in the same style,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “They’ve effortlessly gone from Connery to Lazenby to Moore to Dalton to Brosnan to Craig without missing a beat.”

No Time to Die represents another inflection point: Craig’s final spin around the track, a change of heart after having once said he would rather slash his wrists than play Bond again.

Before postponing the film’s premiere, producer Barbara Broccoli, who took over the franchise from her father, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, in 1996, said: “We have come to an emotionally satisfying conclusion.”

The new film concludes EON’s 21st-century effort to take Craig’s Bond back to his roots: the charming, ruthless and deadly secret agent that author Ian Fleming introduced to the world with his 1953 novel, Casino Royale.

As one former Bond, Timothy Dalton, told the Los Angeles Times in 2012, “Daniel Craig’s Bond movies are absolutely modern, up-to-date versions, but they’re also the legitimate heir of Dr. No and From Russia with Love.”

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The irresistible Bond charm. Connery pours a drink for Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger. (Photo/RDB/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

By the time Cubby Broccoli and partner Harry Saltzman turned Sean Connery into an international superstar with 1962’s Dr. No, Fleming’s novels were a worldwide hit, available in 20 languages. But Fleming, who worked in British Naval Intelligence during World War II and later as a journalist, had written the first book in about a month in 1952, to take his mind off his impending marriage. Even when the novels became bestsellers, he was without literary pretensions.

“My books have no social significance, except a deleterious one,” Fleming told the New Yorker in 1962. “They’re considered to have too much violence and too much sex. I think it’s an absolute miracle that an elderly person like me can go on turning out these books with such zest. It’s really a terrible indictment of my own character—they’re so adolescent. But they’re fun. I think people like them because they’re fun.”

One news item in particular sparked the books’ American popularity: a 1962 reading list of then-Pres. John F. Kennedy, which included Fleming’s From Russia with Love. JFK had been a fan from his days in the Senate, and the two had had an unexpected encounter.

As Fleming explained to The New Yorker, “A couple of years ago, when I was in Washington and was driving to lunch with a friend of mine, she spotted a young couple coming out of church and she stopped our cab. ‘You must meet them,’ she said. ‘They’re great fans of yours.’ And she introduced me to Jack and Jackie Kennedy. ‘Not the Ian Fleming,’ they said. What could be more gratifying than that?”

Fleming’s initial take at bringing Bond from page to screen was unsatisfying: a 1954 American TV version of Casino Royale, starring Barry Nelson as an American “Jimmy” Bond. Eventually, Fleming was approached by Saltzman, a showman and producer who operated on Fleming’s wavelength. Saltzman, however, lacked the money to make Dr. No—until he partnered with Broccoli, who had the studio connections to make a deal with United Artists. The two would partner until 1974, after which Broccoli carried on alone, as daughter, Barbara, and his stepson, Michael Wilson, worked their way up to be his partners.

Dr. No (which debuted in British theaters 11 days before the start of the Cuban missile crisis) was a hit. By the time Goldfinger, the third film in the series, exploded into theaters in 1964, James Bond had become a genuine cultural phenomenon.

The man who rode that wave was Sean Connery, who was 32 when Dr. No premiered. To a generation of baby boomers, Connery became the one true James Bond—and Bond made him a star.

Bond
The movie poster for Thunderball, the fourth installment of the James Bond series which was released in 1965. (Photo/Getty Images)

The massive and sudden popularity of agent 007 (400 members of the press covered the filming of You Only Live Twice in Japan) took Connery by surprise. “There’s an invasion of privacy that’s come with it,” he said in a 1967 interview. “This Bond phenomenon has never happened in the history of cinema before…Nobody anticipated how successful the films would be. Nobody.”

Ian Fleming had wanted David Niven for the role (a part Niven would play in 1967’s spoof Casino Royale, one of two unofficial James Bond films). The producers considered more than 100 actors before settling on Connery. As Cubby Broccoli told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in a 1965 interview, “One of the things that appealed to me about Sean is the way he moves. He moves like a cat.”

