Roger Moore is not the best James Bond. He’s not even my Bond: I met Bond in the days of Pierce Brosnan, with a fondness for watching back Sean Connery’s outings on DVD. In 2017, in the days after Roger Moore passed away, Goldfinger remains the greatest Bond film of all time. And GoldenEye, Casino Royale, Licence to Kill and Skyfall are all competing for a close second. Roger Moore? Well, he was the one who dressed up as a clown. Who went out on a mission in a submarine shaped like a crocodile. Who was so old it was disturbing to see him suck the face off young women at the beginning and end – and during most of the middle – of every adventure. But Roger Moore wasn’t just the Silly Bond: he was the man with the golden eyebrows, the Bond that 007 needed to be. Without Roger Moore, we wouldn’t have 007 today.
Moore had been a contender for the role for years before he finally donned that tux – or, in his case, safari suit. In the late 1960s, when Sean Connery intimated that he would be stepping down from the role, Moore was in the frame, partly thanks to his sharp blue eyes, excellent good looks (demonstrated in a modelling career) and cool charisma. The fact that he was already famous as spy Simon Templar in The Saint was a bonus. And the fact that The Saint began in 1962, and that he would be 45 by the time he finally became Bond in 1973? Well, that was just the way things were.
Today, the thought of the oldest Bond to date seducing ‘Bond girls’ is a rather creepy one, especially when he turned in his last performance in A View to Kill at the age of 58. He had miles on the clock in every department – even though he never drove an Aston Martin as James Bond, Moore had already been behind the wheel of a DB5 in The Persuaders! and The Cannonball Run. But Roger brought with him an enthusiasm, energy and sense of humour that seemed to belong to a man decades younger. That sense of humour continued all the way through his life: outside of 007, Roger was a hilarious figure, never arrogant in his wit, but always self-deprecating, always self-aware and always unselfish. He was the kind of man who thought it fun to correct a regional newspaper’s report of him eating a Scotch egg (he had the ham hock terrine) on Twitter, or mock his own dubiously dated filmography.
That was the weapon that made his 007 so invincible. In his hands, the suave secret agent became a playboy extraordinaire, a joker with just the right trick up his sleeve. Even if that trick was dressing up as a clown. Or driving around a metal crocodile.
40-odd years on, that’s what makes his 007 iconic and his 007 movies fun to watch – because, let’s face it, there are tons of problems elsewhere. In Live and Let Die, his bizarrely brilliant debut, Bond went up against a voodoo cult and a drug-dealing corrupt politician, not to mention a dude with a metal claw for a hand. It climaxed in an underground lair showdown that saw the filmmakers genuinely believe audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a man and a gigantic balloon.
But try, just for a second, to imagine anybody else in the lead role. Sean Connery would have been woefully out of place – his stint in the similarly wacky Diamonds Are Forever at the onset of the 70s saw his more serious James Bond seem awkward and bored. Moore, on the hand, was in his element. He grinned and raised eyebrows with cheeky conviction. By the time he was going into space in Moonraker, it was clear that his Bond took things about as seriously as us: who bother trying to be methodical and careful, when you could just sit back and go along for the ride?
There were impressive feats of physicality and intelligence, from his gravity-defying ski sequences to his impersonating of a wax dummy of himself inside Scaramanga’a neon funhouse in The Man with the Golden Gun. There was even the point where he managed to retrieve that golden bullet from a belly dancer’s belly button, while being physically attacked from behind. But at all times, there was the grinning admission of how silly it all was – and who could blame him? This was 007 at a time when making a motorised gondola drive down a tight alley in Venice was simply a case of smearing it with Vaseline to make it fit.
It’s easy to think that Roger Moore had no hand in that shift in tone, but he was essential to it working: in The Spy Who Loved Me (Moore’s best Bond film), when 007’s Lotus Esprit drives out from the sea and onto the beach, he reaches out the passenger door and drops a fish out of the window. It wasn’t in the script: Moore just thought “it might be a giggle”. Cubby Broccoli hated the idea, but everyone watching the rushes the next day loved it. It stayed in the film. Ever since he first saw 007, Moore had a different take on the super-spy. Cubby’s first impression of Dr. No? It was a dark thriller. Moore? It was a “fun picture”. Speaking about The Man with the Golden Gun, he talks fondly of Herve Villechaize (who played henchman Nick Nack) as being “sex mad”, and recalls how he spent most of the time on set teasing Christopher Lee about playing Dracula.
And he was right to do it. In the 1970s, 007 had to adapt to survive – and that change in tone (just like the gritty reboots that followed with Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig) was vital to keeping the for-Queen-and-country hero relevant to contemporary audiences. Can you imagine Dalton in the 1980s dressing up as a clown? Or Craig in Skyfall mode trying to fight a pair of knife-throwing identical twins? There were flashes of steely grit, as Moore’s 007 allowed a man to fall off a building or visited the grave of his wife (killed in George Lazenby’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), and even, crucially, the occasional sense of peril, but who else but Roger Moore could mix that with stories involving space rockets, octopodes and a dude with metal teeth? Brosnan combined both Moore’s mugging humour and Dalton’s cool ruthlessness for his underrated 90s incarnation, but even he couldn’t quite pull off the silliness with the same insouciance. Just look at Die Another Day.
Decades on and that nonchalance was still there. Old Sir Rog described himself as the cheap option, when talking about being cast as 007. He said that his work with UNICEF was his proudest achievement. He was even willing to continue a joke going with a young fan who met him once in a airport years ago, when most wouldn’t have bothered.
The result was a national treasure even more treasured than Ian Fleming’s iconic agent. He kept Bond alive at a time when 007 could easily have paled into irrelevance, with a casual raise of his eyebrow and an irresistible twinkle. But away from the screen, he was funny, cool, humble – in short, impossibly British. Was he the best James Bond? No. But for many people of a certain generation, he was Bond. Because while there have been several incarnations of 007 since, one thing remains true: nobody did Roger Moore better than Roger Moore. The fact that 007 tried to for 12 years is something to be grateful for.