Why is it that despite guaranteed stardom, actors are reluctant to play the ruthless secret service agent.
Here's something that has always intrigued me about the James Bond movies. Why do so many actors not want to be part of the most successful movie series in history? (And the Bond films beat everything else in longevity – though they now make less money than pictures featuring aliens and men in capes.)
The most famous reluctant Bond was Sean Connery who created the role and then refused to act in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. The part went to an unknown: George Lazenby. But even Lazenby refused to star in Diamonds Are Forever, the follow-up. The producers went to Richard Burton (very odd choice) who turned them down, leaving them with no choice but to persuade Connery to come back.
Timothy Dalton said he was fed up of being Bond after starring in only two movies (of which Licence to Kill was such a flop that it nearly killed off the whole franchise). Fortunately the US studios ( who distribute the films) wanted Pierce Brosnan anyway so nobody really minded.
And more recently Daniel Craig, the current Bond, swore that he would never, ever star in another Bond movie (he would rather slash his wrists with broken glass, he said) before finally signing on for another (perhaps two more, even), No Time To Die, which will be in cinemas later this year.
In many cases, the producers have tempted the actors back with more money. Connery came back for Diamonds Are Forever for a fee rumoured to be two million pounds (over 20 million pounds in today's money) though it was suggested he would give it to a Scottish charity. Nobody will say how much it took to lure Daniel Craig back but Hollywood websites put the figure at $ 20 million (still less, in real terms, than what Connery got for Diamonds Are Forever).
And it is nearly always about money. Roger Moore turned down Octopussy (which was to be partly shot in India) till they upped his fee. At a press conference in Mumbai, he explained that it was all part of a poker game between him and the series producer Albert R Broccoli. Moore kept saying no until he got the figure he wanted.
It's funny that it should be so hard to cast Bond when the role has the ability to turn an actor into a star overnight. Connery had played only small roles till Dr. No made him famous. Lazenby was a nobody. Moore was a TV star but he still kept playing hard to get once his version of the character took off. And Craig was hardly a household name till he took the Bond role.
Part of the danger in becoming Bond is the risk of typecasting. Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan will always linger in the public imagination as Bond. Despite his best efforts, Craig is still thought of as Bond. Only Connery, the best Bond of them all, went on to have a varied movie career.
The other challenge with Bond is: how do you play the role differently when the ghost of Connery's performance hovers over the set?
The Connery Bond is one of the great creations of 20th century cinema. Ian Fleming was desperate to get the Bond books on the screen. He collaborated with many studios to get a Bond movie made and finally even agreed to a TV show. But nothing came of these efforts.
When Eon Productions approached him to sign over rights to his books, he was at his wits' end and agreed to their terms. He signed over everything except for Casino Royale which he had earlier sold to an American TV company that made a terrible one-off TV show starring American actor Barry Nelson as "Jimmy Bond".
When they were casting Bond, Fleming wanted David Niven or Cary Grant for the role. When the producers said that Niven looked as athletic as a stalk of asparagus and that Grant would be too expensive (Dr. No was shot on a tiny budget), Fleming suggested his own cousin Christopher Lee (later better known as Dracula and as Mohammad Ali Jinnah, where he hardly varied his performance, playing Jinnah as Dracula). That too was turned down.
When Fleming saw Connery, a body-builder and former milkman, he was outraged. This balding, over-muscled actor was no Cary Grant. But he withdrew his objection when he realised that the film would not get made otherwise.
Terrence Young who directed Dr. No took on the task of polishing Connery so that he could play Bond. He got him a hairpiece and sent him off to his own tailor on Savile Row and had him fitted out for suits. Then, he discovered that Connery looked awkward in a suit so he told him to sleep at night in one till he was finally comfortable.
The Fleming books had lots of sex and sadism (it has been posthumously revealed that Fleming liked both) but Young took the decision to increase the action sequences because Connery looked best when he was fighting or being athletic. He also discovered that Connery had a nice line in irony so he upped the script's quota of sardonic one-liners.
That formula remained intact for all of the Connery movies though directors came and went. But even as they finished shooting Goldfinger, the third Bond movie, there was a problem.
Long before Bond become famous, a desperate Fleming had collaborated with a friend of his called Kevin McClory on a screen treatment for a Bond movie that never got made. Eventually, Fleming gave up on the movie and published Thunderball, based on that screen treatment.
McClory sued and the courts ruled that Fleming had to pay damages and credit him on all future editions of Thunderball. Further, McClory got to keep the movie rights to Thunderball. This did not seem like such a big deal at first because McClory collaborated with Eon Productions to make Thunderball with Connery.
But once that movie was released, McClory became a thorn in Fleming's flesh. It turned out that many of the elements we associated with the Bond of the movies came from the Thunderball screen treatment. Fleming had not thought up either SPECTRE or Ernst Stavro Blofeld on his own. McClory claimed that the Bond movies could not use SPECTRE in any form. According to McClory, the Bond of the early books may have been Fleming's but the later Bond was a collaboration. And the cinematic Bond, he argued, was largely a McClory creation.
It all got so acrimonious that Fleming's friends (featured in the excellent James Bond documentary Everything or Nothing) suggest that the battle with McClory pushed Fleming to an early death.
