Like the Doctor, James Bond is one of the most sought after roles in the film industry. Ever since Sean Connery did his first gun barrel sequence in 1963’s Doctor No, every Bond movie has drawn speculation and even screen tests from the most obvious to the most bizarre from the obscure (Michael Billington from the short-lived UFO series) to the obvious (Sam Neill, Dominic West, Idris Elba) to the absurd (Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck). One movie even had an American, James Brolin, cast as Bond. But thanks to Kevin McClory’s unofficial Bond outing in 1983, producers scrambled to get back Roger Moore to compete with Sean Connery.
Yet only six men have played Bond. Attention now turns to who will be the seventh with some suggestions it might be a woman. This last, based on statements from Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, is unlikely, but the new Bond will, like Daniel Craig, start out relatively young. He or possibly she will have some big shoes to fill. Because, when you rank the Bonds, you realize that just topping George Lazenby will prove a challenge. Lazenby disappeared. Moore made Bond into not Sean Connery. Dalton and Craig channeled Connery while Brosnan embraced the whole franchise. And all of them, especially Moore, a friend of Connery’s, looked to Sir Sean as a model. Why not? He invented the role as we know it.
This list will not include Barry Nelson from the 1957 Climax! episode based on Casino Royale, nor will it include David Niven, whose 1967 outing was a parody based on the same novel. ‘Tis a silly film. It will touch on 1983’s Never Say Never Again as that film exists, while outside of the EON canon, because of that same canon. Film rights are a strange thing, and both Sony and MGM have used the thinnest of reasons to make the 2006 Casino Royale and to bring back Blofeld. It was Kevin McClory, the author of all Cubby Broccoli’s pain.
So here we go. I won’t say worst to first, because everyone on this list belongs here.
(All photos EON Productions and MGM.)
6. George Lazenby
The only man to do one-and-done. And the man who had to fill Connery’s shoes.
George Lazenby had been a model before he donned the tux as James Bond. At the time, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hustled to find the right actor to replace their now-iconic Scotsman, Sean Connery. Michael Billington, Michael Gambon (Yes, Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame, who looked the part in his youth), and even Roger Moore were considered. Billington screen tested. Gambon was busy. Moore still rode high in The Saint.
Lazenby, a used car salesman in Australia before moving to London, got the part in a move worthy of James Bond himself. He nicked a suit on Saville Row that Sean Connery had never picked up and wore it as he barged into Harry Saltzman’s office, announcing that he was the new James Bond. The combination of balls and a screentest convinced EON, and Lazenby starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Many have said Lazenby’s inexperience shows in this, one of the most highly regarded Bond films even after nearly sixty years. And he ranks last on this list for simply appearing in only one. A combination of disillusionment and a bad agent sent Lazenby packing (and sent EON to some hat-in-hand meetings with Connery.) EON wanted to give him a ten-film deal. Had the agent done his job, Lazenby could have signed for five (Moore would sign up for three with an optional fourth) and had steady work for the next decade. Being inexperienced, he would do what no other Bond actor could do if they tried: Get out of the story’s way. Yet he’s last on this list because he only did one. And unlike Dalton, who simply had to move on when MGM languished in bankruptcy, he didn’t have the preceding acting rep to fallback on. Too bad, because Lazenby could have done a lot of what Roger Moore did in the 1970s in remaking Bond before handing off the Dalton in the 1980s.
5. Roger Moore
Usually, when I rank Bonds, Roger Moore is always fifth. It’s not a knock on Moore so much as an acknowledgement of what he had to do with the role. After Lazenby bailed and Connery gave us one last official Bond movie, Moore had the unenviable task of making the world forget Sean Connery. Moore is one of those actors who was previously in the mix to be Bond. Though never screen-tested, he was looked at for Doctor No.
After eight years of Connery’s dark, cool Bond, Moore softened the edges, played more towards the comedic, and basically made the franchise more palatable for 1970s audiences. By 1980, Moore had a solid debut in Live and Let Die and two of the franchise’s best outings, The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only. He had two turkeys, the monumentally dull The Man with the Golden Gun and the ill-advised Moonraker. Had he yielded to Brolin, Billington, Dalton, or Brosnan, all up for consideration in 1982, Moore might have finished higher on this list. Unfortunately, he came back after EON panicked over Never Say Never Again and made the franchise’s worst film ever, Octopussy. Then, pushing sixty with Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny looking equally long in the tooth, he did A View to a Kill. Those two films bog down the Moore era.
4. Pierce Brosnan
From the moment audiences saw him on a television show called Remington Steele, they knew Pierce Brosnan would become James Bond. Ironically, after the show was canceled and he was cast in The Living Daylights, NBC brought back the show, invoking Brosnan’s contract so they could cash in on having James Bond in prime time. Which, in turn, got Brosnan fired because his contract with EON stated he could not be doing a television show at the same time as a Bond movie.
Fortunately, when Timothy Dalton moved on, he was available for Goldeneye. And Brosnan’s Bond was the synthesis of the entire film series to that point. He could go from charming with a quip like Lazenby and Moore to silent and methodical like Connery to intense and dangerous like Dalton. Brosnan might be higher on this list if it weren’t for the writing. Goldeneye is in my top 10 Bond movies, and Tomorrow Never Dies is underrated. It’s the final two Brosnan films, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day. The former comes off as a thin adaptation of a novel, which it is not, and a lame excuse to have Denise Richards strip slowly out of a radiation suit. The latter tries to weld North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, Richard Branson, and Kingsley Amis’s Bond villain Colonel Sun into a modern day replacement for Blofeld. The World Is Not Enough stands well enough on its own, but Die Another Day, potentially the best Bond ever, instead falls like a lead weight to the bottom of the list, marring Brosnan’s tenure.
