Where coming in second is better than nothing!
Updated on 02/17/2020
After the fifth installment of the James Bond movie series You Only Live Twice hit the theaters, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, the producers of the lucrative franchise, had a problem. Their Bond didn’t want to be Bond anymore. After spying, killing, and sexing his way through five movies, Sean Connery was ready to go.
There were several reasons for Connery’s discontent. As an actor, he was worried he would spend the rest of his career being typecast in Bond-type roles. Another issue was Connery’s experience in filming You Only Live Twice in Japan where the press constantly harassed the actor. Of course if you play James Bond, you’re going to have to put up with a certain bit of that. But the most important issue for Connery above all was that he felt he was being exploited, and in a way he may have been.
Saltzman and Broccoli were making money hand-over-fist, and even though Connery was making money also, it wasn’t as much as Connery believed he was entitled given the enormous revenue brought in by the films. This caused a significant amount of friction over the years between Satlzman and Connery to a point where the two men ended up disliking each other intensely. So in 1968, to the surprise of the producers, Connery announced that he was quitting the role. United Artists, the studio that bankrolled the Bond franchise were very concerned because, as they saw it, Connery almost single-handedly guaranteed a successful box-office return on investment. Broccoli and Saltzman for their part believed that the role of James Bond was bigger than any actor, and they were sure they could find someone who could step into the Aston Martin and be James Bond.
George Lazenby was a model from Australia—and that’s about all he was.
Lazenby left Australia and moved to London in 1963 by his own account to follow a woman he was seeing at the time. For a while he worked as a used car salesman before embarking on rather a successful modeling career.
There are differing accounts on how Lazenby won the role. In one story he tells how he got in to see the producers largely because of an agent named Maggie Abbott whom he met at a movie premiere. In a particularly bizarre and lurid account, Lazenby claims that while he and his roommate were having sex with some random woman the friend brought home, the friend suddenly realized his own girlfriend was coming home the next day and he couldn’t go to the premiere. So he asked Lazenby to go in his place. The most astonishing part of the story isn’t the three-way sex that was going on, but that the roommate was having a conversation with Lazenby while having sex.
Whichever way he found out, the role was open, and for Lazenby, this was an opportunity. He had dreamed of being James Bond ever since he saw his first Bond movie. During an interview in the documentary Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007, the Australian said that he first became aware of the power of James Bond when he took a date to see Dr. No.
“Going in,” Lazenby said, “I had about a 90% chance of getting laid.” Insinuating that the cocksure and sexy British spy caused the date he was with to lose interest in him, Lazenby continued, “Afterwards, I had maybe a 10% chance.”
Determined to win the role, Lazenby had a plan to simply become James Bond. To begin his transformation into the character, Lazenby first found out who Connery’s barber was and went there to get a more Bond-like haircut. He also found out where Connery got his suits and ended up buying one that Connery himself no longer wanted. Finally, Lazenby scored himself a second-hand Rolex watch to finish the look.
In a brazen display of gumption, Lazenby showed up in Bond character to Saltzman’s office hoping to meet the producer. He told the secretary that he wanted to have a word with Saltzman about being the next Bond. Rebuffing Lazenby, she told him that Satlzman was busy and unable to meet with him. In a very Bond-like move, when the secretary’s attention was elsewhere, Lazenby bolted past her desk and up the stairs. He then quickly entered the producer’s office and shut the door behind him.
Saltzman looked up startled. Then Lazenby said, “I hear you’re looking for the next James Bond.”
The good looks and the bravado of the guy who just broke into his office intrigued Saltzman. The fact that Lazenby was Australian gave him some pause, but Lazenby talked a good game. When Saltzman asked Lazenby about his acting experience, Lazenby flat out lied. He told Saltzman that he’d been in small movies in Germany, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong—any place he could think of that Saltzman wouldn’t be able to verify. Lazenby’s act worked and he scored a screen test with the other Bond producer, Broccoli. He too was impressed with Lazenby, but both producers still weren’t completely sure that Lazenby was the right guy.
Broccoli and Saltzman called in Peter Hunt to meet with Lazenby. Hunt had been a film editor on previous Bond films and was chosen to be the director of the newest installment in the series, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was for this role Lazenby was being considered.
Hunt was not at all impressed with Lazenby when they met. He could see that the good-looking Australian looked the part, but he wasn’t too keen on taking a chance on such a complete unknown. Hunt showed his displeasure quite plainly. As the conversation went on, Lazenby became increasingly worried that he was in over his head especially when it came to his lies about previous acting gigs. Not quite sure in retrospect why he did it, Lazenby came clean to Hunt and told him that he had never acted in his life. The director was puzzled at first but then, according to Lazenby:
“[Hunt] starts rolling on the floor laughing,” Lazenby recalled. “He said, ‘You’ve fooled two of the most ruthless men I’ve ever met in my life! They made me come back from Switzerland to see you! Stick to your story and I’ll make you the next James Bond!’”
