The year was 1967 and Sean Connery had just completed filming on the fifth James Bond movie, "You Only Live Twice" where he announced that he was officially retiring from the role of James Bond as he wanted to pursue other acting opportunities. The question now was, how would the series continue without him and if it were to succeed, who would replace him? Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli & Harry Saltzman approached Welsh actor Timothy Dalton about tackling the role of Bond but Dalton felt that he was too young (at 22 years of age) to convincingly pull it off (he would later become Bond in 1987 with "The Living Daylights") so he passed. Multitudes of actors were considered but none that pleased Broccoli or Saltzman.
Enter George Lazenby, a former used car salesman and model who was best known for an advertisement for Big Fry Chocolate. As stories go, he met Broccoli while getting his hair cut at the same barber shop in the U.K. Broccoli saw him again in his Big Fry Chocolate commercial and offered him an audition. Lazenby turned up in a Savile Row suit that had previously been ordered by Sean Connery but never picked up and sported a Rolex Submariner wristwatch, the same watch that Bond wore in his onscreen adventures. He eventually won the role based on a myriad of different aspects, including his fighting skills, his ability to easily display aggression and his screen-test fight scene in which he accidentally punched a stuntman in the face.
The film's director, Peter Hunt, exclaimed:
"We wanted someone who oozed sexual assurance, and we think this fellow has that. Just wait til the women see him on screen ... I am not saying he is an actor. There is a great deal of difference between an actor and a film star. Didn't they find Gary Cooper when he was an electrician?"
So the world had its new James Bond and his name was Lazenby ... George Lazenby. It was quite obvious he had some big shoes to fill after Connery's departure but he didn't seem fazed. With no major prior acting roles to his credit and no ego, he simply got on with the job at hand. Over time though, things began to change and he became known as the most notorious womaniser of all the Bond actors. Even Lazenby himself admitted:
"Suddenly I was James Bond and you can imagine what that did to me. I didn't want to brag but I had at least one girl a day. There was a tent on set where the stuntmen used to keep mattresses they fell on in fight scenes. It was a good place to take a chick if you were in a hurry."
So real life began to imitate art. As production moved forward, Lazenby became increasingly frustrated with the film's director Peter Hunt. According to different reports, Lazenby stated that for the majority of shooting, he got no direction from Hunt and at times, he wouldn't even talk to him. According to an interview from 1969 that was published by commanderbond.net, Hunt stated:
"I don't know why he should say that, because it's quite untrue. You can't possibly have a new, young, guy who has never been an actor and not talk to him. You simply can't do it. I had to tell him where to go and what to do. The whole thing with him is that he changes his mind all the time. But he had to do what I wanted him to do. Indeed, we had long conversations during and before we even started shooting. I wouldn't have gone with him if Diana Rigg hadn't assured me that she liked him enormously at that time before we started shooting, and that she would do everything to help and work with him."
Lots of actors and directors clash during production but it doesn't necessarily mean it happened every day. On the contrary, Hunt had some genuinely nice things to say about his leading man:
"You must remember that he was an ordinary little guy from the backwoods of Australia and he was suddenly thrust into a very sophisticated area of filmmaking, and it was very difficult for him. I had to do certain things that directors have to do. For instance, one of the best things he ever did was when she's shot. We got up there at eight in the morning, I insisted he was on set, I sat him in the car and made him rehearse and rehearse all day long, and I broke him down until he was absolutely exhausted, and by the time we shot it at five o'clock, he was exhausted, and that's how I got the performance."
One facet "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" possesses that no other Bond movie has, is a married James Bond. His leading lady, Tracy, was played by English actress Diana Rigg, who would eventually go on to star in the hit TV show, "The Avengers" and she was more than capable of holding her own against the movie's villain, Blofeld, played by Telly Savalas, who, like his female co-star, would later go on to star in the hit TV show "Kojak."
In other Bond movies, most notably, "For Your Eyes Only" and "License to Kill", there are references made to Bond's past married life but only OHMSS addresses the subject straight on. Over the years, there have been many who stated that had Connery come back one last time for this movie, it would have been the best Bond movie ever but I digress. At this point in time, Connery had grown weary of playing Bond and had he come back for OHMSS, I don't think his performance would have been nearly as good as Lazenby's. Granted, Connery was a much more experienced actor but Lazenby was new and eager to impress.
