Irreverent and knowing as James Bond: Sir Roger Moore obituary
Actor who brought humour, panache and suavity to his starring roles in The Saint, The Persuaders! and seven James Bond films
by Ryan Gilbey
Sir Roger Moore, who has died aged 89, considered himself to be only the fourth best actor to have played Ian Fleming’s secret-service agent James Bond on screen: in his estimation, he came in behind Daniel Craig (whom he called “the Bond”), Sean Connery and George Lazenby. Though Moore was rarely regarded as the best or most definitive Bond, his inimitable humour and panache made him many viewers’ favourite. His tally of seven films – beginning with Live and Let Die (1973) and ending with A View to a Kill (1985) – equalled that of Connery, though Moore occupied the role for a longer consecutive period. He was eloquent on the distinction between their portrayals. “Sean played Bond as a killer and I played Bond as a lover,” he said. Only on Fridays did he resemble a cold-blooded mercenary: “That’s the day I received my paychecks.”
His casting was sometimes erroneously considered to be the catalyst for a new-found levity in the series; in fact, the two films prior to his arrival (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969, and Diamonds Are Forever, 1971) had already tipped the tone towards silliness. What Moore did very cannily was to underline the absurdity of Bond himself. “My whole reaction was always – he is not a real spy,” he said. “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is. That’s just hysterically funny.”
Irreverence and knowingness were integral to his interpretation. But he also seemed far more plausibly endangered as Bond than Connery had ever been. Part of the viewer’s affection and even concern for him could be attributed to his advanced age: Moore was already 45 when he was cast as Bond, whereas Connery made his debut at 32 and Craig was 37. This contributed to the sense that Moore’s wellbeing was actively at risk on screen. Subjected to punishing levels of G-force on a flight simulator in Moonraker (1979) or dismantling a bomb while dressed as a clown in Octopussy (1983), he looked uniquely vulnerable. Clambering up the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge in A View to a Kill seemed inadvisable behaviour for a man of 56.
His range was modest, as he was the first to admit. He credited his success to “99% luck”, and singled out the 1970 supernatural thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself, in which he played a businessman who appears to be living two lives, as “the only film I was allowed to act in”. Such self-deprecation only encouraged critics to contribute their own jibes: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker said that Moore “needed a stunt double for his acting scenes” in the Bond films.
Moore became an object of mild mockery after the 1980s satirical TV show Spitting Image featured a puppet of him that expressed its emotions solely through its eyebrows. The joke proved robust, but not everyone realised that Moore had cracked it first. “The eyebrows thing was my own fault,” he said. “I was talking about how talentless I was and said I have three expressions: eyebrow up, eyebrow down and both of them at the same time. And they used it – very well, I must say.”
He was born in London, to Lily (nee Pope), a housewife, and George Moore, a police constable whose responsibilities included drawing accident scenes to be used in evidence in court. Roger himself had artistic ambitions early in life. He left school at 15 to accept a job as a trainee animator at Publicity Picture Productions, but was sacked a few months later when he neglected to collect a can of film.
Tagging along with friends in 1945 to auditions for film extras, Moore was picked to appear in a non-speaking role as a legionnaire in Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains. The film’s first assistant director, Brian Desmond Hurst, took Moore under his wing and encouraged him to audition for Rada. When Moore was accepted, Hurst paid his fees. He left at 18 to become a supporting player in the repertory company of the Arts theatre, Cambridge, before he was called up for military service. Posted to Germany, he succeeded in getting a transfer to the Combined Services Entertainment unit. In 1946, he had married Doorn Van Steyn, a fellow Rada student.
After three years in the army, Moore returned to acting, landing small roles in theatre and film, as well as appearing as a model for knitting patterns and in photo stories. He moved to New York City in 1953 with his second wife, the singer Dorothy Squires (Moore and Van Steyn had divorced earlier that year), and began getting acting work on US television. He signed a contract with MGM and was cast in a series of unmemorable films, including The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) and Interrupted Melody (1955). Returning to Britain, he took the lead in a 1958 television adventure series adapted from Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe.
Other regular TV roles of increasing size followed, including two western series, The Alaskans and Maverick, before Moore finally became a bona fide star, playing the crime-fighter and playboy Simon Templar in the popular television crime series The Saint. Produced by Lew Grade, it ran from 1962 until 1969. Moore, who also directed nine episodes, brought a suavity to the part which makes it a clear precursor of his work as James Bond; even his habit in early episodes of looking directly at the camera prefigures the later Bonds, where he all but winks at the audience.