Over the next few weeks, the producers worked with Lazenby in screen test after screen test to make him into a viable 007. They worked on Lazenby’s Australian accent, and taught him to be more British. They worked on his walk, his mannerisms, and his technique. The producers were quite happy that Lazenby was a good swimmer and could ride a horse rather well—two things that Bond would be required to do in the movie, which would save them money on stunt doubles. Screen test after screen test, Lazenby kept passing.
Now this next story is almost impossible to verify because the source of it is Lazenby himself, and even for him it’s a pretty racy one. According to Lazenby, the producers were concerned about his personal life. More specifically, his sex life. Even more specifically, who he liked to have sex with. And even more specifically specific, they wanted to know if he was gay. The producers believed that there was a good chance of Lazenby being gay because he was a male model, and to them most male models were gay.
Whether or not Lazenby was straight seemed in their eyes to be a major prerequisite for the the part. In order to ease their worries and to find out once and for all if Lazenby liked the ladies, one of the producers showed up at his apartment with a female prostitute. With little discussion, Lazenby and the prostitute got down to sexy business while—now this is the part that makes the story apocryphal—the producer sat there and watched.
When Lazenby and the woman more or less finished his “audition”, the producer and the prostitute left. Lazenby showed rather plainly that he was indeed not gay. Of course it probably didn’t occur to the producer that Lazenby could’ve been bi, back then things were a bit more black and white. Again, there is no way to fully verify this claim, but it’s one Lazenby made.1
The event that sealed the deal for the producers came during a screen-test fight scene where Lazenby accidentally “chinned” the professional wrestler stunt-man with whom he was fighting and knocked the guy out.
“Being brought up in the bush in Australia,” Lazenby said in explaining his fighting ability, “every Friday night you’d be punching somebody…just for fun.”
The producers were satisfied. George Robert Lazenby, the model from Australia, was going to be the second actor to play the role of James Bond in a feature film.
Broccoli and Saltzman weren’t stupid. They knew not to put all their eggs in an unknown basket. So they went out and got Telly Savalas to play the villain Blofield, and Diana Rigg to play the part of Tracy (Countess Teresa di Vincenzo)—two well-known actors with established careers and visibility to give the movie, in Rigg’s words, a little “gravitas”.
Scriptwise, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was different from previous Bond films. For one thing, the character of Bond was more nuanced and moody—some have even said brooding (although Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig were far more brooding during their respective Bond tenures). It was still a James Bond script of course. It had several exciting action scenes—including a neat little ski chase—and some solid scenes where we get to see Bond sneaking around stealing documents like a real spy. What really set the script apart from previous bonds was that we get to see the master spy as more vulnerable and more human. He even gets married!
Not to disappoint, the producers and director knew what audiences wanted, which was sex, sex, more sex, and lots of sexy sexiness. OHMSS was indeed a fruitful outing for 007—he got to bang three women.
The producers also knew that female theatergoers too would want their eye candy, which could account for Bond’s silly kilt outfit2 where we got to see his manly legs.
Everything seemed to be there for a successful movie—a solid script, a megalomaniacal villain, a beautiful countess, a good setting, and a guy, who, despite some reservations by the producers, looked primed to play the role.
Despite having all the pieces in place, production of OHMSS did not go smoothly. Off the set Lazenby showed his lack of self-control in the way he conducted himself. Like the character he was playing, he slept with almost every woman he could (sometimes 4 or 5 girls in one day according to Lazenby), and drank heavily each night. According to Lazenby himself, he was out-of-control. And really, what could anyone have expected? Lazenby was a model-turned-actor from Nowhere-in-particular-ville, Australia, who was suddenly given the role of 007 at the age of 29 with little lead-up or preparation for the privilege and fame the role brings. He was naive.
On set, Lazenby had strong disagreements with the director and producers and would openly argue with them. It’s possible they were trying to over-manage the inexperienced new actor, whose behavior was indeed alarming, but on the other hand, Lazenby may have had some legitimate gripes.
“They made me feel like I was mindless,” Lazenby said about the producers. “They disregarded everything I suggested simply because I hadn’t been in the film business like them for about a thousand years.”
Diana Rigg, with whom Lazenby clashed quite often, gave a different impression. In a BBC interview, which you can see in part here, Rigg said that Lazenby was simply difficult offstage and acted like he was already a privileged film star—shorthand for saying that he acted like an entitled prick.
Lazenby for his part agreed somewhat with the opinion that he was hostile, difficult, and awkward. As he explains in this interview shortly after making OHMSS, Lazenby felt uptight on the set and often felt nervous and alone. He also thought that the director Hunt didn’t value him as an actor. But what really got under Lazenby’s skin was that Hunt, as Lazenby claims, wouldn’t address him directly but would instead have assistants deal with Lazenby. Over the course of the production, the Bond actor started to feel more like a prop than a person, and that made him feel uneasy. Hunt gave a different version of their interaction and said that he would have long conversations with Lazenby and tried to work with him extensively. Under the circumstances, there was likely a significant amount of miscommunication between the two.
