Daniel Craig is looking uncharacteristically relaxed these days. He’s promoting No Time to Die, his semi-fond but fully final farewell to the Bond franchise, with a bonhomie that’s almost suspicious. Coming from an actor whose persona ranges from prickly to weary, the mood change is as surprising as his complex performance as an overconfident, error-prone, and vulnerable James Bond in Casino Royale 15 years ago.
No Time to Die—the 25th Bond movie, arriving in theaters a full two years after principal photography wrapped—has had a change in directors and a global pandemic to wade through on its way to the screen, but it feels like Craig is still doing damage control from the six-year-old interview with Time Out when he said “I’d rather break this glass and slash my wrists” than star as 007 one more time. As he’s since repented, more than once, he was cranky because he’d only just finished shooting Spectre, to which No Time to Die is a direct sequel. (Serialization, which the first four decades of Bond flicks nodded to here and there but never took very seriously, was one of several striking new features that came to the franchise when Craig did.) That production’s woes—the leak of a Sony Pictures memo that diagnosed but did not fix its crippling third-act problems, a distended budget, and a serious leg injury suffered by Craig—had been reported exhaustively. It’s no wonder he found the thought of doing it all again, well, exhausting. “If I did another Bond movie, it would only be for the money,” he said.
Craig’s run as James Bond has been a paradox: It is both the version most faithful to the character Ian Fleming created and the most nontraditional on-screen depiction. This Bond, for all his doggedness, has rarely been smarter than his quarry. He’s the first version of the character who never lets you forget that he’s an assassin, or that he’s haunted by his betrayal by Vesper Lynd. He bleeds, he broods, he ages—and the people around him actually take notice. “There’s no shame in saying you’ve lost a step,” Ralph Fiennes told him in Skyfall—and that was nine years and two movies ago! No Time to Die foregrounds the consequences of the years and the mileage in a way no Bond film ever has. But in his kvetching about the role that made him comfortably rich and uncomfortably famous, Craig upheld a tradition nearly as venerable as the Bond film franchise itself: Every actor who inherits 007’s licence (sic) to kill ends up griping about it. Except Pierce Brosnan, obviously—he’s just so amiable.
Sean Connery was the first to complain about the Unbearable Heaviness of Being Bond, shortly before shooting commenced on Goldfinger, the 1964 entry that would elevate the franchise from solid success to global phenomenon. The famous scene when the mute, hat-throwing henchman Oddjob knocks Bond out with a judo-chop before suffocating Bond’s bedmate Jill Masterson in gold paint left Connery complaining of back pain, foreshadowing the injuries that would become a recurring feature of the Craig era. Connery knocked off early that day, and by the time he returned to set, he’d negotiated a raise.
He’d been playing the role for just a little under five years when he announced during production of 1967’s You Only Live Twice that he was walking away. His long-simmering beef with his bosses has become the stuff of legend, but it boils down to this: Connery wanted to be a partner. He wanted more money, he wanted the time to make other films (back when the Bond machine was pumping out a new entry every year), and he wanted creative control. He wanted, in other words, what Craig would get half a century later. But nobody got that kind of deal in the ’60s. Nor did Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, or Brosnan in the subsequent three decades. Plenty of actors had played Tarzan, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli pointed out as Connery packed his bags. He had been a (mostly) good employee, but Bond was the star.
Connery’s replacement, George Lazenby, remains the unlikeliest casting story in the history of movies—and after winning the lottery, he still complained! A 29-year-old Australian car salesman turned model who’d never had a speaking part in anything (not even in his Big Fry commercial), Lazenby bluffed his way into the job, somehow managing to hold his own against Diana Rigg in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The movie underperformed, though Bond die-hards have long since reclaimed it as a franchise high—a status No Time to Die acknowledges by genuflecting to the 52-year-old film in conspicuous ways.
But by the time On Her Majesty’s Secret Service hit theaters in December 1969, that stodgy, old, golf-playing, Beatles-hating colonialist in a Savile Row suit looked like a relic. Lazenby’s manager, pirate-radio magnate Ronan O’Rahilly, had convinced his client that playing an establishment figure like 007 was a ticket to oblivion. “I’d go into a restaurant and they’d say, ‘Waiter!’” Lazenby recalled in Some Kind of Hero: The Remarkable Story of the James Bond Films. Before that, when the news of his casting had broken, actor Diane Cilento—who was married to Connery at the time—sent Lazenby a note saying, “I feel sorry for you.” You’d have thought Le Chiffre was modifying a chair for him.
Lazenby declined to sign a multi-picture contract even when the United Artists brass offered him his choice of other projects to star in between Bonds. More galling to Broccoli, Lazenby refused the producer’s personal request that he cut the long hair and beard he’d grown—“so I could get laid,” he said—between production wrapping and the movie’s Odeon Leicester Square premiere. Broccoli disliked the thought of his new 007 showing up to shake hands with the Duke and Duchess of Kent looking like a hippie. As quickly as Lazenby had talked himself into the role of a lifetime, he talked himself right back out of it.
United Artists would not be pleased by this, nor by OHMSS’s lower-than-expected box office. As far as UA CEO David Picker was concerned, Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, his partner in the Bond-flick business, were at fault for failing to keep Connery happy—especially since they’d been diligent about sweetening their own deals with the studio as the Bond pictures became worldwide hits. Picker leaned on the pair to get Connery back. By then, the duo had already signed an American (!) actor, John Gavin, to follow Lazenby as Bond, but UA intervened, forcing them to rehire a star with whom they were no longer on speaking terms. (Gavin would be paid his full fee not to be the next Bond, but he would later become President Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to Mexico.)
