May 23, 2017

Remembering Roger Moore

The great Sir Roger Moore has passed away after a short battle with cancer, according to numerous news outlets. And this is the piece I have most dreaded writing ever since I began this blog. Roger Moore may not have been the screen’s "best" James Bond in terms of realizing Ian Fleming’s literary character, but he is certainly one of the most appealing. He is the one you most want to hang out with. He was my favorite Bond as a kid, and was always the Bond actor I most fancied having a conversation with. Even now, when I’m in the mood for a Bond movie in general but have no specific title in mind, I find myself most frequently putting on a Moore movie—usually For Your Eyes Only (1981), easily in my Top 5 Bond movies.

Roger Moore personified the witty playboy adventurer who brushes off danger without creasing his immaculately tailored suits. He perfected this persona most famously across three different characters—TV’s Simon Templar on The Saint and Lord Brett Sinclair on The Persuaders!, and of course 007—each distinct, and yet each distinctly Roger Moore. He sold a personal brand long before we spoke in such terms, and he sold it to perfection. Critics have accused him of turning all of his roles into Roger Moore rather than adapting Roger Moore to the roles, but for a movie star, I’ve never seen that as a bad thing. In fact, I’ve always found it incredibly appropriate that at the height of his Saint fandom in the 1960s, while every popular TV character (including The Saint) had his own Annual (hardcover books for children packed with stories, comics, and puzzles), Moore was the only actor to have his own—The Roger Moore Adventure Book.

It was a narrative often put forth by Moore himself that he was not a good actor. Always charmingly self-deprecating, he once famously reduced his own acting ability to, “left eyebrow raised, right eyebrow raised.” He was, of course, selling himself short, and I’m saddened to see that many obituaries today still persist with that narrative. Many James Bond purists lament that Moore played the character so comically, and they certainly have a point. But ask any actor what’s harder, comedy or drama, and nearly unanimously they all answer comedy. It’s true that Roger Moore was not one of the screen’s great dramatic actors (though he was certainly capable of fine dramatic performances, as evidenced in The Man Who Haunted Himself and several crucial scenes in For Your Eyes Only, among others), but he was an incredibly gifted comedian, and deserves recognition as such. His comic timing was impeccable, and his wry delivery of innumerable oft-quoted one-liners unequaled. For proof, one need look no further than other, subsequent James Bond actors who have been saddled with similar lines and unable to pull them off despite their undeniable dramatic gravitas. Roger Moore had a unique talent to sell even the most ridiculous double-entendres or pithy asides, and that talent more than anything else carried the Bond franchise to new Box Office heights in the Seventies and ensured its continuation after Sean Connery.

This is another part of Moore’s legacy that should never be overlooked. While all the other popular spy series of the Sixties (on the big and small screen) dried up in the Seventies (as public perception of spies themselves shifted from heroic to underhanded in the wake of Watergate, COINTELPRO, the Church Committee Hearings, and other scandals), James Bond thrived during Moore’s tenure. Moonraker may not have pleased critics, but it broke Box Office records. What Roger Moore brought to the franchise was exactly what audiences craved in the 1970s. Without him, the series may well have languished, but instead it became more popular than ever.

Despite eventually personifying the upper-class English gentleman, Roger Moore was born into a working class London family. He grew up idolizing suave leading men like George Sanders and Stewart Granger, and following his compulsory army service and a stint as a male knitwear model (which briefly earned him the nickname of “The Big Knit”), had the chance not only to follow in their footsteps, but eventually to work with both. After a string of supporting roles as an MGM contract player opposite the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner (during which, Moore wrote in his autobiography*, he and his neighbor William Shatner “whiled away many an evening… sitting around the pool [of their Westwood apartment complex], having a drink or three”), Moore found success on television. First as the titular knight on Ivanhoe (for England’s ITV, where he would later find stardom as The Saint), then as a cowboy with an unlikely accent on The Alaskans and Maverick (both for Warner Bros.), where he had the unenviable task of filling the void left by James Garner, playing Brett (Garner) and Bart’s (Jack Kelly) English cousin Beau Maverick. In the former he found himself speaking Garner’s lines (a writers’ strike led to scripts from Maverick being recycled wholesale for The Alaskans), and in the latter wearing his clothes (from his autobiography: “They assured me that I wasn’t replacing [Garner]. Oh yeah? Then why did all of my costumes have ‘Jim Garner’ in them, semi-scratched out?”). It would prove valuable experience for later, when he once again found himself taking over from a very popular actor!