Another story that went around about filming was that Rigg, who was so annoyed by Lazenby, would chew garlic before her make-out scenes with Lazenby in order to make the experience for Lazenby difficult. Both Rigg and Lazenby addressed this “issue”, which was actually a non-issue. The way both seem to describe the incident, Rigg ate something with garlic for lunch and made a bit of a joke about it before a kissing scene between her and Lazenby. That’s it. It wasn’t a deliberate salvo on her part, and for his, he didn’t seem to care all that much. But given the studio’s desire for publicity, their annoyance with Lazenby, and the friction already present between him and Rigg, the studio decided to make the story into something more than it was — at least, that is, according to the actors.
An alarming incident for the crew, and further evidence of Lazenby’s on-set assholery, the actor bought a Luger and took it to the filming location, where he would then throw empty bottles up into the air and try to shoot them while production crew all around trying not to get shot.
When OHMSS opened in 1969, it got mixed reviews, but that didn’t stop theater-goers from seeing it. It ended up grossing $134 million worldwide, which although it was the fifth worst gross for the Bond series, it still beat Connery’s first shot at Bond in Dr. No, and Roger Moore’s first Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun. From a bottom-line perspective, the film was a success or Saltzman, Broccoli, and United Artists, but once again, the producers found themselves with an unhappy Bond, and a seemingly bigger problem than before.
Lazenby didn’t want to play ball with the producers anymore. He let his hair grow long and he grew a beard. He then showed up at the premiere of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service looking more like a “hippie” than as a clean-cut super spy, all but killing his chances of building his Bond image. Broccoli and Saltzman were quite rightly furious.
All during filming, Lazenby was getting advice from a businessman and pirate radio producer named Ronan O’Rahilly. At first, O’Rahilly was nothing more than a nosy friend, he ended up becoming Lazenby’s unofficial manager and would repeatedly tell the naive Lazenby that the Bond franchise was dying, and that hippies were all about peace and love, whereas Bond was about war. Lazenby soon became convinced that Bond was getting a bit silly and passé, which was, is, and always has been somewhat true of the character. The endless parade of women, the ridiculous car chases and fight scenes, and the silly attempts at levity—sure it was over-the-top most of the time, but that’s what Bond is. In the end, O’Rahilly and Lazenby failed to realize that the silliness and extraordinary plots were part of the appeal of James Bond, so in one of the worst decisions ever made by an actor, Lazenby refused to renew his contract, and walked away from the role of 007.
After that, the word was out that Lazenby was a “difficult” actor to work with. Getting a rep like that in any industry is bad, but in the film industry it’s particularly difficult to get over especially if you’re a newcomer with little marketability or stature. It ended up being almost two years before Lazenby got his next role.
As for Bond, Saltzman and Broccoli again needed a new actor to play the role, so the producers decided to throw money at the problem and get Connery to do another film. Using cash as incentive, United Artists persuaded Connery to return to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, thereby ending the George Lazenby era.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service didn’t deserve the many negative reviews it received when it initially came out, and as Bond movies go, it was pretty darn entertaining — definitely more so than some others in the series. As for Lazenby, he actually made a pretty good Bond, one of the better as many Bond fans believe — although voicing such an opinion in the presence of others will likely result in debate — who was able to inhabit the role convincingly. His acting wasn’t great but it wasn’t distractingly bad either, and let’s face it, even the finest of thesbians would have trouble voicing some of these silly lines (“I thought Christmas only comes once a year”…Jeeeeeeeeesus that was terrible!). The main issue for many viewers was that Lazenby was a newbie who was being unfairly compared to the previous guy (Sean Connery), and really never had a chance to develop a following in the same way as Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, and Danial Craig did (Timothy Dalton had a great introduction with The Living Daylights, but was metaphorically kneecapped with The Living Daylights, which was gawd-awful). Behind the camera, however, Lazenby wasn’t ready to be Bond.
Lazenby ended up losing most of the money he made from OHMSS (about $50,000), because of his spending and the lifestyle that came with being Bond. Eventually, he got back on track and was able to get roles, but he also had to battle a substance abuse problem he had developed. Over time, Lazenby was able to pull his life together and make a good living for himself in business and as an actor. He has since given many interviews where he describes his time as Bond. In general he comes off as humble and genuine. One has to wonder if Lazenby would’ve made a better Bond had he gotten the role later in his life.
Lazenby’s more brooding James Bond would not be realized again until Timothy Dalton took over the role after Roger Moore ended his run as Bond in 1986. Dalton’s debut effort came in the 1987 movie The Living Daylights, where he portrayed a Bond more representative of the character in Ian Fleming’s novels than the Bond in either Connery’s or Moore’s movies. This more human, reluctant, brooding Bond was taken to a new level when Daniel Craig took over the role with the 2006 film Casino Royale.