United Artists lured Connery back for 1971’s dreary Diamonds Are Forever with a then-unprecedented $1.25 million upfront fee, more than his replacement Roger Moore would earn upfront for the three Bond pictures after it. And there were other enticements for Connery: 12.5 percent of the gross and a promise to fund two other projects of his choosing for up to $1 million apiece. Connery was pleased to have “won” a public spat with Saltzman and Broccoli, and he publicly donated his entire $1.25 million fee to the Scottish International Education Trust, a charity he’d established. By all accounts, he had a wonderful time shooting Diamonds in Las Vegas during the spring and summer of ’71. Although, exactly none of that renewed enthusiasm made it to screen, wherein a paunchy, graying 41-year-old Connery couldn’t be bothered to hide his lack of interest in the part.
Roger Moore turned 45 on his second day on set as Bond in 1973’s Live and Let Die—the first of seven Bonds he’d star in over a dozen years. Broccoli and Saltzman had first considered him a dozen years earlier. His contract expired with 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, the most beloved and successful of his Bond pictures, and he negotiated his subsequent appearances a la carte. By 1983’s Octopussy, Moore looked like his limbs were being held together by hairspray—when he didn’t have full clown makeup to do the job—and the next movie, 1985’s A View to a Kill, asked audiences to believe this dapper old grandpa was hale enough to survive a tryst and a fight with Grace Jones before romancing Tanya Roberts, who was 28 years his junior. (As decrepit as he looked, Moore was in fact two years younger in A View to a Kill than Tom Cruise was when principal photography on the seventh Mission: Impossible wrapped last month. Time worked differently back then.)
Moore was never one to gripe as loudly or publicly as Connery, and he always spoke of his predecessor in respectful terms. But he couldn’t resist pointing out in his several memoirs (My Word Is My Bond, Bond on Bond, and One Lucky Bastard) that he was both lower maintenance and less expensive. In light of the physical transformation Craig pulled off for Casino Royale, and the kind of physical sacrifices now expected of an actor in an action-film lead role, Moore’s complaints about his “deep knee-bend workout” and an apparently grueling daily regimen of swimming for 30 minutes (faithfully recorded in The 007 Diaries, his wonderful account of the Live and Let Die shoot) are utterly adorable.
Timothy Dalton—who began his brief run as Bond with 1987’s The Living Daylights after the previously announced Pierce Brosnan was unexpectedly called back to the waning NBC TV series Remington Steele—also wanted something that only Craig would get: to restore a threatening verisimilitude the films had long abandoned, and to imbue them with an emotional complexity they’d never had. If not naturalism, then fewer submersible sports cars and orbital ray guns.
When Saltzman and Broccoli had first sounded him out after Connery’s departure almost 20 years earlier, having been impressed by his lupine performance as Philip II in The Lion in Winter, the 22-year-old Dalton had ruled himself out as too young. Since then, he’d built a highbrow career for himself performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company and appearing in costume dramas like Mary, Queen of Scots. Though he was cast only a few weeks before shooting started, he’d read his Fleming carefully, and he wanted everyone to know it. His first gig in the tuxedo, The Living Daylights is a solid upper-middle-tier entry in this vein, up to and including the finale when Bond joins forces with a band of Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.
Dalton’s second Bond, 1989’s Licence to Kill, was even more conventional, with Bond facing off against a run-of-the-mill drug kingpin (and a fresh-faced Benicio Del Toro as one of his henchmen). It was and remains the lowest-grossing (adjusted) Bond film ever in the U.S., and a follow-up took more than six years to arrive in cinemas because of financial problems between Broccoli’s company, EON Productions, and MGM/UA. (A bankruptcy filing by MGM Studios in 2010 would delay the production of Skyfall some years later.)
By the time GoldenEye started ramping up in 1994, the Iron Curtain had come down, Brosnan’s schedule had opened up, and MGM/UA wanted a fresh face. Though Broccoli (and his daughter Barbara and stepson Michael G. Wilson, who by now were running the empire with him, as they do today) all wanted to stick with Dalton, the studio told them to find a new guy, or at least to go back to their old new guy. Like all the best 007s, Dalton had seemed ambivalent from the start. The Broccolis paid him the respect of allowing him to say he was leaving the franchise of his own volition.
“More men have walked on the moon,” Pierce Brosnan said of his dream gig. But Brosnan is an anomaly; the only Bond for whom the tux never seemed to chafe. And he’s been candid about how hurt he was when he got the call that it was over. All four of the Bonds he starred in circa 1995-2002 were hits; the last one, Die Another Day, has a deservedly crappy reputation but was the highest grossing of his run. In the 2012 documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, Barbara Broccoli and Wilson cite 9/11 as the watershed moment that persuaded them a seismic change was due, even though Die Another Day started shooting four months after the terrorist attacks.
Can it be a coincidence that Brosnan, in hindsight, seems like the least interesting Bond of the lot? He’s terrific in other films made during his Bond years; John McTiernan’s 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair comes to mind, as does John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama, with Brosnan having a ball playing a bent MI6 agent. But looking back, his Bond performances smack of karaoke.
Maybe being James Bond is like being president: the more openly covetous of the job you are, the less likely you are to get it. Or keep it. Maybe Brosnan—like Craig—should’ve had the killer instinct to complain.
Chris Klimek is an editor for Smithsonian/Air & Space magazine, the producer and cohost of the podcast A Degree Absolute!, and a frequent panelist on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour.