Roger Moore Didn’t Just Play James Bond

It's hard to know when the longest-serving 007 is really acting.
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It's hard to know when the longest-serving 007 is really acting.
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Sir Roger Moore isn’t a stage actor, and his show at London’s 785-seat Bromley Churchill Theatre was not elaborately staged. Wearing tan slacks and a capacious blue blazer, the almost-87-year old walked across the proscenium, sat down in an armchair, and began a brief (relatively speaking) recap of his 70 years in show business. Moore’s source material—thick with what-a-ride anecdotes—was the second memoir he’s released in two years, which has to be some sort of record.

It’s the rare person who can sit around recalling, say, boozing it up with Frank Sinatra, or squinting in the glare of Elizabeth Taylor’s latest bauble, or receiving career advice from Noel Coward (chase the money). Rarer still is the ability to pick up all those dropped names and make something from them. That story about Tony Curtis, who’d been tussling with Stanley Kubrick on the set of Spartacus, asking, “Who do you have to fuck to get off this picture?” is one of the more PG stories. It might also be a morality tale.

Moore is one of the most coveted dinner-party guests in Hollywood, London, and Monaco—where he keeps a vacation home—for a reason. He’s as effortlessly funny as he is full of memories. Opening the floor to questions, the affable raconteur seemed to reveal another side to his character.

Audience member: What would you have been if you hadn’t become an actor?

Moore: A brain surgeon.

Audience: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

A bit harsh, perhaps, but Moore has been giving the same answer to that trite question for years. It’s not a joke, but his response is always interpreted as a bit of Bond-ish flippancy.

Another telling moment came when someone asked Moore how he’d played the role of James Bond. “The same as all of my roles,” he responded. “I played him as myself.”

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Photo: MGM / Everett Collection

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Moore played James Bond in a total of seven films between 1973 and 1985, the longest run of any actor in the official series (Sean Connery played the role six times, plus the unsanctioned Never Say Never Again in 1983). In 2004, an Academy Awards poll dubbed Moore “Best Bond,” but fans of the franchise remain bitterly divided over who should wear that crown. His main rival, of course, is Connery, the dark-eyed Scotsman who contrived a perfect blend of refinement, humor, and menace. And now there’s Daniel Craig, the brutal heartthrob who clearly takes his license to kill seriously.

Moore, on the other hand, played the role for laughs, smirking and punning his way through assassinations and impending global catastrophes, leading to the charge that he was too camp, too glib, too much of a lightweight to do the role justice. Connery himself seems to have shared this view, claiming in a 1983 interview that Moore’s Bond was a “parody,” adding that his successor had gone for “the laughs or the humor at whatever the cost, of the credibility.”

But that’s Roger Moore: The man cannot help but be funny. There’s a famous quote of his, regarding his perceived lack of acting ability: “I only had three expressions as Bond: right eyebrow raised, left eyebrow raised and eyebrows crossed when grabbed by Jaws.” Again, Moore is both joking and not joking.  He sticks to the same line when talking to Maxim on the phone from his luxury suite in a London hotel. “Sean looks as though he wants to kill the villain,” he says, “Daniel you know is going to kill the villain, whereas I look as if I want to hug them, or bore them to death.”    

Whichever way you look at it, Moore spent most of his career being typecast: The suave, smart-talking secret agent in the 1960s TV drama The Saint; the suave, smart-talking secret agent in the 1970s TV drama The Persuaders!; the suave, smart-talking secret agent in James Bond. The obvious conclusion, the one that runs at you waving its arms, is that Moore’s lack of range arises from the fact that he’s spent his entire acting career playing himself.

However.

Asked if he always feels as self-assured as he appears to be, Moore gives a telling response. “Only when I’m Roger Moore,” he says, adding, “I’ll explain: I think most actors are not necessarily extroverts. We can be quite introverted, and the only way to overcome that is to invent someone else. It’s like walking into a restaurant, not wanting to be on your own, so you think, ‘Roger Moore can do this.’ But who the hell is Roger Moore? He’s someone who looks like me and sounds like me and appears to be full of confidence.”