Moore’s real fame, however, came not from American television, but UK television. After trying himself, unsuccessfully, to acquire the rights to Leslie Charteris’ Saint stories several years earlier, Moore jumped at the chance to play Simon Templar for producers Monty Berman and Robert S. Baker at Lord Lew Grade’s powerhouse production company, ITC. He made 118 episodes of The Saint, the first batch in black and white, and the second (without Berman) in color. Charteris had imbued his hero with ample wit to match his wits, and Moore, naturally, excelled at conveying that wit on screen. His Simon Templar would break the fourth wall to directly address the audience, making the most of Moore’s innate charm. Simon Templar was the absolute perfect part for Moore, the idea match of character and star. In America, The Saint played on NBC, making Moore a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. It was also his first major brush with spy stardom, as, though Templar was no agent, his adventures frequently brought him into espionage territory.

Once The Saint wrapped, Moore was eager to segue from television into movies. He and Baker, now producing partners, made Crossplot, a highly entertaining Hitchcock knock-off (parts North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much) in which Moore played an advertising executive caught up in an espionage plot who has to stop an assassination. Bernard Lee, best known as M from the Bond movies, co-starred, and the advertising campaign traded heavily on Bondian imagery, prominently featuring Moore in a white dinner jacket brandishing a pistol. It wasn’t the first connection between Moore and 007. His name was linked with the Bond role as soon as the first movie was announced, but of course Sean Connery was cast instead. Still, Moore played the character in a 1964 sketch on the BBC comedy series Mainly Millicent, and in the Saint episode “Luella” (co-starring future Felix Leiter David Hedison), Templar jokingly introduced himself as James Bond. In another episode, he ordered his drink “neither shaken nor stirred.”

Moore and Baker had planned several other films together (including, according to Andrew Pixley, the spy drama The Patterson Report and an action-adventure called Vanishing Point**), but never had the chance to make them. Instead, Moore was lured back to television by Lew Grade, who had already sold The Persuaders! based on Moore’s involvement, but without his permission! He then persuaded Moore to make the series by urging him to think of all the jobs it would create, and the boon it would be to the British economy. (“Think of the Queen!”) And thank God it worked, because The Persuaders! is fantastic. It’s one of my favorite TV series, and it's actually his character from that show, Lord Brett Sinclair, that I think of first when I think of Roger Moore... much as I love his Saint and his Bond.

The Persuaders! arose from an idea Moore and Baker had had while shooting the final season of The Saint—the idea of a buddy series teaming Moore with a brash American co-star. The Saint episode “The Ex-King of Diamonds” served as an unofficial pilot, pairing Moore with The Champions star Stuart Damon. When it came to the series, however, a bigger name was required, and when Rock Hudson proved unavailable, Tony Curtis came aboard as self-made oil millionaire Danny Wilde. When Brett and Danny first encounter each other on the French Riviera, the two wealthy alpha males find themselves instantly in competition, first in a road race (Brett’s Aston Martin DBS versus Danny’s Ferrari Dino), and then in a fist fight over the proper way to make a ridiculous drink called a Creole Scream. In the course of this fight, they tear apart the whole hotel bar and find themselves facing a judge, Judge Fulton (played by Diamonds Are Forever’s Laurence Naismith), who offers them an alternative to a jail sentence. It turns out he manipulated their meeting, having selected them to be his personal vigilante crime fighters. It’s a tenuous premise, but it serves its purpose, setting Brett and Danny on numerous missions against kidnappers, counterfeiters, and, of course, spies. (Somehow this judge is also privy to information about classified British Intelligence operations when the plots require that.) The Persuaders! had a top-notch roster of talent (including Avengers writer Brian Clemens and Casino Royale director Val Guest) both behind and in front of the cameras, and their skills combined with lush location filming in exotic European locales (as opposed to The Saint’s stock footage and studio backlots) made every episode of the series look like a feature film. But more than anything, it was the fantastic chemistry between Moore and Curtis (whose off-screen relationship influenced their friendly on-screen competition) that made the series work so well. While The Persuaders! faced stiff competition in America from Mission: Impossible, it was a huge hit around the world, and a second season was in the offing… until Moore received a life-changing phone call from Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.

