I realize this blog is normally focused on social issues past and present, but when actor Sean Connery recently passed away, I felt compelled to write an article about the iconic actor's greatest character, James Bond. Connery is credited with over 90 acting roles, but of the dozens of characters he portrayed, he is best remembered for becoming the first actor to bring James Bond to life as a British secret agent. Connery's take on the bed-hopping Agent 007 rapidly made both the actor and the character enduring symbols of the 1960s and of the spy genre as a whole, but he was not the only man to play Bond. As of this writing, six other actors played 007, but of them all, only one stands as the best-ever to step into the role. Here, from worst to best, is my ranking of the portrayals of James Bond on television and in cinema. Please note that mine is a ranking of the performances per actor to play Bond in purportedly serious efforts—stand-ins, stunt doubles, and David Niven's comedic version excluded—and not the scripts the actors were made to perform.
#7: Roger Moore (1972-1985)
Moore played Bond with overwhelming amounts of charm, much as he played Simon Templar on television's The Saint from 1962 through 1969. However, he absolutely failed to deliver any of Bond’s intensity or the character’s menacing nature. Due to Moore’s campy performances, the Bond series became an embarrassing string of self-parodies more in the mold of the Matt Helm and Derek Flint film series than in the example set by his predecessors. Roger Moore's performances as James Bond never reached the levels of dramatic acting necessary to convincingly present the layered characterization of 007, and he made the next entry on this list seem like an award-winning performance by comparison.
#6: Barry Nelson (1954)
James “Jimmy” Bond (yes, the James Bond was referred to as “Jimmy”) first appeared in the 1954 version of Casino Royale on the American television show Climax! Bond was presented as an American spy and portrayed by actor Barry Nelson. Ian Fleming’s superspy was pretty much an unknown commodity to Nelson and Climax!, so this version of Bond was very much in the generic 1950s tough-guy mold. Accordingly, the Barry Nelson version of Bond lacked the depth of most later characterizations, and it similarly lacked the character's subtlety and European flair, both of which he replaced with a delivery more suited to a Chicago-set police drama than an international spy thriller. However, the saving grace for Barry Nelson’s take on Bond is that he was the first to try bringing 007 to life. Everyone after Nelson has (or had) the opportunity to see what he did and make the appropriate changes. Nelson was the first to try, so while he did not get it quite right, his failure to do so is excusable.
#5: Daniel Craig (2005-present)
When discussing Daniel Craig’s take on James Bond, the name of silent film actor Buster Keaton must enter the conversation. Nicknamed “The Great Stone Face,” Keaton was a physical comedian of the highest order and one of the silent era’s biggest stars. He acted in dozens of madcap comedies in which he performed extreme stunts and risked severe injury or even death with an expressionless face. No matter the effort, no matter the situation, no matter the dangers before him, Buster Keaton performed as though his face was somehow immobilized. Performing in such a way brings us back to Daniel Craig, the most recent 007 as of this writing. While neither man gave physically rigid performances, comparisons between the two are apt given both starred in highly active roles with little or no change to their facial expressions. Craig’s “blond Bond” is not a debonair gentleman with a license to kill, but a two-legged tank with the subtlety of a trumpeting elephant. His very first outing in the role, Casino Royale (2006) set the tone for his version of Bond when he literally ran through a wall in pursuit of a suspect, and Craig had all the expressiveness of a brick on his face as he did so. The Craig version of Bond differs from all others, and that difference often fails to work in its favor.
#4: George Lazenby (1969)
Guess what happens when a model/car salesman with little acting experience becomes the new James Bond? You get George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, of course! George Lazenby was not a household name when he took on the role of 007 following Sean Connery’s initial exit, but that did not stop him from turning in a performance that could be called “Connery-light.” This man tried, and it shows in his attempts at acting, but his take on Bond was savaged at the time by critics and Connery loyalists. He was an unknown stepped into the shoes of an icon, and the knives were out for him from the very start. In truth, his work was far better than doubtful moviegoers of the time allowed themselves to realize it was, for George Lazenby later earned a Golden Globe nomination as the Most Promising Newcomer for his performance as James Bond. Regardless, he remains unfairly criticized for his work to this day. Lazenby never officially played 007 again, though he later played a similar role in 1983’s Return of the Man from Uncle. The character? A well-dressed man driving a familiar, gadget-laden, silver Astin Martin with the license plate “JB,” and who is spoken of in the film with a direct reference to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
#3: Pierce Brosnan (1995-2005)
The man who was once locked into playing television’s Remington Steele finally escaped his contractural handcuffs to portray a Bond who was focused, a bit frenetic, and given to lighthearted moments tinged with smugness. The Brosnan version of Bond was, to me, a blend of Connery’s and Moore’s, with more of Connery's take and just selected dashes of Moore's version. Pierce Brosnan’s time as Bond was marred by scripts of decreasing quality and a woeful final entry, Die Another Day (2002), that was further undermined by wholly unconvincing CGI. As a result, many devalue Brosnan’s performances by using the decreasing quality of his Bond films as the sole measure of his performances. I say, watch Goldeneye (1995) or any of his first three Bond films and enjoy watching a man finally perform a role he desired for years.
#2: Timothy Dalton (1986-1994)
Timothy Dalton is far more than just another actor who played James Bond, for he is the man who rescued 007 from the campiness of Roger Moore’s interpretation. Moore aimed for a comedic presentation, striking a bullseye as did so, but Dalton went in the exact opposite direction. Dalton’s Bond was rugged, extremely intense, and far more violent than Connery's version. A classically trained actor, Timothy Dalton imbued his iteration of 007 with a look of gritty determination as he performed numerous scenes of murder and mayhem. In truth, if Daniel Craig’s Bond had movable facial features, it would be very close to the Timothy Dalton version of the character. Though he performed in just two 007 films (he was slated for more but delays happened), Dalton’s take on Bond is key to the film series’ ongoing success as it helped cleanse many palates of the foul taste left by Roger Moore’s portrayal.
#1: Sean Connery (1962-1967, 1971, 1983)
This should come as no surprise. Following actor Barry Nelson's 1954 performance as 007, Connery became the second actor to play James Bond. Connery's take on the character greatly eclipsed Nelson's, and it rapidly made both the actor and the character enduring symbols of the 1960s and of the entire spy genre. James Bond, as performed by Connery, was intelligence and controlled rage, civility and savagery, a man outwardly of one society and secretly of another. Connery’s nuanced performances—complete with the requisite facial expressions, Daniel Craig—set the stage for all who would follow by presenting Bond as described, and the spy genre was forever changed because of his actions. This version of James Bond is the standard that most later versions tried to meet, as most tended to have some roots in Connery’s interpretation. While not the first man to play a spy or James Bond, Sean Connery certainly gave the best portrayal of both to date, and his take on 007 became the most iconic as well.
That's it for my ranking of the many actors to play James Bond. Do you agree? Please sound off in the comments!
All the best,
I love to write! I'm a Technical Writer by day and a blogger by night. On My Mind Today is my creation, and for me it is a true labor of love. Whether the subject is a current issue or a historical matter, I'll try to address it here. I look forward to writing quality content, and I'm open to topic suggestions. I value your feedback!