Few actors have come across quite so invincible onscreen as Roger Moore, the James Bond star who dodged death by sharks (“Live and Let Die”), yo-yo buzzsaw (“Octopussy”), space lasers (“Moonraker”) and a demented Christopher Walken (“A View to a Kill”), barely so much as creasing his tuxedo in the process.
Moore played 007 in seven movies over the course of a dozen years, dodging more bullets — golden and otherwise — than we could possibly count. But sooner or later, fate was sure to catch up with the debonair star. All men are mortal, of course, but not so Bond, who’s been saving the world since 1962 (“Dr. No”), and with his passing, Moore became the first big-screen Bond to leave us.
He was actually the third star to play the part, taking over the role from Sean Connery in 1973, and unlike Australian model George Lazenby (who played 007 just once, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”), Moore succeeded in making the character his own. That’s because Moore already had a persona in place when he landed the part, thanks to a popular British TV series called “The Saint,” which had been on the air since 1962, debuting the day before “Dr. No” opened in theaters. So, while Connery was busy playing Bond on the big screen, Moore had the better part of the decade to shape his own image in audiences’ eyes (in much the way that Pierce Brosnan’s ultra-suave interpretation was an extension of his “Remington Steele” character).
As Simon Templar, he established the basic prototype for the way he would later embody Bond, playing a dapper “bad boy” with a flashy wardrobe and a self-aware sense of humor. The character was a posh thief, not a spy, whose shenanigans bucked authority. He even narrated his own show (whose first seasons were in black-and-white), occasionally tossing off sardonic quips direct to camera, which became something of a signature as Bond.
Not that Connery hadn’t delivered his share of comic zings (turning to his companion and drily adding, “I think he got the point,” after harpooning a henchman in “Thunderball,” for example), but Moore perfected the art of the cherry on top. Like the beat in “The Spy Who Loved Me” where Bond allows the goon he’s interrogating to plunge to his death a moment after getting the clue he needs. Moore straightens his tie and says to no one much at all, “What a helpful chap!”
Moore was also the Bond star who allowed the character to get silly. Certainly, Bond had always been preposterous. That was part of 007’s appeal after all! But under Moore, he did a corkscrew jump over a broken bridge (“The Man With the Golden Gun”); he donned a clown costume in order to infiltrate a circus and defuse a nuclear device (“Octopussy”); and he took the character into orbit, battling a metal-mouthed baddie named “Jaws” in outer space (“Moonraker”). Bond also became a walking billboard for pretty much any product the producers agreed to shill during the Moore years.
These disappointments weren’t necessarily Moore’s fault. The franchise was bigger than its lead actor, of course, although many of the stunts took on a phony edge under his tenure (whether “skiing” in front of a rear-projection screen or “fighting” in elaborately pantomimed hand-to-hand combat). He widened Bond’s appeal to an even younger group of fans, disappointing some adults, while giving the franchise the lasting power to sustain three more lead-actor changes: Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig, each of whom have defined themselves at least to some degree by playing against the Moore persona. Nearly a decade ago, he published his memoirs, “My Word Is My Bond” — a title as corny as any pun the character ever uttered — which reinforced what we all wanted to believe: that Moore was as seductive, refined and irreverent as his version of the character had been.
Moore was already three years older than Connery when he inherited the role, and unlike the Scottish actor, who went on to do some of his most memorable work post-Bond (from Sidney Lumet’s “The Offence” to his Oscar-winning role in “The Untouchables”), Moore all but retired after playing Bond. Sure, there were a few sparse appearances (including the M-like Chief in “Spice World”), but he allowed the world to remember him as Bond, rather than trying to prove that as an actor, he was capable of bigger and better things.
By contrast, Moore multi-tasked, accepting other roles during the decade-plus that he played Bond. He made “Gold” the same year as “The Man With the Golden Gun,” and played a tougher-edged terrorist-thwarting hero in “Ffolkes” right after Bond jumped the shark (a fair way to describe making friends with Jaws in space) in “Moonraker.” But he allowed Bond to be his defining role, and even in his later years, leveraging his celebrity as a spokesperson for causes such as PETA and Unicef, such good works were essentially done in-character as the man who played James Bond.