Connery also brought wit to the role, a crucial component: “I felt there was a lack of humor in the books and I mentioned that to Fleming,” Connery told F. Lee Bailey in 1967, when Connery appeared on the famed defense attorney’s short-lived TV talk show. “He was quite surprised, because he thought he was humorous. And he was, as a person—but not in the Bond books. Ian Fleming had a marvelous curiosity. He was great fun, very witty, very dry. A bit too English for me, but still fun.”

Connery, a Scotsman, often suggested the flip one-liners that provided a cheeky button to a moment of violence. Having electrocuted a bad guy in a bathtub by tossing in an electric fan early in Goldfinger, Connery surveys the result and deadpans, “Shocking.” In You Only Live Twice, he unzips the dress of a villain’s female accomplice before taking her to bed and mutters in mock weariness, “The things I do for England.”

Bond
Roger Moore enjoyed cigars onscreen as Bond, as well as in real life. Here, on the set of Live and Let Die, he relaxes with a slim smoke while waiting to film his next scene. (Photo/Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)

Connery had it all as Bond. The former bodybuilder looked and moved like someone who could throw (and take) a punch. “Connery’s Bond was the perfect guy,” says Ed Gross, co-author of Nobody Does It Better: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of James Bond. “He was deadly serious, but with a humorous edge. It was perfect for the ’60s. Heroes were changing and he was a different kind of secret agent.”

With Connery as Bond, the enduring formula was created: a plot involving a threat to the safety of the world; a villain and henchman who are larger than life; exotic ports of call; a carload of gimmicky weapons; elaborate action; and even more elaborate sets, such as a missile-launching site hidden in a fake volcano or a luxury hotel made of ice.

As Roger Moore told Entertainment Weekly in 2008, “There’s no hidden agenda. They’re just ‘Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am, here comes a pretty girl, there goes a car chase, let’s shoot a helicopter down.’ That’s as deep as they got.”

Guy Hamilton, who directed Goldfinger and several other Bond films, explained the creation process in Bond ’73: The Lost Documentary. “We’d lock ourselves up in the office with a lot of cigarettes—and three weeks later, we had a story with three acts and the characters involved. The audience knows the ground rules. My job is to surprise and entertain them in a great, wild farce they never see—except once a year in a Bond movie.”

Which, in part, was one reason Connery decided to call it quits after five films. “They’ve gotten away from the personal aspect of it. Now he’s got to walk on water or the equivalent,” Connery said in 1967.

At that point, Bond was one of the hottest intellectual properties in the movies. The market was flooded with merchandise with the “007” brand. Everything from trading cards to men’s cologne carried the recognizable insignia, if not Connery’s face.

Bond
Pierce Brosnan stars as James Bond opposite Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, the eighteenth installment of the series released in 1997. (Photo/Keith Hamshere/Getty Images)

Connery, however, was angry at his small share of what he saw as a windfall for Saltzman and Broccoli. While the producers renegotiated their deal with United Artists with each successive Bond hit, they refused to bargain with Connery, who had signed his multipicture deal before the first film was even made. That led to Connery’s public airing of the grievance for years afterward. Surprising him with a 007 trivia quiz on “The Tonight Show” one night in the mid-1970s, Johnny Carson asked Connery to name the first Bond villain. Connery brought down the house when he quipped, “Cubby Broccoli.” The pair eventually reconciled before Broccoli’s death.

Connery’s departure from the role in 1971 started what has become an irregular ritual: the hunt for the next James Bond.

“Casting has been the key,” Dergarabedian of Comscore says. “Next to Batman, James Bond is one of the most important casting decisions you can make. It can make or break the future.”

