FONDLY REMEMBERED

What Made Sir Roger Moore the Best James Bond

Sir Roger Moore, who has died at 89, showed how 007 could be warm, witty, beautifully dressed—and still save the world.

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It was odd, much later, to be told by a fellow James Bond fan that I had to be joking—that, for him, Sean Connery was considered the connoisseur’s Bond, the right Bond, the correct mix of cold, macho and suave.

The corollary was that was something not right, too cheesy, and not Bond enough about Sir Roger Moore’s incarnation of 007, the top British spy and impeccably dressed, normal-sized superhero who saved the world—sure, with his fists when necessary—but who was, at least growing up back then, far more memorable for this viewer for his quick wit, charm, and savoir faire.

But for me—a child of the 1970s—my first Bond, my favorite Bond, was and will always be Moore, who has died, aged 89, of cancer.

As much as Moore’s Bond was indeed saving the world, he was also laughing and eye-rolling at us as he did so. He was in on the joke of his character, and the absurdity of the world he found himself in, but never enough to undermine the necessary illusion of being Bond.

What a wonderful example to grow up with: the perfect man, the hero, the one who was best dressed, calmest, always ready with a witty putdown or piece of sarcasm to puncture a tense moment, rather than simply flinging fists and threats.

Not that he couldn’t and didn’t do that. The first time I chewed my nails over anything I ever saw on a screen was his dust-up with one of my favorite Bond villains, the steel-toothed henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel) in a train carriage in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

The best thing about Moore’s Bond was how jaded and slightly put out he looked having to ski here and there, or fight, or learn the codes to crack something, or take on the hordes of heels ready to do him down.

His Bond endured all of this as if it were a frightful imposition, and that he would rather be at home, reclining on a couch, log fire burning, a pretty woman there too, and just close the door on all this high-energy spying kerfuffle.

Sure, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig looked more buff (in 2012, Moore said Craig had the best build to play Bond), and they also broke more of a sweat. Their two Bonds are fine. George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton are doughty and sadly forgettable, but again—fine. Pierce Brosnan was the nearest languid approximation of Moore's Bond, a smoothness he had satirized perfectly in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) even before he had taken on the Bond mantle.

Bond has never been characterized disastrously, but he is a panoply of interpretations. In an albeit cartoonish and exaggerated frame, Bond-on-film is a jigsaw of masculinity: what it is, and what, at any given time, it is considered to be.

Moore’s Bond emerged in the 1970s and 1980s when men wore cravats and open-necked shirts and sported medallions over chest furze. Beards and moustaches were as out of control as the bell-bottoms they wore.

Roger Moore’s Bond was so perfect because he took a little bit of this outlandishness, but still kept it buttoned up in a Savile Row suit. His Bond was both secret agent and roué: the actual business of being a secret agent always seemed a little bit of a hassle set against his true desire to pursue a gentleman’s life of pleasure and general fabulousness.

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Look at how he deals with Jaws on the train: sheer ingenuity. Jaws can pummel him and beat him up, but Moore’s Bond has the edge on figuring out a little electrocution delivered to the teeth will set him up to boot him out of the train window.

The best of Moore is in his fights with Jaws, because even as adversaries both also seem to have a liking for one another: the classic simpatico of little and large.

Moore was the longest-serving Bond, starring in seven movies from 1973 to 1985—beginning with Live and Let Die (1973) and ending with A View To A Kill (1985). The oldest Bond, he was 45 at the beginning of his stewardship, and 58 by the end. He is remembered more for his expert wearing of a tux than blue swimming trunks.

Moore had perfected his chilled hero’s sangfroid—and that beaky, furrowed brow look that was so him—as another debonair hero, The Saint. Again, this was a hero, first seen in The Persuaders!, happier in a sports car than in a dusty warzone.

Roger Moore’s Bond was an early metrosexual, as much interested in the look as the right hook. He cared about what he wore, and cared about what you thought about what he wore.

“In my teens I was very insecure,” Moore told the Telegraph last year. “And so I invented Roger Moore. I was possibly shy. I don’t know why some people are shy and some aren’t. Some people blush very easily.” He didn’t like to fight, and he didn’t like doing scenes as Bond in which he had to menace actresses like Maud Adams, in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), he said.

One of my most fondly remembered moments as an editor at the London Times was when, in 2008, I got to work with Sir Roger on an article, recalling his friendship with Frank Sinatra. Naturally, he was a pleasure to deal with.

How could any piece that begins like this be anything but engaging: “I first met Frank Sinatra in the 1950s at a Hollywood nightclub called the Moulin Rouge. I was then under contract to Warner Bros and was invited, as a very minor celebrity, to a charity fund-raiser with the theme of cowboys and Indians. There I saw Frank having a rather public confrontation with the most famous cowboy of them all, John Wayne.”

Of Sinatra’s links with the Mafia, Moore said he had “often read about Frank’s alleged links with Mafia figures such as Sam Giancana, Lucky Luciano and Rocco Fischetti, and asked him about it. ‘Kid,’ he said, ‘most of the venues I play are in one way or another controlled by the Mob – they run Vegas for a start. I turn up at these places and am greeted by all these guys who want me to pose for a photo with them. I’ve no idea who they are, but they’re standing with their arm around me like long-lost friends. How many photos have you posed for with people you don’t know?’

“Mind you,” Moore wrote, “I don’t think Frank ever did anything to publicly dispel the rumors of his underworld connections. He rather liked it.”

Moore and Sinatra were perhaps quite similar, both knowing that the best way to parlay and enjoy their celebrity was to stay truest to the roles or image that had made them famous.

For Moore—who was married extremely colorfully, four times—there were other roles he played after Bond. He had a cameo playing the suavest of villains in Spice World (1997), happily playing up to and subverting his Bond-honed image. He was an acclaimed UNICEF “goodwill ambassador,” which he was rightly proud of. But nothing ever eclipsed his role as 007.

He was the chillest Bond, the campest Bond, the gentleman’s Bond, the ironic Bond, the perfect Bond for the boldly patterned, champagne-drenched, good times-embracing of the 1970s and 80s.

In his article about Sinatra for me, Moore related how, in “one of our final conversations Frank said to me: ‘You gotta love livin’, kid, ’cause dyin’ is a pain in the ass.’ But we never spoke about death or illness. We were too busy enjoying life.”

This essence of Sir Roger Moore was the essence of his masterful Bond.