We’re still coming to terms with the loss of British actor Roger Moore. Honors and remembrances have poured in regarding the man, best known for having been the third actor to play James Bond. Much of what’s been said to date focuses on that 12-year section of his career in that role from 1973 to 1985.
This appears to be by design. A closer look at Moore’s other projects, before and during this period, show that his association with Bond, James Bond, seemed set in place by forces above our understanding — or, at the very least, the only outcome after some chance encounters and choices made along the way.
Moore’s early acting career was, by his own admission, a dismal affair. Based on his looks (having started his career as an advertising model), MGM brought him to Hollywood to appear in films such as The Last Time I Saw Paris and Interrupted Melody, often receiving shrugs or tepid notices. After two years, the studio released him from his seven-year contract.
Next, Warner Brothers put him under contract for films, although he got a lot of television work on the side during the period. His one-shots on anthology shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and NBC’s Matinee Theater kept him busy, though not in great demand. This lack of commitment to doing work in the States allowed Moore to make a series for ITV back in England that set him up for better work, at least back home:
Starring in Ivanhoe for its one season in 1958 (with a later syndication in the US), Moore’s role in the series based very loosely on Sir Walter Scott’s novel gave him a profile boost that helped, if not immediately, then down the road.
A road that had to go uncomfortably through Burbank first.
Assuming they had something like a star under contract, Warner Brothers asked Moore back to lead a series produced in the States, The Alaskans:
The series for ABC in 1959 did not get much of an audience. Viewers thought the series seemed too similar to the Warner-produced Maverick, which was also about grifters having adventures in the West of yore. Moore claimed later the series did actually use scripts from Maverick with names from his show penciled over those from the other, part of the studio’s efforts to save money on the backs of the writers (an eternal effort by all producers).
Moore’s work with the reused scripts did serve him well in an indirect, if not entirely comfortable, manner. As The Alaskans fizzled, the Maverick producers and the studio were dealing with James Garner’s contractual disputes, and he walked off the set at the end of season three.
Desperate for a new co-lead, the character of Beau Maverick was created, a distant cousin of Bret and Bart’s, who could come west after spending some time in finishing school in England (hence the accent) and take the lead for these stories.
(Ironically, Moore was not WB’s first choice; they originally offered the role to Sean Connery, who turned down the part to stay in the UK.)
Again faced with bad material, however, Moore stayed for only the fourth season before packing up and heading home. Having tried to play the game in Hollywood, he decided to stay local from that point on.
Which enabled him to become an international star, thanks to British television.
From early on, Moore had an interest in portraying Simon Templar, a character created by Leslie Charteris in the 1920s. A rogue with a good heart who robbed from the wicked but kept the loot for himself, Templar was a charming character involved in plenty of action, much like the other fictional modern adventurer Ian Fleming wrote about.
So when Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment had secured the rights to the character and started production on the series, under the title of Templar’s nickname The Saint, their offer to Moore to star in the series was enthusiastically accepted.
Moore was a natural fit for the show, which started out in 1962 in black and white for ITV. His ability to charm and swiftly shift gears into action set pieces made the program and its star popular. By 1966, the series was being produced in color and got a summer-run window on NBC for those shows, making Moore popular again in the States.
Much like a later Bond actor, Moore was offered a chance to take over the role of James Bond when Connery was growing tired of the role, but his commitments to the series prevented him from entertaining the possibility. Ultimately, after 118 episodes, the series wrapped, but the role of Bond had been filled with great expectations heaped upon George Lazenby, which meant Moore had to bide his time.
Not able to become Bond, Moore chose a surrogate that was within his wheelhouse, combining traits from the British spy with some of Templar’s elements. For his next project with ITC, he was Lord Brett Sinclair, well-heeled aristocrat, playboy, former racecar driver, and one of the two title characters in The Persuaders!
Teamed with American oilman via the streets of the Bronx Danny Wilde (Tony Curtis), these two moneyed adventurers took on cases that either couldn’t be solved by the system imposed on them or that they discovered on their own. Ultimately, justice would prevail, despite the many times it seemed that Sinclair and Wilde might do each other in before the matter could be settled.
The show aired during the 1971-72 season on ITV in the UK and ABC in the US. It got canceled on ABC before it finished its run, although the rest of the world embraced it. But without a US outlet, and a budget per episode equivalent to $1.4 million each, the show could not continue.
Which was fortuitous for Moore, as Lazenby proved to be a mistake, and a position was now open at Eon Productions.
As Moore’s term as Bond over seven films (the longest run by any actor in the role to date) is likely being examined in detail elsewhere, we turn to look instead at the films he was doing while he had his run.
And the one thing that strikes anyone doing a casual review is how little distance he moved away from his main commitments to Cubby Broccoli.
There was 1974’s Gold, which found Moore as the manager of a gold mine which he has to prevent from being flooded to keep a cabal from jacking up the price of the precious metal, which feels like it borrowed a lot from Goldfinger.
There was 1976’s Shout at the Devil, which teams Moore with Lee Marvin as it compares itself to The African Queen, another story about a mission to sneak up to and sabotage a secure target, which happens in at least one act in every Bond film.
There was 1978’s The Wild Geese, which had Moore trying to keep a country’s president alive, a typical Bond mission, although this time he was a mercenary, which meant he had a lot more firepower on the field.
And there was 1980’s fflokes, with Moore playing the head of an anti-terrorist group trying to save an explosion at sea causing a disaster (in this case, an oil platform on the North Sea held hostage by Anthony Perkins), much like the situation in Thunderball.
These were the more successful efforts at the box office with formulae and feel Moore tended to stick to. When occasionally going against type, say as a Nazi officer in 1979’s Escape to Athena, the results tended to be spectacularly bad. The rewards for doing quasi-Bonds while keeping his main gig, allowing both sets of films to feed off each other, allowed the cycle to continue for some time.
Until it hit its expiry date.
As the 1980s started, Moore was starting to look a little long in the tooth, while at the same time getting very comfortable in the role. He was so identified with it, in fact, he made it part of a major gag in a comedy:
In 1981’s The Cannonball Run, Moore plays Seymour Goldfarb Jr., who enters an illicit road race in a tricked-out Aston Martin DB5, under the nom de course of… Roger Moore. His character is literally a fanboy obsession with himself, a version deeply associated with James Bond.
For other actors, this would be a cry for help; for Moore, it was just acceptance of fate, that this would be what he would be tied to, forever and ever. And with little success doing any other kind of character, bad experiences with Hollywood, and a near fatal collapse while doing a show on Broadway in 2003, the impetus for sticking very close to his comfort zone was likely enormous.
In the final analysis, Roger Moore was a man who could really only do one character: James Bond. Through both a combination of career choices and fate, he only had one role his entire career.
And that’s okay.
Moore certainly understood well his strengths and limits and could read his audience well to know what they wanted. As noted, he was confined by his experiences with and expectations from others; the fact that among his later well-noticed roles was the Chief in Spice World, doing a version of Ernst Blofeld, speaks to his staying close to home in his career choices.
The fact that, for many, Moore is the quintessential representation of Bond speaks to the wisdom of his choices. The fact that he could parley his association with the character into noted humanitarian work and a knighthood in 2003 shows how well the association played out for him.
The loss of Moore for many is the loss of Bond; no other actor in the role before or since is acceptable to these legions of fans. For them, it may take years before they find another actor who could have done the role better.