In 1968, after Sean Connery announced that he would no longer be playing the role, there was a worldwide search for a new actor to play the role of James Bond.
Several actors were mentioned as a replacement, some of them better known than others. Future Bonds Timothy Dalton and Roger Moore were both considered. Oliver Reed was considered but ultimately not chosen because he was considered to be a bit too “rough” for the refined Bond. Another intriguing possibility was Terrence Stamp but he was ultimately rejected because it was felt he would want too much creative control over the character. Michael Caine turned down the role because he had already played a secret agent in three films and he didn’t want to run the risk of getting typecast. As the start date for production on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service approached, the producers needed someone who looked good, was convincing in the action scenes, and who maybe could act.
In the end, they picked George Lazenby, an Australian-born model who had never acted before.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the inexperienced Lazenby’s performance was not critically acclaimed. After all, he was not only stepping into an iconic role but he was also replacing one of the most charismatic actors around, Sean Connery. In retrospect, critics have come to appreciate On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and, to a certain extent, even George Lazenby’s performance as well. Lazenby may not have had Connery’s confidence but On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would not have worked with a confident Bond. For this film, which found Bond feeling underappreciated by M and retiring from the spy game so he could marry Tracy, a more vulnerable actor was needed and Lazenby fit the bill.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would be the only time that George Lazenby would play James Bond. Despite being offered a million pound contract to portray Bond in another film, Lazenby publicly walked away from the role and Sean Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever.
Why did Lazenby walk away from the role? It depends on who you ask. Some say that he was stunned by the bad reviews. Some say that he let his fame go to his head and he decided that he was bigger than Bond. At the time, Lazenby said that he considered Bond to be a “brute” and that he was all about peace. A hippie Bond? I think even Daniel Craig’s version of the character would take issue with that.
The 2017 documentary, Becoming Bond, takes a look at the events that led to George Lazenby becoming Bond. The film is framed around a lengthy interview with Lazenby and includes several dramatized recreations of his past life. (Live and Let Die‘s Jane Seymour appears as Maggie Abbott, the agent who encouraged Lazenby to pursue the role of Bond.) The film opens with Lazenby’s unruly childhood in Australia and follows him as he goes from being a high school drop out to an auto mechanic to a car salesman. Eventually, he follows his girlfriend to London and, somewhat randomly, he falls into being a model. He finds minor fame selling candy in commercials and then, eventually, he finds bigger fame as James Bond before being reduced to being the answer to a trivia question after he walks away from the role.
The film’s biggest strength is that George Lazenby is a charmer. Still a handsome rouge even in his late 70s, Lazenby narrates his story with the skill of a born raconteur. Listening to him talk, it’s possible to understand how someone could have looked at the young Lazenby and viewed him as being a potential James Bond. In fact, he’s got so much charm that it takes a while to realize that his stories occasionally contradict themselves. At one point, the film’s unseen interviewer stops him to ask if all of his stories are actually true. Lazenby merely smiles.
The film is full of details about Lazenby’s life before Bond and also all of the the trouble that he went through to even be considered for the role. (Lazenby claims that he stole one of Sean Connery’s suits and wore it to the audition.) Unfortunately, it doesn’t really tell us much about why Lazenby left the role, other than the fact that it seemed like a good idea at the time. Lazenby does talk about the restrictions that were put on him by the film’s producers. For instance, he was told that he couldn’t come to the film’s premiere unless he cut his hair and shaved his beard because “Bond doesn’t have a beard.” In the end, though, Lazenby seems just as confused as any of us as to what exactly it was that he was thinking when he turned down a second Bond film. One gets the feeling that it ultimately came down to not wanting to be told what to do, which is something I can respect even if it does seem like Lazenby was a bit short-sighted. (Connery had similar objections but still stuck with the role long enough to make enough money to ensure that he could spend the rest of life doing what he wanted to do.)
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t go into much detail about Lazenby’s life after Bond. He mentions that he got married and he sold real estate. He doesn’t talk much about the films that he made after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and that’s unfortunate because, even though none of this films were considered to be major productions, it was in those films that Lazenby proved that he actually could act and that he deserved better than to just be remembered as a cautionary tale. Check out his grieving father in the 1972 giallo, Who Saw Her Die? Or the blackmailed politician that Lazenby played in 1979’s Saint Jack. If nothing else, those roles would eventually provide Lazenby with a bit of redemption as modern viewers discovered not only those films but also Lazenby’s talent. Unfortunately, that part of Lazenby’s story goes untold.
Becoming Bond is available on Hulu. While I wish it had gone into a bit more details about Lazenby’s post-Bond life, it’s still required viewing for any fan of 007.