Two years after The Saint ended, Moore was cast once more as a playboy adventurer in another Grade TV series, The Persuaders!, in which he was teamed with Tony Curtis. The odd-couple pairing (Moore, as Lord Brett Sinclair, was dapper; Curtis, playing Danny Wilde, was a ruffian) and the action staged in glamorous locations made the series a hit. Moore also directed two episodes. During this period, he was appointed the head of Brut Films, an offshoot of the cologne manufacturer. He tried unsuccessfully to entice Cary Grant to make his acting comeback in a Brut production, but succeeded in recruiting him as one of the company’s advisers. Moore was also instrumental in the making of A Touch of Class, the 1973 romantic comedy for which Glenda Jackson won her second Oscar.
His brief tenure as a mogul was abbreviated when he signed a three-film contract to play James Bond, a part which demanded no adjustment to the persona he had already established. Live and Let Die, an attempt to modernise the series with gritty blaxploitation trappings, still had its share of daftness; in one scene, Bond escapes across water using a row of alligators as stepping stones. Moore’s performance here and in his second outing, The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), was cool and confident.
But it is his third Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), which is rightly considered his pinnacle. The writing, direction and production design were impressive, the action more than usually taut, and the balance of comedy and suspense acutely judged – as in the iconic opening sequence in which Bond escapes falling to his death by opening a parachute emblazoned with the Union Jack. (The film was released in the Queen’s silver jubilee year.) Moore appeared relaxed but never complacent. He even came up with some of the movie’s nicest touches, such as the moment when Bond, emerging from an underwater drive, deposits a small fish out of his car window.
In between the Bond films, Moore moonlighted in other roles, including Gold (1974), a mining adventure shot in Johannesburg, the romantic comedy That Lucky Touch (1975) and the war movie Shout at the Devil (1975), co-starring Lee Marvin. But nothing came close to eclipsing his day job.
Outside the Bond series, he rarely deviated from action, appearing in quick succession in Escape to Athena (1979), North Sea Hijack and The Sea Wolves (both 1980). The Wild Geese (1978), a clunky, crypto-racist thriller about ageing mercenaries, was unusual in showcasing a more brutal side to Moore. Though he was seen pushing villains to their deaths in The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only (1981), nothing compared to the opening scene of The Wild Geese, in which he kills a drug dealer by forcing him to ingest large quantities of cocaine at gunpoint.
Moonraker (1979), among the silliest of the Bond series, was rushed into production to capitalise on the Star Wars-inspired craze for all things space-related. Moore had a gas playing a mummy’s boy who believes himself to be Roger Moore in the US ensemble comedy The Cannonball Run (1981), before returning to Bond in the comparatively sober For Your Eyes Only and the positively quaint Octopussy. Moore bowed out, not before time, with A View to a Kill, where he looked understandably wary to be sharing the screen, not to mention a bed, with the ferocious Grace Jones.
Though the producer Albert R “Cubby” Broccoli suggested in his autobiography that Moore had refused to accept that his time in the role was over, the actor later denied this. Once free of Bondage, Moore lost his appetite for acting and took on only a handful of roles, few of them distinguished. He had been due to return to the stage in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love in 1989, but dropped out shortly before opening night, blaming inadequacies in his singing voice.
He joined his friend Michael Caine in Bullseye! (1990), a pitiful Michael Winner comedy in which they played two characters apiece. He also appeared in The Quest (1996), directed by its star, the action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, and in the Spice Girls’ vehicle Spice World (1997). He had a supporting part in the two-hour pilot for a new series of The Saint (2013), but the show was not commissioned. In 2012, he undertook a highly successful UK stage tour of An Evening With Roger Moore, in which he reflected on his life and career.
Moore devoted much of his time to being a goodwill ambassador for Unicef; it was for this humanitarian work that he was knighted in 2003. He had left Britain in the late 1970s to avoid what he considered the prohibitive tax rate for high earners, and took homes in countries including Switzerland and Monaco. Money continued to be much on his mind: his 2008 autobiography, My Word Is My Bond, is peppered with variations on the line “a rather nice deal was agreed with my agent”.
Moore admitted to being a lifelong hypochondriac; among those to whom he expressed thanks in the acknowledgments of his autobiography are five GPs, four cardiologists, two dermatologists and a proctologist. He visibly enjoyed his time as Bond and expressed only occasional regrets about his career. “I spent my life playing heroes because I looked like one,” he said. “Practically everything I’ve been offered didn’t require much beyond looking like me. I would have loved to play a real baddie.”
He is survived by his fourth wife, Kristina Tholstrup, whom he married in 2002, and by three children – Deborah, Geoffrey and Christian – from his third marriage, to the actor Luisa Mattioli, which ended in divorce.
• Roger George Moore, actor, born 14 October 1927; died 23 May 2017