George Lazenby: The forgotten James Bond

Movie Talk
George Lazenby

Daniel Craig's third outing as James Bond, "Skyfall," doesn't hit theaters in the US until this Friday, but it's already racked in an astonishing $287 million worldwide.  With three under his belt, Craig passes Timothy Dalton, who played Bond just twice. And since Craig has signed on to do two more, he's on track to exceed Pierce Brosnan's total of four.  But he still has a ways to go if he's going to match Sean Connery and Roger Moore, who played 007 in, yes, seven movies.

But there is one actor who played the role just once.  With no prior acting experience he won one of the most coveted roles in cinema.  But the job, and the fame, disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. His name is Lazenby... George Lazenby, and he was the first person to take Sean Connery's place as Bond in 1969's "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

Connery had been catapulted to international stardom after debuting as James Bond in 1963's "Dr. No," and his subsequent films became a worldwide phenomenon. But Connery became increasingly frustrated in dealing with the producers of the Bond series, Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. In "Everything or Nothing," a documentary about the history of Bond on film that is still airing on the EPIX channel, Connery is quoted as saying, "The producers were frightfully greedy."  So after his fifth film, 1967's "You Only Live Twice," Connery declared he was done with Bond. The search for a new star began.

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Enter George Lazenby. He was an Australian native who moved to London in 1963, the same year "Dr. No" hit theaters.  He went from selling used cars to becoming a successful male model, but other than some TV commercials he had no acting credits to his name. That didn't stop him from setting his sights on becoming Bond, though. In "Everything or Nothing," Lazenby, now 73 years old, recalled that at the time, " I had nothing on my mind, night and day, except getting that job."

He purchased a Savile Row suit that was originally made for Connery, along with a Rolex like the one Bond wore. He even got a haircut by Connery's barber. Then, as Lazenby told it, he went to the office Saltzman and Broccoli at EON Productions and waited.  The moment the receptionist turned her back, he bounded past her. Lazenby said she tried to stop him, "But it was too late. I was already up the stairs and leaning on the door saying, 'I heard you're looking for James Bond.'"

When the producers inquired about his resume, he listed off fake credits in various foreign countries, hoping they wouldn't have any way of checking to see if he was telling the truth.  Suitably impressed, they scheduled a meeting for Lazenby with the film's director, Peter Hunt.  It was there that Lazenby admitted to Hunt that he had actually never acted before. Lazenby said the director told him, "You tell me you can't act? You fooled two of the most ruthless guys I've ever met in my life. You're an actor!"

Watch George Lazenby in a clip from 'Everything or Nothing':

'Everything or Nothing' Clip: George Lazenby

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What followed next was four months of testing to convince the producers and the studio, United Artists, that Lazenby was up for the challenge. He had to prove he could swim and ride horses. The studio also wanted to see if Lazenby could be convincing in an action scene, so he had to do a mock fight with a stuntman.  Lazenby may not have had any movie experience, but he said he had plenty of practice using his fists from his rough-and-tumble upbringing in Australia.  Lazenby got a little too into the fight, and he accidentally slugged the stuntman right in the face.  With that, Saltzman told Lazenby he had the role.

So after working so hard to secure the role of James Bond, why did Lazenby only get to play him once? Lazenby said that the instantaneous fame got to him.  He said, "The monster side of you would come out... I believed I could do anything." But while endless partying and carousing could have been excused as just getting into character as 007, it was the draw of the late '60s counterculture that really turned Lazenby against Bond.

Lazenby struck up a close relationship with Ronan O'Rahilly, a highly visible figure in the London scene who created Radio Caroline, the unlicensed pirate radio station that broadcasted rock 'n' roll from a ship anchored off English coast (it served as the inspiration for the 2009 film "The Boat That Rocked").  "He took me under his wing. He was anti-establishment, and he could hurt the establishment by taking me away from it."  O'Rahilly turned Lazenby against Saltzman and Broccoli, telling him that he would be typecast as Bond and would never be able to take different sorts of roles. "It was the hippie movement... People were [about] peace, not war. And Bond was about war."

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George Lazenby

Lazenby rejected his clean-cut Bond look and showed up to the film's premiere with a full beard and shaggy hair. He said Saltzman and Broccoli objected to his impudence: "I was not the way they wanted their James Bond to be."  "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was a box-office disappointment, bringing about half of what Connery's previous installment, "You Only Live Twice," grossed worldwide.  Lazenby said, "They let me go. I'd blown my shot at being a big, famous movie star."

The producers went back to Sean Connery, paying him $1.25 million (more than the entire budget of "Dr. No") to return once again for 1971's "Diamonds Are Forever."  Connery would play Bond for a seventh time in 1983's "Never Say Never Again," an "unofficial" 007 outing that was not produced by EON Productions.

Lazenby said, "For a long time [after losing the role], I didn't know who I was. I wanted to be James Bond, but you couldn't live the way James Bond lives."  Lazenby continued acting through the '70s and '80s, but his career never reached the visibility of his debut film again.

Time, however, has been kind to "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." The film is more romantic than the earlier films of the series, with Bond actually getting married to his love interest Tracy (played by Diana Rigg), only to see her killed by SPECTRE agents as they drive off to their honeymoon. The movie has ranked high on many fan and critic surveys of the best Bond films. And director Christopher Nolan ("The Dark Knight"), called it his favorite 007 film, noting that it was a strong influence on his own movie, "Inception" (especially in the climatic snowy battle).

"On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is available on Blu-ray by itself or in the "Bond 50" box set of all 22 previous 007 adventures. "Skyfall" will be in theaters on Friday.

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Watch clips from 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service':

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