MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Oliver Reed wasn’t cast as James Bond because he was considered “too rough” for the role.
Author Anthony Horowitz, who’s writing the James Bond series of novels for Ian Fleming’s estate, caused some controversy this week when he said he thought actor Idris Elba is “probably a bit too ‘street’” to play 007.
“Idris Elba is a terrific actor, but I can think of other black actors who would do it better,” he said. “For me, Idris Elba is a bit too rough to play the part. It’s not a colour issue. I think he is probably a bit too ‘street’ for Bond. Is it a question of being suave? Yeah.”
He quickly apologized for his comments, explaining, “I’m really sorry my comments about Idris Elba have caused offence. That wasn’t my intention. I was asked in my interview if Idris Elba would make a good James Bond. In the article I expressed the opinion that to my mind Adrian Lester would be a better choice but I’m a writer not a casting director so what do I know? Clumsily, I chose the word ‘street’ as Elba’s gritty portrayal of DCI John Luther was in my mind but I admit it was a poor choice of word. I am mortified to have caused offence.”
Indeed, “street” was a terrible word choice to describe a black actor; even “rough” has some iffy connotations. What’s interesting to me, though, is that there actually was a famous actor, Oliver Reed, who lost a shot at the role of James Bond specifically for HIS “roughness.” It is a completely different scenario, of course, as Reed wasn’t black. However, the discussion of an actor being too rough to play Bond made me think it worthwhile to discuss the only man who couldn’t play 007 because he was too much of a drinker and a womanizer.
Reed began acting in the late 1950s, while he was still in his early 20s, and soon became a popular choice for filmmakers looking to cast a “tough guy.” That image carried over into his personal life, as he became one of the most legendary drunks in all of England. There are so many anecdotes about Reed’s lifestyle that if even 10 percent of them are true, his would be an amazing life of debauchery. In 1963, he got into a bar fight that left him with 63 stitches in his face and some permanent scarring. “Luckily,” for the roles that he was accustomed to getting, some scarring wasn’t a major issue.
In 1968, Reed’s profile was particularly high after his performance as Bill Sikes in his uncle Carol Reed’s Academy Award-winning musical Oliver!, as well as two notable roles in films set for release the following year: that of a suave killer in “The Assassination Bureau” and as one-half of a famous nude-wrestling scene in the adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love.” With Albert R. Broccoli and Eon Productions searching for a replacement for Sean Connery as James Bond, Reed had picked a very good time to peak.
The problem with most Bond rumors, however, is that there are far too many of them. A couple of years back, I did a Movie Legends Revealed delving into the striking amount of supposition and rumors that surrounded every time a new Bond was cast (that legend was specifically about whether Ian Fleming wanted Roger Moore to play 007 originally). So while the idea of Reed playing Bond was popular at the time (one notable British film magazine conducted a poll asking fans who they wanted to see succeed Connery, and the vast majority voted for Reed), it has always been a difficult thing to pin down as to whether Broccoli was ever seriously interested in the actor. After all, Reed also claimed he turned down Robert Shaw’s role in “Jaws,” and the producers of deny that. In this case, however, we have a bit of a “smoking gun,” as Reed biographer Cliff Goodwin came across a letter written by Broccoli that he included in his book “Evil Spirits.” In the letter, Broccoli notes:
With Reed we would have had a far greater problem to destroy his image and re-mold him as James Bond. We just didn’t have the time or money to do that.
So Reed’s rough-and-tumble reputation ruined his chance to play Bond. Goodwin wrote, “Oliver was probably within a sliver of being cast as Bond. But by 1968 his affairs were public and he was already drinking and fighting — as far away from the refined Bond image as you could get.”
Reed never did quite become a major star, although he remained popular in England. His legendary drinking continued for the rest of his life, and he sadly died of a heart attack in 1999 after a long night of drinking during a break in the filming of Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (he racked up an over $800 liquor bill the night before he died!). He was 61. Even in his death, however, Reed was a bit out of the ordinary. As I discussed in an old Movie Legends Revealed, Scott used digital effects to have Reed appear in “Gladiator” even after his death.
Anyhow, the legend is…
Thanks to Cliff Goodwin for the Broccoli quote!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music.
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