Nobody Did It Better: A Tribute To Roger Moore

Esquire editor-in-chief Alex Bilmes on the late Bond star's legacy

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Minister of Defence: "Bond! What do you think you're doing?"

Bond: "Keeping the British end up, Sir."

– The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Oh, yes, very droll. And, in the regrettably immortal line of desperate wisecrackers since time began, there's plenty more where that one came from. (If we really must: "I'm an early riser myself." "A bit restless but I got off eventually." "Sheer magnetism, darling." "There's no sense going out half-cocked". And so on.)

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Think Roger Moore and, chances are, you think Seventies Bond: safari jacket; chestnut bouffant; call-girl tan; proto dad bod; and that plummy voice, rich and nutty as fruitcake, all the better to deliver those dismal double-entendres.

In the age of Daniel Craig, when agent 007 is wracked and saturnine, we have grown accustomed to having our screen heroes tortured and gloomy. The James Bond of Skyfall and Spectre is scarred by unresolved childhood trauma and the violent deaths of the love of his life (Vesper Lynd) and his substitute mother (M). He is hard, kinetic, "a blunt instrument", in Ian Fleming's famous description, but he suffers deeply. Meanwhile, Jason Bourne can't remember his own phone number and even cartoon superheroes are neurotics: Batman, as played by Christian Bale, was so miserable you wondered if he wouldn't have been better off hanging up his cape and seeking the advice of a decent psychoanalyst. Each of those actors takes his action hero role very, very seriously indeed. Studios and directors demand it, and so do contemporary audiences.

For all those reasons, watched from the perspective of 2017, Roger Moore's seven James Bond films, over 12 years from Live and Let Die (1973) to A View to a Kill (1985), can seem tarnished relics of an era so distant from our own that the flimsy popular cinema of the time is unrecognisable from today's slick blockbusters.

And Moore himself, with his single raised eyebrow, his distracted air of half-engaged irony – sometimes he seems to stare off into space; perhaps he's thinking about lunch – and his embarrassing uncle antics with women young enough to be his mortified niece, can appear to be a clownish figure. While Craig is buff and steely, Moore's Bond, particularly towards the end of his reign, looked like he'd struggle to get through a gentle set of tennis – which he would doubtless play in a dinner jacket, without spilling his martini.

Implausible as a plot to take over the world, creaky as a Whitehall staircase, stiff as a you-know-what, Moore seemed to make little attempt to make Bond anything more than a two-dimensional figure of fun. He seemed, simply, to be having a laugh.

And that, perhaps, is the point. Because all the criticisms of Moore – wooden, unconvincing, half asleep – deny crucial elements that his Bond had in spades (yes, and hearts and clubs and diamonds): that sense of fun, for one, but perhaps more importantly, a sense of proportion.

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There's a case to be made that Moore gave Fleming's character exactly the respect he so richly deserved – which wasn't all that much. And also that he credited the audience for the Bond films with more nous than some of the other actors who have worn the bow tie. Moore was too smart, too charming, simply too well-mannered, and had a far too highly developed a sense of his own ridiculousness, to insult the audience's collective intelligence by playing Fleming's Bond – wine snob, womanizer, stuffed shirt – for anything other than chuckles. His Bond was a roué, a bounder, a debonair playboy not remotely like a real spy and arguably all the better for it.

This doesn't mean Moore was disdainful of the role of 007. On the contrary, he reveled in it. Just that he didn't mistake it for actual acting. He wasn't pretending to be Olivier or Brando. He was a former male model turned TV star playing a smoothie spy and he didn't expect his audience to suspend disbelief any more than he could – and, clearly, he couldn't.

Every boy has a first Bond, like a first crush, and mine is Roger Moore. Like most Bond fans, I think, I saw him on TV before I saw him on the big screen, in The Spy Who Loved Me. It was love at first sight. He had an underwater Lotus Esprit (so did I, in time, though mine went in the bathtub, not the ocean), and he got to fight off Richard Kiel's teeth and wrap his tongue around Barbara Bach's. By 1981, when I was eight, I was old enough to go with my dad to the cinema, where we saw Moore, again, in For Your Eyes Only: Topol, the Bahamas, Carole Bouquet, car chase in a Citroen 2CV. It was terrifically exciting.