Roger Moore, who succeeded Connery, had been considered both for Dr. No and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (but was unavailable), before becoming Bond in 1973. While there are a handful of Bond film villains who smoke cigars—Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, Robert Davi’s Franz Sanchez—only Moore regularly indulged in cigars onscreen while playing 007. In fact, his contract included a clause giving him an unlimited supply of Montecristos. His Bond smokes in most of his films and even weaponizes his cigar (along with an aerosol can) to improvise a flamethrower in Live and Let Die, his first time playing Bond.

NBC famously wouldn’t release Pierce Brosnan from his contract for the television series “Remington Steele” when Broccoli wanted Brosnan to replace Moore for The Living Daylights in 1987. Timothy Dalton got the role, only to be replaced after two films by Brosnan, who was by then available. Brosnan, who lights a stogie at the end of Die Another Day, his last take as Bond, is a cigar lover in real life.

When EON announced Craig as Brosnan’s replacement in 2005, it created a backlash, with fans up in arms over Craig’s blond hair and less-refined good looks. But his smashing debut in Casino Royale made converts of the Bond legion.

Bond
Daniel Craig, taking aim in Casino Royale, brought grit to 007. (Photo/Greg Williams/Eon Productions via Getty Images)

The enduring question is “Who is the best James Bond?” From the perspective of the box office, the undisputed champion is Connery. For fans, it depends on whom you ask—and when they first saw a James Bond film.

“People love the Bond they were introduced to,” says Bond screenwriter Bruce Feirstein. “There’s an entire generation that adores Daniel Craig. But for people who saw Roger Moore first, he’s their Bond. Really, I think everyone was compared to Sean Connery until Daniel Craig.” Jane Seymour, who played Solitaire in Live and Let Die, says, “Bond has managed to grow with the times. Sean Connery’s Bond was very different from the very tongue-in-cheek version that Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan offered. Daniel Craig is more of a Bourne Identity kind of hero.”

Says Thompson, “James Bond has to evolve. With each new casting, they’re able to update. So James Bond never looks like an anachronism. He keeps being refreshed. The challenge when they change is getting used to a new one.”

Die Another Day, Brosnan’s final round as Bond, is remembered as the film that featured both Halle Berry in action-hero mode and an implausible invisible car.  Between the time that film was shot and released, the United States suffered the 9/11 terrorist attacks, prompting a reset for 007.

“After 9/11, it didn’t seem right to have a flippancy to the films at that point,” Barbara Broccoli says in the documentary Everything or Nothing (whose acronym is EON). “We wanted to make the film that Cubby and Harry would have made.”

Author Ed Gross says, “They realized they had to go back to basics. In the Bourne era, it was the perfect change.”

Craig gave Bond a harder edge—but he also added emotional depth, explained producer Michael Wilson in a 2015 TV interview: “Daniel brings out the personal aspect of Bond,” Wilson said. “He has a way of making Bond vulnerable that shows an inner part of him.”

No Time to Die brings Bond—whose womanizing tendencies have been less of a feature since Craig took over—squarely into the Me Too era. Can Agent 007 evolve yet again to handle changing ideas of gender equality?

As Gross notes, Bond’s attitude and relationship with women had been evolving even before Me Too, beginning with his relationship with Judi Dench’s M: “You had a woman holding her own in The Spy Who Loved Me. And look at the women in the films Pierce Brosnan did: Famke Janssen, Michelle Yeo, Halle Berry—very strong women characters. He wasn’t necessarily the ‘misogynist dinosaur’ that M said he was in GoldenEye.”

Idris Elba, Tom Hardy and Henry Cavill have been mentioned as possible Bonds to follow Craig, though one should never underestimate Broccoli’s ability to pull a casting surprise.

With luck, future film versions of James Bond will stick to the principle Cubby Broccoli espoused to the CBC in 1965: “We want to keep making them better. It’s not easy to increase the entertainment and production values and bring new faces to the screen.” As Barbara Broccoli said to IndieWire in 2012, “We do it, not for business, we do it because we care about it as much as they did. And it meant everything to them.” 

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