MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Roger Moore was Ian Fleming’s first choice for James Bond.
One of the most debated subjects in all of Hollywood (and beyond) is which actor should play James Bond in the film adaptations of Ian Fleming’s classic spy novels. Each time casting begins for the role, the level of scrutiny and outrage reaches a level similar to the election of a new president. While the selection process is still quite controversial (many die-hard Bond enthusiasts still can’t wrap their heads around the idea of Daniel Craig as 007, even as Skyfall just passed $1 billion at the global box office), it pales in comparison to when the first James Bond, Sean Connery, was replaced for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with actor George Lazenby. Lazenby was not accepted by fans, and Connery returned for the next Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. However, in 1973, Connery was finally successfully replaced by Roger Moore, who ended up doing seven films as the super-spy. After the disaster of Lazenby, there was obviously much trepidation over whether the public would accept any actor as Bond other than Connery. However, in a revelation that would hopefully serve to put minds at ease, it was said that Fleming’s first choice was Moore, who Fleming liked in the TV series The Saint.
Is that true? Was Roger Moore almost the first actor to play James Bond? The truth is quite complicated, as you’ll soon find out. ..
The first part of the well-told story that is plainly false is that Moore’s success on The Saint could not have been the reason Fleming was interested in the actor. Although Andrew Lycett states in his Fleming biography that the author was interested in “Roger Moore, who was enjoying some success as The Saint on television,” The Saint did not debut until literally the day before the first Bond film, Dr. No, was released (The Saint first aired on Oct. 4, 1962 and Dr. No was released in the United Kingdom the next day).
That’s typically been used to debunk the story, that Fleming could not have been interested in Moore because the role that would have most clearly made the actor a good fit for Bond had not debuted yet (and indeed, when Moore eventually was chosen, his performance as Simon Templar on The Saint likely did make fans less wary of Moore’s chances at succeeding as Bond). However, that is not necessarily so. Fleming was actually quite plugged in to the movie “scene” in the days before Bond was first cast, and he did quite a bit of research into deciding who he thought would be the best choice.
However, this research by Fleming makes it fairly unlikely that Moore was ever his first pick. You see, Fleming, like most any author looking for an actor to play his most famous character, tended to look toward the most famous names in the business. The odds are that Fleming likely considered nearly every major movie star of the time as a good choice to play his character. In his excellent book The Battle For Bond, Robert Sellers uncovered a letter from Fleming where he notes, “Richard Burton would be by far the best James Bond!” There is a reason why so many different actors, like Richard Todd and Cary Grant, have been labeled as “Ian Fleming’s first choice to play James Bond,” as it seems like Fleming liked pretty much any major movie star! Fleming was also very fond of David Niven for the role (Niven famously/infamously played Bond in the “non-canon” James Bond film Casino Royale).
So right there, we have our answer to the main legend, “Was Roger Moore Ian Fleming’s first choice for James Bond?” Almost certainly No.
However, a far trickier question was whether Moore was in the running to play Bond right from the start. Here, it seems like it is a lot more likely that Moore was a serious candidate for the role. When asked about Fleming’s interest in him for the role, Moore told Entertainment Weekly, “That’s what they told me, at least. They also said I was Ian Fleming’s first choice. But Ian Fleming didn’t know me from shit. He wanted Cary Grant or David Niven.” Moore has always been quite humble when speaking about his career, but even then, it seems pretty clear that he knew that Fleming was not looking toward a “no-name” when it came to casting Bond. He wanted a “star.”
The producers, however, obviously were looking for what they felt were the best fit. After all, Connery certainly was not a major star when he eventually got the role of Bond for Dr. No. So did Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman (the producers on eight of the first nine James Bond films) consider Moore for the role back in 1962? There seems to be some strong evidence that they did. Moore was friends with both Broccoli and Saltzman going back into the 1950s, and even lived nearby Saltzman. So when Moore says in his autobiography that, “I was, apparently, on the shortlist of would-be 007 actors back in 1962, when they were casting for Dr. No. I certainly wasn’t aware of that, nor was I approached,” I believe him.
As he notes, of course, the fact that he was never approached suggests that he was never the leading candidate for the role, but still, just the fact that Moore was a candidate for the role in 1962 is interesting, considering how things eventually turned out.
The legend is…
STATUS: False (with just a tad bit of truth behind it)
Thanks to the good folks of The Alternative 007 for their great research skills. They were a massive help in the writing of this piece.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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