As long as the litigation persisted, the producers had two problems. The first was that they had made SPECTRE the centre of the Bond universe (even Dr. No, in the very first movie, said he worked for SPECTRE) and if the litigation was successful, they couldn't use Blofeld or SPECTRE.
Second, the standard movie contract in that era gave a producer the right to remake a movie ten years after its original release and Eon gave McClory that option. So, by the 1970s, McClory was legally entitled to remake Thunderball with any new title he wanted.
McClory first collaborated with the spy writer Len Deighton on a screenplay (based on Thunderball) called James Bond of The Secret Service. This never got made. Neither did another screenplay called Warhead.
The project only took off once McClory was able to pull Connery back to play Bond in a movie that was eventually called Never Say Never Again. (The title was a reference to Connery's frequent claim that he would never play Bond again.)
Roger Moore's Octopussy and Never Say Never Again were shot together and released close to each other. To everyone's surprise, Octopussy made more money, despite the return of Connery in the Bond role.
What had happened? Well, first of all, Connery had aged badly. He never seemed comfortable in the film. Secondly, Never Say Never Again was a really bad movie. (But then, Octopussy was not much better.)
The problem, I suspect, was that Roger Moore had redefined Bond. Gone was much of the gratuitous sex and violence of the early movies. Instead Moore played Bond as a smoothie who laughed at himself. Connery's darker Bond seemed out of tune with the times.
At a Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, a decade ago, I asked Moore why he had felt the need to redefine the Bond persona. He was brutally honest: the scripts were so absurd and incredible that you had to tell the audience that you weren't taking it seriously, so neither should they. So even as he was battling seemingly insurmountable odds, Moore's Bond was always looking at the audience, one eyebrow cocked, as though to say "It's all good fun, and not to be taken seriously!"
In its own way, the Moore Bond was nearly as definitive as Connery's had been. And when Moore (who was slightly older than Connery) grew too old to be make a convincing Bond, the producers realised that nobody else could replicate Moore's style. They tried to go back to the Bond of the Fleming books and cast Shakespearean actor Timothy Dalton in the role. In my view, Dalton made a good Bond in the Connery mould but his second film was such a stinker that questions began to be asked about his box office appeal. This suited Dalton, who was not wild about the role, fine. He left and for several years there were no James Bond movies.
When the series was revived with Pierce Brosnan (who had been offered the role before Dalton but had to turn it down because he was contracted to appear in Remington Steele, a US TV series) it fared well commercially.
Personally I never found any of the movies memorable and Brosnan looked like a globetrotting male model in a Brioni suit to whom all kinds of strange things happened. The plots were as outrageous as they had been in the Roger Moore era but Brosnan took it all quite seriously.
Even as a po-faced Brosnan was battling unlikely megalomaniacs bent on world domination, the Bond producers found that they had been caught unawares. In 2002, a movie based on an old (1980) Robert Ludlum book called The Bourne Identity starring Matt Damon became a huge hit. It created a new kind of spy movie which was mostly action and was set in a gritty, realistic, violent world where nobody cared about the champagne that the hero drank or how many women he seduced.
Such was the impact of the film and the series it spawned that the studios demanded that the James Bond movies change their formula to adapt to the new style of spy picture. Though Pierce Brosnan was willing to star in another film, the producers found a new James Bond in Daniel Craig, who had serious acting talent (unlike, say, Brosnan, who was a nice enough chap but not much cop as an actor).
The first Craig movie, Casino Royale (Eon had finally acquired the rights to Fleming's first book) unveiled a hero who was more Jason Bourne than James Bond. To make it clear that this was a new kind of Bond, they even added a scene where a bartender asks Bond if he wants his martini shaken or stirred. "Do I look like I give a damn?" Bond replies.
It wasn't all as rough as that, of course, but the character was different enough for the film to be a complete reboot. We were asked to believe that there had been no Bond films before and that Casino Royale marked the beginning of Bond's career. (Well, it was Fleming's first book, after all).
The film was a huge success and though it was followed by the inferior Quantum of Solace, everyone agreed that Craig had breathed new life into the character. The super-successful Skyfall followed and then, the producers had a windfall. They reached a settlement with McClory's estate (he had died by then) and won the rights to use Blofeld and SPECTRE.
So the next film was called SPECTRE and brought Blofeld back. When it became another big hit the producers suggested that SPECTRE would become a regular presence in the series.
As far as Craig was concerned, he had done his bit and opted out of doing the next Bond. Only millions of dollars would lure him back. His problem, he said, was that he saw no place for the character to develop further. To try and solve this problem, Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) was hired to script and direct a different kind of Bond.
There are varying rumours about why Boyle was fired. Apparently he wanted too radical a makeover for the character. Other versions suggest that he did not get along with Craig who had him evicted.
With Boyle out, Eon went to Phoebe Waller-Bridge (of TV's Fleabag and Killing Eve) to help create a new kind of Bond and to rework the script. No outsider knows what this kind of Bond will be like and the plot summaries released by the studio have been minimal. But it seems like a safe bet now that Eon has got its hands on the Blofeld character again, that he will turn up somewhere in the film.
We will know what the truth is later this year when No Time To Die is released worldwide. Apparently, the movie begins with Bond in retirement till he is called upon to return to action.
And unlike the actors who have played him, they did not need to offer James Bond millions of dollars to come back!
He knew his duty to his audience.