Why Roger Moore was the best James Bond of all

Rob Long writes that we may rank the men who have played 007, but our liking is more about whom we grew up with.

British actor Roger Moore died this week at the age of 89. He will be remembered for his role as James Bond. Henning Kaiser / EPA
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The order, in case you’re wondering, goes like this: Daniel Craig, Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, and finally, Timothy Dalton.

I don’t really have to specify what, exactly, I’m ordering here, do I?

We’re talking James Bond. Roger Moore, who delivered the smoothest and most unruffled version of Ian Fleming’s eternal and un-killable staff member on Her Majesty’s Secret Service, died this week at the smooth and unruffled age of 89, and his death set off a Twitter storm of remembrances and testimonials to the great actor, as well as reanimating the debate about who was the best James Bond.

With the deepest respect to the late Roger Moore, it must be said that his was the third-best 007. That’s not really a criticism: he ranks just below the original Bond, Sean Connery, and the most recent – and best – Bond, Daniel Craig. Moore played Bond as a gentleman – a thinker and a detective more than a fist-throwing secret agent. Moore’s Bond was all arched eyebrows and complicated safari jackets, and his villains veered into the baroque territory, fitting for a James Bond who wore velour track suits and smoked panatella-length cigars. Roger Moore played James Bond with a kind of winking acknowledgement that all of this was, perhaps, a bit silly and past its prime. Which didn’t make him a bad 007 at all – he outranks Brosnan, Lazenby, and Dalton – but it keeps him from the top two ranks.

Poor Timothy Dalton had the misfortune of following Roger Moore in the role, and one way you can gauge how well an actor inhabits a part is how impossible it is to follow him. Dalton’s 007 was doomed by events out of his control: the indelibility of Moore’s James Bond and the concurrent decline in quality of the typical James Bond picture screenplay. By Moore’s retirement, the entire series seemed tired and out of energy and didn’t catch fire again until Pierce Brosnan’s first-rate James Bond hit the cinema. Brosnan wore Brioni suits though. James Bond wears Savile Row. Points off for that.

We’ll file George Lazenby’s efforts in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in Timothy Dalton category: he may have been an adequate, even above average, James Bond, but he was eclipsed by his predecessor, Sean Connery. In fact, his performance was lacklustre enough that the producers returned to Sean Connery for the next instalment of the series, Diamonds Are Forever. To his credit, Lazenby’s 007 manages to wear a kilt – and make it look dashing – and that has to count for something. For that reason, he cannot be last on the list.

My ranking is controversial, I know. Most people place Sean Connery at the top of the list and there’s good reason for this. His James Bond was the first – he burst onto screens in 1962 in the rarely-seen but super stylish Dr No – and his Bond had a squat Celtic athleticism to him that felt real and dangerous. The James Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels could be brutish and cruel, and Connery managed to hint at that with his steel eyes and thin smile. But Daniel Craig manages to embody the caged violence of the written Bond and add in an arched eyebrow here and there. His Bond is a smart, slightly bitter, hard-working professional, with the craggy features and the scars to prove it. Daniel Craig’s James Bond is a fitting 007 for our craggy and scarred times, and it’s a brave actor who steps into the part when he retires.

Of course, this is all just silly overthinking. My 007 ranking is based on analysis and show business experience and, to be frank, simply trying to sound clever. If I were being truly honest, I’d rank the James Bonds by the effect they had on me when I watched them on the screen the first time. It wouldn’t be a question of who I thought was the best Bond – thinking has nothing to do with it – but, rather, who took my breath away with the coolest on screen action.

In other words, who was playing James Bond when I was an 11- year-old boy? And that actor was Roger Moore.

The first thing I remember: in Live and Let Die he’s about to take a bath, is smoking a cigar and suddenly sees a poison snake slithering towards him. With an aerosol can and the lit end of the cigar he creates a kind of flame thrower and incinerates the snake. That was a stunt I tried to recreate many times myself with matches and household cleaners – it’s a wonder I didn’t burn the house down or set myself ablaze – until someone caught me. But even now I wonder if I could pull it off.

The second Roger Moore moment: the opening sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me. After a harrowing ski chase, Bond is cornered and jumps, skis and all, off a dizzyingly high alpine peak. He free-falls for a few moments and just when we think he might fall to his death (he won’t, of course, but still) an enormous parachute – we didn’t know he had one of those – billows out, emblazoned with an enormous Union Jack. The cinema audience went crazy. I went crazy.

I take it all back. Roger Moore was the best Bond of all.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Los Angeles

On Twitter: @rcbl