When producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman bought the rights to Ian Fleming's James Bond novels and were planning for the first in what was to become the most popular film series in history, their wish list of actors to play the British superagent 007 included the 58-year-old Cary Grant and the 52-year-old David Niven.
The producers figured that whatever Grant and Niven gave up in physical power and agility, they more than made up for in wit and sophistication. If they couldn't have it all, -- would have to do.
James Bond, perhaps the most sublime creation in Cold War fiction, was a matchless fantasy hero for Fleming's mostly male readers. He was intelligent, well-educated and well-heeled, conversant and in possession of the finest cars, clothes and electronic devices known to man, and when he was not saving the free world from power-hungry sadists, he was successfully leching after the world's most beautiful women.
Still, the producers were wise enough to know that not many guys secretly identifying with 007 were going to go to James Bond movies alone and that if Bond were to successfully transcend the screen, he would have to be as much of a sexual fantasy for women as a macho fantasy for men.
After Grant and Niven rejected the offer to play Bond in the 1962 "Dr. No" (Niven later played him in John Huston's clunky send-up of "Casino Royale"), the producers took the advice offered in a London newspaper readers' poll and hired 31-year-old Scotsman Sean Connery, the star of Walt Disney's popular "Darby O'Gill and the Little People."
Now, 32 years and 17 episodes later, Mr. Broccoli is again being given advice from fans on whom to cast as Bond on screen. Timothy Dalton (two Bond movies), who succeeded Roger Moore (7), who succeeded George Lazenby (1), who succeeded Connery (7), has opted out of the role, and Mr. Broccoli, who dissolved his partnership with Mr. Saltzman in 1976, is looking for a new Bond for the three movies set to go into back-to-back-to-back production this fall.
The Irish/British actor, TV's "Remington Steel," was considered for the role when Mr. Moore relinquished it after the 1985 "A View to a Kill," and in a recent telephone poll taken by "Entertainment Tonight," three out of four people said Mr. Brosnan should get it now. The other votes were divided among Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Ralph Fiennes, Gabriel Byrne and, from a few people who didn't understand the question, Emma Thompson.
Before Mr. Broccoli moves to please the majority, he should keep in mind that where readers of the London Daily Express were trying to help him cast James Bond as Ian Fleming envisioned him, viewers of "Entertainment Tonight" are trying to help him cast the character as he has been played since. Whether we Fleming fans like it or not, the Bond movies have become the literature, and Bond has become either Sean Connery or Roger Moore, depending on when you joined the series.
The mistake made with Mr. Dalton, and the forgotten Mr. Lazenby 20 years earlier, was the assumption that Bond's credentials as a superhero would hold regardless of who was playing him. Not so. The X factor in any actor-to-role equation is the combination of elements that give the actor his inherent appeal, and how those qualities suit the character. That Mr. Connery was born to play Bond was apparent from the outset.
Roger Moore's appearance as Bond marked a huge departure " from the character's origins, but if Mr. Moore was too warm and fuzzy for some of us, he had enough wit and charm for others to carry the series for more than a decade.
Mr. Broccoli's choice of Mr. Dalton was an attempt to return to Mr. Connery's earthier, more physical and more faithful version of Bond, and although Mr. Dalton was fine in the action scenes, he had none of the seductive wiles Mr. Connery brought to the role. Mr. Brosnan, on the other hand, would be in the Roger Moore mold. He might look great in a black tie and cummerbund playing chemin de fer, but I can't see him menacing anyone. And for those women who've fallen in love with Britain's Hugh Grant ("Four Weddings and a Funeral"), sorry, but the same goes for him.
Of the names that showed up in the "ET" poll, Mel Gibson would best strike the necessary balance. He'd be a more compact version of Bond, but he's got the looks, the athleticism, the wit and the personality to fill 007's shoes. Men admire him, even while the women they're with lust after him, and if he chose to do it, he could give the world of Cold War espionage a contemporary spin that would carry it right into the 21st century.
One thing for sure is that if Mr. Gibson did it, he wouldn't be compared to either Mr. Connery or Mr. Moore. He's pretty much of an original, and the Bond series, if it is to continue, needs nothing more than a totally new engine.
The only question is, can Cubby Broccoli afford him?