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James Bond: the evolution of the world’s most famous spy

The world’s most famous secret agent is finally returning to our screens! After many delays, No Time To Die is finally on the horizon, with Daniel Craig once again assuming the mantle of Bond. After five films, it’s due to be Craig’s swansong, as he plays an older Bond who’s quit the service but gets called back up to help save the world one more time.

In honour of the release, we thought we’d take a look back at the story so far. Who is James Bond? The international super spy has been portrayed by lots of different actors, all of whom had a slightly different take on him, according to their own personalities and to the desires of the audiences of the day. After all, 1962 was almost 60 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. So who is Bond? We dug into the archives to find out what each of those actors thought…

Sean Connery (1962-1967, 1971)

Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever

The first actor to portray Bond on film was Sean Connery, who played the spy six times across nine years. To him, Bond was a completely new kind of character, one who’d never existed before; in a 1967 Good Company interview, he described him as “cool, suave, and sophisticated, with humour.”

That humour, though, was Connery’s own invention. In the same interview, he explained “I used a lot of myself in making the films. I mean, after all, if a character is merely written in a book, to come in as an actor – in anything, in any play – you start to fill in the bones with a flesh character.” To him, when translating Bond from the page to the screen, it was necessary to underscore the violence with humour in order to sell him to audiences.

And if the humour didn’t exist in the dialogue as written? He wrote it himself. “Lots of times in the screenplay, they’re impractical, the scenes; they might read well, but when you get into the situation with the actors and the characters involved, suddenly the dialogue doesn’t fit anything. So we had to change it, and lift it, always trying to get something that’s a bit funnier.”

The pressure of embodying the role got to Connery after a while, and he resented being typecast. But his description of the character is one that’s endured. According to Connery, “Bond is important: this invincible superman that every man would like to copy, that every woman would like to conquer.”

George Lazenby (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

After Connery quit the franchise, Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli and director Peter R. Hunt looked long and hard for an actor to replace him, eventually spotting George Lazenby, then a little-known actor in Australia, in an advert for chocolate. According to Lazenby, they made him do more than 300 screen tests – he says that he shot more tests than he did footage for the actual film – and took him out to celebrity hotspots around London to introduce him to various important people before confirming the role was his.

Perhaps due to his inexperience, Lazenby didn’t feel as empowered as Connery had to make the role his own. In a 2019 retrospective interview with Closer, he explained the feeling of being in Connery’s shadow: “I felt it was Sean Connery’s gig. You know, I can’t do it better than him, because he created it on his personality and I had to copy his personality, basically. So, it wasn’t me. It was me doing the best I could playing James Bond.”

To him, Bond was a fearless, ruthless killer who does whatever he wants. Lazenby quit the role even before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service premiered, leading the Broccolis to bring back Connery for another outing. Then, it was time to recast, again…

Roger Moore (1973-1985)

Live And Let Die, The Man With The Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View To A Kill

Moving into the 1970s and 80s, Bond changed again. Unlike Lazenby, Roger Moore had plenty of acting experience – mostly, playing debonair international playboys – and so, aided by screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, Moore made Bond more light-hearted, more given to a quip and an innuendo, and less inclined to solving problems with his fists. While Connery’s Bond had a serving of thuggishness to go with his suave, sophisticated side, Moore was all charm.

“I think that, starting with The Spy Who Loved Me, it became a slightly different type of Bond,” Moore told 007 Magazine. “We tried to inject a little more humour.” Both on and off camera, Moore was cheekier than his predecessors, playing pranks on his co-stars; his Bond accordingly became more playful, also adopting Moore’s penchant for safari suits and Cuban cigar.

During Moore’s era – which spanned an impressive 12 years, let’s not forget – Bond also started to seem a little old-fashioned. He’d been around long enough to seem almost kitsch, a knowing parody of his original self…

Timothy Dalton (1987-1989)

The Living Daylights, Licence To Kill

Which brings us to Timothy Dalton. Looking to make Bond his own, the classically trained Dalton did his homework by reading lots of Fleming’s original novels. He wanted his Bond to be darker, more grounded in reality, and more morally complex.

In an interview with The AV Club in 2014, he recalled that “The prevailing wisdom at the time – which I would say I shared – was that the series, whilst still very entertainment, had become rather spoof-like. It was one-liners and raised eyebrows and it had become, let’s say, too light-hearted. And the producer, Mr Broccoli, felt that, and he wanted to try and bring it back to something more like its original roots with those Sean Connery films.”

Dalton was on board – though he insists he didn’t want to eschew the series’ humour completely, telling the interviewer “There should always be comedy. Comedy is a great thing” – but seems to have been frustrated by how things actually turned out. According to him, the studio and the people working on the film didn’t really want to change things very much, despite being aware of all the criticism, and so any changes he was able to make were hard-won.

Still, he’s often referred to now as the most underrated Bond, with modern audiences revelling in a Bond who resents his assignments and is guided by his own innate morality, so maybe the reinvention went better than Dalton thought. Still, he only made two Bond films before passing the torch…

Pierce Brosnan (1995-2002)

GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day

Pierce Brosnan had actually been in contention to take over the role of Bond since A View To A Kill, but hadn’t been available until this point. Which probably worked out well for him: at this point in time, the Bond of old was starting to face criticism for his treatment of women. To 1990s eyes, Connery’s Bond was something of a misogynist bully.

By the time Brosnan stepped into that perfectly tailored suit, the character had been retooled. He had some of Connery’s grit, but also Moore’s elegance, and even some of Dalton’s inner darkness: he was suave but sensitive, an updated version of everyone else’s best bits.

In a promotional interview for GoldenEye, Brosnan diplomatically explained that he was aiming for a classic Bond portrayal, but made new: “I didn’t try to emulate Connery, how can I? Connery is Connery and Brosnan is Brosnan. But you just see where the man took it, what made it work then, and then you throw that all out the window and you have to do it as if they’ve never seen it before.”

(Interestingly, another sign of the times? Brosnan’s Bond doesn’t smoke, as a rule. “I don’t give a damn about everyone’s perception of the character,” he said, according to Kiss Kiss Bang! Bang!: the Unofficial James Bond Film Companion, “I think smoking causes cancer, therefore he doesn’t smoke.” Implicitly, Brosnan thought Bond had to be a role model.)

Daniel Craig (2006-2021)

Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace, Skyfall, Spectre, No Time To Die

And that brings us to Daniel Craig, the current – if not for much longer – incarnation of Bond. More than any torch-passing before, the switch from Pierce Brosnan to Daniel Craig marked a huge shift in the character, one Timothy Dalton would probably have approved of. Finally, all traces of camp were gone. Bond wouldn’t be wisecracking any more. In a post-9/11 world, where we understand trauma better than ever before, Craig’s Bond is serious, brutal, and frequently broken. In Craig’s Bond films, violence is no joke.

“The original Bond was always in turmoil with himself, always questioning,” Craig told Style magazine. “Maybe he got smoother as the books went on. But going back to the beginning, it’s the way I approach my work. I’m aware it’s a Bond movie and will always remain a Bond movie. I’ve just always felt there should be an element of truth or emotion in a movie, so that the audience can hook in.”

His Bond stands up to adversity, even if it means taking a beating; his Bond stands up for what he thinks is right, even if he’s the only one who does. The Daniel Craig era, then, might just have redefined what “a Bond movie” even is.

What comes next? We’ll leave that decision to the producers. In the meantime, we’re just going to look forward to No Time To Die.