During his Bond tenure, Moore made numerous other action-adventure movies, including Gold (for Bond director Peter Hunt), The Wild Geese (opposite Richard Burton), Shout at the Devil (with Lee Marvin), North Sea Hijack (aka Ffolkes, with Bond alumni David Hedison and George Baker), and The Sea Wolves (with Patrick Macnee and David Niven). He even found time to, unlikely though it may seem, play Sherlock Holmes on TV, in Sherlock Holmes in New York with Macnee as Watson and John Huston as Professor Moriarty. All of these movies are well worth watching. He also displayed that considerable gift for comedy in Cannonball Run (sending up his own image as an Aston Martin-driving racer who thinks he’s Roger Moore) and Blake Edwards’ Curse of the Pink Panther (1983). While the latter is a pretty lousy movie, Moore elevates it considerably in his brief cameo as a post-plastic surgery Inspector Clouseau, ably aping Peter Sellers’ famous French accent and pulling off the requisite pratfalls with great aplomb. (You can watch his scene on YouTube, saving yourself from slogging through the entire film.) In my opinion he’s the only actor to ever successfully fill Sellers’ shoes in that role (once again demonstrating his ability to rise to the challenge following in famous footsteps), and it’s a real shame that Edwards didn’t make Moore’s Clouseau the star of the film.

Moore played James Bond in seven official entries in the series, more than any other actor (though tied with Connery if you count the unofficial Never Say Never Again), and until he was 57, making him the oldest actor to play 007. Too old, really. Moore himself was the first to admit that A View to a Kill was at least one movie too many, and stretched credibility when he switched off with stuntmen for the outlandish action. He had actually tried to leave the series, but Broccoli simply offered him too much money to pass up.

After finally hanging up the Walther PPK, Moore focused more on charity than acting, devoting much of his time to children’s health as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. (His friend Audrey Helpburn had recruited him to the cause.) He played two more spy roles (in The Enemy, based on a Desmond Bagley novel, and as a guest star on J.J. Abrams’ TV show Alias), and made an intriguing mystery for director Bill Condon, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, but primarily focused on comedy when he did act. His comedic roles included Bullseye! (an unfortunate miss, but an opportunity to star with his good friend Michael Caine), Boat Trip (an awful movie in which Moore is nonetheless hilarious), and Spice World. The latter was the first of several cameos sending up his Bond image. More recently, he starred in a Lifetime holiday movie, A Princess for Christmas, and played an important supporting role in the unsold pilot for a new version of The Saint starring Adam Rayner. (Sadly, that remains unreleased.) He also found time to record many excellent DVD commentaries, and to pen three memoirs (co-authored with Gareth Owen), My Word is My Bond, Bond on Bond, and One Lucky Bastard. My Word is My Bond is essential reading for any 007 fan, and one of my very favorite showbiz autobiographies, full of humorous and typically self-deprecating anecdotes from Moore’s amazing life.

With Roger Moore’s passing, we have lost one of the true titans of the spy genre, and a very talented comedic actor who never got proper credit for those talents. Fortunately, that Roger Moore brand will live on in his incredible body of work, preserved for posterity on DVD and Blu-ray and no doubt all formats to come. There is truth to the criticism that his Bond movies aren’t so much Bond movies as “Roger Moore movies.” But so what? I find myself frequently craving Roger Moore movies, and I don’t expect that will ever change. It may well be that I'm a bit more of a Roger Moore fan than I am a James Bond fan. Roger Moore was truly one of my heroes, and I am genuinely crushed by his passing. But what a legacy he leaves behind!

*Moore, Roger with Gareth Owen: My Word is My Bond, 2008
**Pixley, Andrew: The Persuaders! Read and Destroy: A Complete Series Guide, 2011

15 comments:

TC said...

The Bond series kept getting sillier and campier in the 1970's, but I believe that was mainly due to each movie needing to out-do the one before, rather than to who was playing the part. And the series was really heading in that direction even before Connery left.

And, yes, comedy is harder to do than drama. Supposedly, Edmund Kean said on his death bed: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard."

My favorite Moore quote was from an interview with Starlog magazine when he was doing Octopussy. They asked if he did his own stunts. He said, "Yes. And I also do my own lying."

Tanner said...

Right! Great point. The silliness came in with the Seventies... or with Tom Mankiewicz. But it was definitely already in place when Moore arrived, and didn't come with him. Furthermore, he was better at that stuff than Connery was! And therefore a more appropriate Bond for the era. (There was plenty of stuff that Connery was better at, and that was appropriate for HIS era.)

I love that quote as well. I suspect it still applies today, although many actors aren't as straightforward about the lying part! (I'm not talking about Tom Cruise. I fully believe that he is crazy enough to do those death-defying stunts himself.)

Johny Malone said...

Beautiful article.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent article. A great tribute to a great star.

David Morefield said...

Wonderful remembrance, and I'm right with you: more a Roger fan than a Bond fan. It used to bother me as a kid when people said, "I liked him better as The Saint" because it implied (1) he wasn't a good Bond and (2) he was better suited to TV and not up to snuff for movies. Then I saw the Saint and agreed with them; I preferred Roger as the Saint to *anyone* as Bond. Then I read the Saint novels and realized I liked Roger as Templar better than I liked Templar as Templar!

Lots of recent passings have been tough, but this one has crushed me. I'm sorry it's hit you just as hard, but from a selfish standpoint, it helps a little to know I have company.

One correction: Roger's friend and neighbor in Hollywood was not Shatner but the *other* Enterprise captain, Jeffrey Hunter. If I thought I could witness Rog and Shat hanging out together, I'd be spending every dime and every moment constructing a time machine.

Elliot James said...

Roger Moore was blessed. He really had it all.

One film I'd like to see again is The Man Who Haunted Himself. It's not on DVD in the States and it never plays on TV.

Has anyone read any public comments by the other Bond actors about his passing?

Anonymous said...

Not much I can add to your superb remembrance of a true legend, Tanner. I guess when you write a blog like this, you end up learning how to write obituaries, as much as you hope you'll never have to.

In America we have a curious way of describing a male public figure whose public image is deemed to be relatable and personable: we say that he's "someone you could have a beer with." (We never describe women in this way, which is a whole other problem.) Roger Moore wasn't somebody you could have a beer with, mostly because you could never imagine him drinking beer. But he was somebody you could have a glass of Dom Perignon '52 with (because as we should all remember from TSWLM, a man who drinks Dom Perignon '52 can't be all bad), or attending a gallery opening with, or spending a night at the opera with. (Or, of course, skiing off the Asgard Peak with.) It wasn't just that Moore in all his films and television shows so thoroughly embodied a suave, cosmpolitan, debonair man; it was that he drew you into his refinement and suavity, made you feel like you too could be a perfectly dressed man-about-town who knew the right wine for any meal and the right dry quip for any occasion. Refined? Yes. Cosmopolitan? Absolutely. Pretentious? Not a chance.

Maybe that's because, by his own admission, "Roger Moore" was a persona he more or less invented out of whole cloth; he wasn't born to that life at all, being the son of a policeman from South London. The attributes we associate with Moore's onscreen persona, as Bond, Templar, Lord Sinclair, ffolkes and everybody else, were as much a conjurer's trick as Cary Grant's man-of-the-world act was. But there's the rub; he made you feel it was possible to transcend your own limitations and your origins, and be the best version of you that you could. More than anything else, I think that's what keeps us coming back to Roger's Bond after all these years; the sense that of all the Bonds, he really is our brother under the skin.

I sometimes think about the actors who were considered for Live and Let Die and as possible replacements in case he didn't come back for For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. Sure, some of them might have been adequate Bonds, but could they have gotten the series through the turbulent 70s? Could they have navigated the transition into the 80s? I doubt it. And for all the griping about his age (and yes, it absolutely was an issue in AVTAK, and to his credit he knew it), there was a reason Cubby kept bringing him back -- because he was a proven commodity. Because people liked him. Because he was good company. And in the first two John Glen-directed films you get an intriguing sense of Bond as elder statesman -- no longer the brash young buck of the swinging '60s, but older, wiser, and more wily in getting his way. (Then it all went to heck in AVTAK, where it seemed like they'd gone back to trying to pass him off as a forty-something.)

I've said far too much about his Bond, and not enough about his other great roles, or what a genuinely good man he was in real life, and anyway I've probably bored you all to tears. When a man's lived as long and as good a life as he did, a loss like this isn't unexpected but it's still sad all the same. It's not just that part of our childhood has died; it's that part of our adulthood has died too. From what I've been seeing in the press and on the net, that loss is being felt in a great many places. The spy we loved is keeping all out secrets safe now. And nobody did it better.

To paraphrase one last quote from Spy: We sure did enjoy the show, Sir Roger. Good night.

Quiller said...

Tanner, just so there's no confusion, that long comment from "Anonymous" at 9:25PM is me, occasional Double O Section commenter Quiller. Somehow I published the comment without putting my screen name on.

Elliot James said...

Pierce Brosnan wrote a tribute on his facebook and posted a very cool candid of him next to Roger Moore. I haven't found any comments by Dalton and the other Bonds.

Elliot James said...

Here it is http://movieweb.com/roger-moore-tribute-james-bond-actors/

Tanner said...

Thank you, Johny Malone. Yes, David Morefield, it is certainly nice to have company in our mourning. That's been an unexpected upside; seemingly the entire Internet has come forth with unfettered appreciation for Roger Moore, when it sometimes seemed before like that was a minority opinion in certain Bond fan realms. Elliot James, I hadn't realized that Anchor Bay's US DVD of THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF was out of print! Network has released it on Blu-ray in the UK if you've got an all-region Blu-ray player. It might be worth upgrading my old R1 Anchor Bay disc for that, as long as it carries over the great Moore commentary. (I may be wrong, but I seem to remember that was the first commentary track he did.) I did see a comment from Lazenby. The only Bond I haven't seen any remarks from is Dalton, but surely he's said something?

Well, it looks like you DID find plenty to add, Quiller! All of it poignant and eloquent. Thank you for sharing here! I did experience some tears, but certainly wasn't bored to them. And I, too, would have loved to have had a Dom Perignon '52 with Sir Roger.

teeritz said...

Wonderful write-up, Tanner. Moore was the Bond who got me hooked on 007 when I caught a TMWTGG and LALD double-bill circa 1975. I grew up with Moore as Bond. As I got older and began reading the Fleming books, I soon realised that Moore's take on the character was vastly different to Fleming's blueprint and Connery's portrayal, but Moore was the right Bond for the '70s, the era of Carry On films and Benny Hill. And his popularity in the role ensured that the franchise survived into the '80s.
I must say that I really liked him in "The Saint" and in non-Bond films like "Gold!", "The Wild Geese" and "Escape To Athena". Also, he was always a great talk-show guest.
Sad, sad news to hear of his passing this week. Inevitable, because nobody lives forever, but this life-long Bond fan feels a little hollow now that one of the Double-Os is gone.

Elliot James said...

Tanner, Timothy Dalton posted on the 007 Twitter "I knew Roger as a kind and generous man. He was a wonderfully engaging and successful actor. My thoughts are with his family. Timothy Dalton"

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