This raises an interesting point: If Roger Moore’s James Bond wasn’t the fleshed-out, complex character many would have liked him to be, his portrayal of “Roger Moore”—a swaggering English gent who could walk into a restaurant and spark up conversation with ease—was incredibly committed and subtle. Here’s Moore’s duo-syllabic explanation of why he’s comfortable sitting in front of a crowd and telling stories: “Conceit.” 

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Photo: United Artists / Everett Collection

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Moore did not stroll effortlessly into acting success. He started his career as a pretty boy, modeling in print ads for, among other things, knitwear. His early film credits involve roles like “ornithologist on the train” and “guest sitting at Pearson’s table.” In 1954, when he was in his mid-twenties, he was signed by MGM on a seven-year movie deal—which was a huge, career-making break—but his films did so badly he was released from the contract after two years.

“I remember the directors saying to me, ‘You’re not very good, so smile when you come on.’ So I smiled.” He smiled a lot, and he got very good at it. He charmed his way into the affections of the right people and rebuilt his career in small-screen roles, which gave him the opportunity to work on his smiling. In 1958, he landed the lead role in the cheesy series Ivanhoe and, following a string of similarly mock-heroic roles, got his breakout role in The Saint. Asked if there were moments, during the lean years, when he considered moving into another line of work, Moore laughs and says, “There was nothing else I could move into.”

Moore was born into a modest home in the south London borough of Lambeth, the son of a policeman and a housewife and, as a teenager, attended London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (his fees were paid by Irish film director Brian Desmond Hurst, who spotted potential in Moore’s early work). A stint in the British military aside, Moore has never done anything besides act. Sometimes that meant soldiering on, but he claims to have “always been an optimist.”

It’s hard to think of Roger Moore as anything but an illustrious, celebrated figure, a knight with a career as the most successful (if not the most artistically accomplished) James Bond in history. Still, Moore didn’t make his first Bond film (Live and Let Die, 1973) until he was in his mid-forties, which is kind of late in the game to set about becoming a movie legend. And when he finally quit the franchise in 1985 (at the age of 58, the oldest Bond ever), he never took on another role of any note. Today, he divides his time between charity work and writing memoirs.

“I sort of feed my little ego,” he says, “by walking out on stage and saying, ‘My name is Roger Moore.’” 

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Photo: Everett Collection

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Moore is rakish, but he isn’t entirely brash. “I’ve seen myself on the screen,” he says, “so I can’t be that arrogant.” But, he adds, he’s content with the way his career has played out. “We always want a little bit more,” he says. “If I weren’t happy with what I have, I’d be a terrible ingrate.”

In 1970, Moore briefly broke out of his spoofy-spy persona in The Man Who Haunted Himself, a psychological thriller in which he played a man who, after a near-fatal car crash, either loses track of what he’s been doing or is being trailed by a nefarious doppelganger. Moore’s role in the film has been praised as a subtle and powerful portrayal of a man on the edge of insanity. Doesn’t he wish he could have done more of that?

“I would have loved to,” he says. “But, by the same token, I may not have been so good at doing those kinds of things. I’ve been lucky to fall into things where I’m the hero, in television and in movies.”

Besides, Moore adds, he worked extremely hard to portray James Bond with any degree of believability, not least because of his lifelong fear of firearms. “I hate the damn things,” he says. “Even today, I find it hard to believe those pictures of me, where I’m proudly holding a bloody great pistol.” And then there’s the fact that Moore got through all seven James Bond films without once revealing the fact that he runs like an idiot.

“I feel gawky when I run,” he admits. “When I was 4 or 5, my mother helped organize a sports day. I ran in the first race, and by the time the third race began I was still running. The winners were supposed to get a bag of toffees. So I went over to the judges’ table, and I stood there until they gave me a bag.”

It’s not the most flattering story in Roger Moore’s repertoire, but it may be one of the more significant—it points to the principle at the heart of his peculiarly successful acting career: “You don’t always have to win the race to get a bag of toffees.”

One Lucky Bastard: Tales from Tinseltown will be published in the US on October 21.

Photos by Mirrorpix / Everett Collection