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It's not just me. Daniel Craig's first Bond was Roger Moore, too. Live and Let Die is one of the first films he saw at the cinema and he still considers it Moore's finest. "It's when he was at his most stylish," Craig told me once. "And his most 'Roger Moore'."

What do we mean by that? That he was true to himself: wry, urbane and unruffled. He might not be the greatest classical actor – OK, he wasn't the greatest classical actor – but he was the most purely entertaining ever to pick up the Walther PPK. (Incidentally, the greatest classical actor to have played Bond is Timothy Dalton, and you don't often hear cineastes naming him their favourite 007.)

Moore took over as Bond in the wake of the George Lazenby fiasco (the Aussie model returned to obscurity after one film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service) and Sean Connery's slightly grudging return, for Diamonds Are Forever. The good ship Bond needed steadying, and that's what Moore succeeded in doing. First he needed to make Bond his own. If Connery's Bond – a man so virile he could make a powder blue terry cloth dressing gown look manly – was unimprovable, and many think he was, then Moore's solution was to reinvent the part. He decided to play the thing for laughs. And he got them.

And let's not forget: the man had style. He made his entrance in Live and Let Die in a dark blue double-breasted cashmere coat, made for him by Cyril Castle. (There aren't many actors now – in fact I can't think of any – who commission their own bespoke costumes for a film.) With the exception of Yves Saint Laurent – no slouch himself in the wardrobe department – Moore did as much as anyone to popularise the safari jacket. And if things got slightly out of hand by the late Seventies – the spy we loved was rocking quite the collar behind the wheel of that supaquatic supercar – then by the early Eighties Moore had returned to the sartorial understatement of Fleming's Bond.

His suits were made for him by Dougie Hayward, of Mount Street, Mayfair – "a sort of genius" according to Moore – in whose shop he would spend time shooting the breeze with other dapper British actors, including Terence Stamp and Michael Caine. This was the era when movie stars had style, rather than stylists.

Like Caine and Stamp, none of this glamour and sophistication came to Moore by birth. He was a self-invented man. Born in 1927 in Stockwell, not by any means the wealthiest part of south London, he was the son of a housewife and a policeman. A grammar school boy, after the war – during which he was evacuated to rural Devon – he was commissioned into the British army service corps, becoming a captain. Briefly he was at RADA, the fabled London drama school. Then he worked as a model.

In 1954 he signed a seven-year contract with MGM, but the films flopped. It was on television that he became a star. First as the hero of a British adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, and then, from 1962, as the suave, quipping Simon Templar, a sort of contemporary Robin Hood (if Robin Hood had worn skinny ties and driven a Volvo) in The Saint, based on the novels by Leslie Charteris. That show ran for six series and was an international hit.

He followed it with the impeccably silly The Persuaders! in which he and Tony Curtis were mismatched Riviera playboys turned crime-fighters. Moore, who played high-toned British smoothie Lord Brett Sinclair opposite Curtis's rough diamond New Yorker Danny Wilde, was reportedly paid £1m for the series, making him the highest paid TV actor in the world at that point.

In 1972 he became Bond. He spent 12 years in the role and after retiring from it – at the ripe age of 58 – he dedicated himself to the good life and to his extensive work for UNICEF.

Sir Roger Moore died last Monday at the grand old age of 89. He married four times and had three kids. Like a latter-day Brett Sinclair he lived between Monte Carlo and the Swiss Alps.

As I typically do when writing a piece like this, I turned to the standard critical text on film stardom, David Thomson's 'Biographical Dictionary of Film', before I got to work, to find out what I ought to think, and say. But unlike Connery and even Pierce Brosnan, Moore's not in there. There's space for Colleen Moore, Demi Moore, Julianne Moore and Michael Moore, but no Sir Rodge.

And yet, of course, one suspects he could hardly have cared less.

A number of actors have done Bond differently, but, as Daniel Craig generously and correctly pointed out this week, nobody did it better.