3. Timothy Dalton
Timothy Dalton’s short tenure could have put him at the bottom of this list. Studio difficulties and low budgets marked his tenure. Yet Dalton took Bond back to his literary roots. Fleming wrote Bond as an intense killer who has to be human when he’s not on assignment. Connery’s Bond smoked both because Connery smoked, and it looked glamorous. Dalton’s Bond smoked because having a license to kill is stressful.
In only two outings, he foreshadows Daniel Craig’s tenure in that his Bond is weary of the bureaucratic nature of MI6, and he quits at one point. (Craig’s Bond quit three times, including during his first outing.) EON also found themselves keenly aware the world had moved past the cool-boiled charms of Connery, Lazenby, and Moore. The Living Daylights was the movie Octopussy should have been, and License to Kill not only calls back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and For Your Eyes Only, but it takes advantage of budget cuts to send Bond after a notorious drug lord (a thinly disguised roman-a-clef of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega.)
Dalton left when MGM found itself in bankruptcy court, but his two films left a template for Daniel Craig to use when Bond rebooted on his watch.
2. Sean Connery
Blasphemy? Perhaps. Understandably, for many, there is one and only James Bond, and the late Sir Sean Connery is him. I understand.
But let’s look at the case for Shir Shean. Connery, a relatively unknown actor in 1962, had to create the role from scratch. Bond, written as quintessentially English, did nothing to hide his Scottish accent and, in the first three movies, was unabashedly working class. Connery saw him as a blue collar civil servant playing dress-up as a high roller. Some of his moments as Bond are now cringeworthy, but lay that at the feet of the writers and Ian Fleming, who did not really want Connery to play his signature creation. But everything that makes Bond Bond, even in the Daniel Craig era, flows from Connery. And it’s hard to recreate. Live and Let Die was shot with Moore in mind, but The Man with the Golden Gun becomes the most boring Bond film by trying to be an almost Thunderball or Doctor No remake, failing miserably. To make a sixties Bond movie, you need the smooth cool of Sean Connery. It is Connery who defines the timing of those quips, the intensity of Bond using his license to kill, and the almost flip disregard for authority later Bonds would flesh out. Put simply, every actor who follows is playing Sean Connery playing James Bond, even Moore. One thing Moore and Lazenby lacked that Brosnan, Craig, and especially Dalton found is Connery’s dark side. You can see Connery’s Bond flipping and becoming the villain to whoever becomes 007 in his absence. Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson picked up on this as they transitioned characters. Goldeneye‘s Alec Trevalyan could have been Dalton’s Bond gone angry and bitter while Brosnan’s continued unscathed. Skyfall‘s Silva even has a very similar history to Brosnan’s Bond, which explains the animosity toward Judi Dench’s M.
But for Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan to be cool, Connery had to define cool. And he did it before they brought in the gadgets and the cars. Connery’s first two outings were Hitchcockian thrillers, with From Russia with Love the series’ best entry even after all this time. He is only #2 on this list because of Craig’s handling of a self-contained continuity. But if Craig is #1, it’s because he learned Connery’s lessons well. And he should. Sean Connery is the most talented actor on this list, and with the exception of Lazenby, who lacked the experience, the others are no slouches. Sean Connery, at least in his thirties and forties, is James Bond. It’s why Never Say Never Again works despite being an obvious (and pointless) Thunderball knockoff.
1. Daniel Craig
This is probably the third time I’ve done this list, and Craig has been Bond all three times. But now that the Craig canon is complete, he moves to the front of the line. Why?
Just as his run was a self-contained continuity, Craig encapsulated, reinvented, and summed up Bond beautifully. And he succeeded where Dalton tried. He took Bond back to his literary roots. His Bond has the entire range and manages aspects of all five of his predecessors. But Craig is not imitating. He’s building.
He strikes all the right notes, a man who becomes a killing machine realizing he cannot be a machine. Thanks to a consistent actor (Jeffrey Wright) playing Leiter, we get a better sense of the friendship between Bond and Felix. Like Brosnan before him, he plays the rebellious son to Judi Dench’s M while the cantankerous relationship between him and Ralph Fiennes’s Mallory are well-done. And enough backstory to Bond and Moneypenny allows them to be flirtatious without the almost quaint dancing across the line Lois Maxwell indulged with Connery and Moore. Craig doesn’t lean into Moneypenny for some much-needed ego deflation like Brosnan did with Samantha Bond (still my favorite Moneypenny to date). The attraction is established in Skyfall, and Craig doesn’t need to flirt with her to display it. He lets Naomie Harris lace her own digs with it while they keep themselves at arm’s length.
But Craig’s time as Bond comes to a poignant end. Dalton likely could have done the same if No Time to Die were one of his. Brosnan showed signs of it in an otherwise awful Die Another Day. But Craig channels, of all actors, George Lazenby in his final outing. With considerably more skill than Lazenby had time to develop, he echoes back to both For Your Eyes Only and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
And it must be said, not since Connery took on Goldfinger has a Bond clearly had as much fun sparring with a villain as Craig does battling Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld. The two clearly love doing scenes together, and you can totally buy these men were raised as brothers. All that’s missing is Blofeld announcing that mom always liked him best. Maybe she did before he killed her. But Waltz, for all the malevolence his character brings, actually lightens the tone of the series.
For tying the character and even the entire series up in a bow, Daniel Craig is James Bond.
Though I’m pretty sure he disagrees with me about Connery.