The Forgotten James Bond
Is Still A Thrill
George Lazenby, Also Known As The First Replacement For Sean Connery, May Look More Haggard Than Suave These Days, But He Still Knows How To Pack A Punch
Actor George Lazenby. Image © Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons and used under a Creative Commons License.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Special for Modern Times Magazine
April 27, 2015 — Last month, before a screening of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz sat down to talk to the forgotten James Bond … the one-off 007 … George what’s-his-name?
Oh yea, George Lazenby.
For an Australian absent from most people’s shortlist of favorite actors who have portrayed the Bond character (seven at current count), Lazenby, dressed in a sportcoat and khaki slacks, knew how to make a memorable entrance. To thunderous applause that he soaked up like a sponge, Lazenby swaggered down the steps of the TCL Chinese Theater while clasping his hands above his head like a prizefighter entering a boxing ring. Every few steps he’d stop for a moment to accept a pat on the back from fans thrilled by their proximity to one of the namesakes in the beloved James Bond canon.
The audience was, to put it mildly, shaken and stirred.
At 75, Lazenby resembles “Crocodile Dundee” separated at birth from Jack Palance, with a profile that suggests his jaw-line might’ve been hewn straight from Ayers Rock. And, as it turned out, as an interview subject, Lazenby was as mischievous as a dingo on a rancher’s fence line.
“In my opinion, the role of 007 was Connery’s; I just had to copy the bastard,” Lazenby declared. It was a fleeting moment of humility from a guy who said he was cast as Connery’s successor in the Bond role because of his “arrogant self-confidence.”
“I call it naiveté,” Lazenby said. “I had no idea what an actor was or where he came from. If I wanted something, I just went for it. The last thing I ever thought of was being a film actor. I didn’t consider that real work.”
Previously, Lazenby had done some male modeling and was a used car salesman.
Connery as Bond was a tough act to follow. He had starred in the first four 007 movies (Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball) before On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was slated to be filmed. But in casting Lazenby, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were on to something. For what it’s worth, Lazenby, more than any Bond before or since might have encompassed more real-life qualities of Ian Fleming’s suave MI6 agent.
In a story that’s become legendary, Lazenby said that he bluffed his way into the role by pretending he’d acted all over the continent – Czechoslovakia and Russia, mostly. He then said that after being the only actor in history that was paid a fee for a call-back audition (“I insisted on being paid 500 pounds”), he went out and bought a Rolex Submariner watch like Bond wore, got his haircut by the same barber who trimmed Connery’s hair and bought a suit like Connery’s.
Lazenby nailed the call-back audition.
“After being cast, I told the director (Peter Hunt) that I had never acted before; that I had my first lesson the night before,” Lazenby said. “He was stunned and just looked at me not saying anything. He couldn’t believe it. He said I had just completely fooled two of the most ruthless guys (Broccoli and Saltzman) he had ever met in his life. ‘You’re an actor,’ he said.”
Perhaps to make up for casting such a neophyte in the lead role, the producers compensated by starring an actress (Diana Rigg) opposite Lazenby who could deliver as the Contessa Tracy di Vicenzo.
“They wanted Catherine Deneuve, but she wouldn’t do it,” Lazenby said. “When I got on the set, they told Diana to help me as much as she could. Because I was very confident, she told me not to mess with any of the girls working on the set. One afternoon, she was walking up the driveway of the hotel where I was staying. I was having a little affair with the receptionist in the stuntman’s tent. Anyway, she lifted up the side of the tent and, well, caught me! Diana just rolled her eyes and dropped the flap. She told everyone after that I didn’t need any help!”
After filming wrapped, Lazenby refused to sign a contract that would have guaranteed his participation in subsequent Bond movies. Instead, he spent 15 months sailing the world until the money ran out. It was then he found out he’d been labeled with the sobriquet “difficult to work with” which can be a noxious death-knell for actors trying to land roles.
Potential parts in “spaghetti westerns” fizzled as did a role in a Bruce Lee movie which evaporated when, three days after Lazenby clinched the deal, Lee died of cerebral edema.
Even the lead in the TV series The Equalizer eluded Lazenby who originated the idea and brought it to producer Michael Sloan for development. Edward Woodward was cast instead as the retired espionage operative with a penchant for vengeance.
Although Lazenby’s film track record hardly leaves an imprint, he’s as devil-may-care about his downward career spiral as he was about going after the biggest role in the world back in 1969.
“Majesty was the closest film to Ian Fleming’s novels,” Lazenby said. “All I had to do was be a macho son-of-a-gun. That’s it. I had the look. We had good direction, bags of money to make the movie and they just needed someone who wasn’t intimidated following Sean Connery in the role.”
And they found him in George what’s-his-name.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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