In the video below, we see the ending of OHMSS:
After the producers miraculously persuaded Connery to come back for the next film, "Diamonds are Forever", the opening of the movie has Bond looking for Blofeld to exact revenge for the death of his wife:
Not once in that opening, let alone the entire movie, did Connery ever give the impression that he was a hurt man seeking vengeance, he seemed to be simply going through the motions. He seemed to relish the quintessential one-liners that Bond was becoming notorious for but not once, did I ever get the impression that he wanted to kill Blofeld and not just kill him but hurt him. I honestly think that Connery should have stayed retired from the part and even though Lazenby never came back for another Bond movie, another younger, more ambitious actor could probably have pulled off "Diamonds are Forever" with more enthusiasm and believability.
Although Lazenby had been contracted for seven Bond movies, his agent, Ronan O'Rahilly, convinced him that with the 70s fast approaching, Bond was on his way out and that the new approaching decade would make way for far more diverse films like "The Graduate" and "Easy Rider." Lazenby agreed with O'Rahilly and left Bond in his rear view mirror. But although he has gone on to achieve a successful acting career in TV and movies, he never acquired the same level of success as when he was Bond. He would later state:
"I look back and think, "How did that happen?" I had no idea where I was going when I got into the Bond film. When I became famous I didn't know how to handle it, so it almost drove me crazy. In retrospect you can only blame yourself. I'd loved to have had that time over again and done another one or two [Bond films], it would have worked out great for me."
I agree with him on this aspect. As the only actor to have played James Bond once, I feel that had he had gone on to make several more movies, he would probably have become the best Bond ever. Naturally, everyone has their favorite Bond actor and I also felt the same way about Timothy Dalton, who played Bond twice. Lazenby and Dalton's interpretations of Bond were more akin to the Bond of the Ian Fleming novels. I think a lot of people forget that at the end of the day, in spite of all the different Bond movies, exotic locales and beautiful leading ladies, Bond is a ruthless hitman, a killer and both Lazenby and Dalton achieved greatness in this particular realm.
I like all the actors that have portrayed Bond, each one of them have brought their own personal perspectives and attributes but for me, George Lazenby will forever be the Bond that could have been. "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" had such an eclectic cast, American, Australian, English, Italian and German and the film also boasted one of the series' best soundtracks, "perhaps the best score of the series" thanks to longtime Bond composer, John Barry. Up until OHMSS, each movie had its own individual title song, from "Goldfinger", "Thunderball" and "You Only Live Twice" but with OHMSS, the film had its first orchestral intro with no singing and no lyrics.
That was left to Louis Armstrong who, during the movie, sang his memorable rendition of "We Have All The Time In The World." Where the stories and indeed, the budgets for "Thunderball" and especially "You Only Live Twice" became so far-fetched and unbelievable (an underwater volcano that is really a lair for the movie's villain), OHMSS was more realistic and followed the novel very closely with virtually everything in the book occuring in the film. The movie's director, Peter Hunt, had edited the previous Bond movies "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love" and "Goldfinger" so with OHMSS being his directorial debut, he brought a freshness to it where the previous movies were becoming stagnant and banal.
Diana Rigg's Tracy was the perfect match for Lazenby's Bond. Throughout the movie, they bicker back and forth and unlike pretty much every other Bond leading lady, you can literally see and feel their attraction growing for each other. In one scene, when they first meet, she has Bond's gun aimed at him, wanting to know who he is but he quickly relieves her of it and in a very unexpected and unprecedented move, he slaps her after failing to tell him what he wants to know.
The stars definitely seemed to be aligned for OHMSS but after the film was released, the persistent belief that it was a flop arose from its disappointing showing in comparison to the previous three Sean Connery Bond films, all of which made more than $100 million dollars worldwide, whereas this film grossed only $87 million worldwide. The film performed admirably, out-grossing its nearest competitor almost two to one at the U.S. box office where, according to Variety, it was the most popular film in the country for four solid weeks. It generated enough rentals at the box-office to claim ninth position on the box office chart for the year 1970.
With a terrific and aggressive new Bond, a top-notch cast, authentic and believable story, beautiful locations and a supreme crew, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" is one of the must underrated Bond movies in the series' 52 year history. While you may not agree with my choice of Mr. Lazenby as probably the best Bond on film, if you haven't watched the movie in some time or indeed, ever, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy and see what I'm talking about. You never know, you might just agree with me!
For more info about James visit his website at www.irishfilmcritic.com