Remembering Roger Moore

rog-laldI’ve been taking the death of Roger Moore pretty hard, considering I never met the guy.  But then again, he’s been a part of my life as far back as I can remember.  Basically, he was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

As an awkward, buck-toothed beanpole of a kid living in a succession of middle-of-nowhere small towns, I was completely in awe of  this impossibly handsome, witty and sophisticated jet-setter who got to do the coolest things in the most wonderful places with the most interesting people in the world.  Early on, I decided that was the life for me.  If my off-the-rack Sears Toughskin leisure suits were no match for Roger’s bespoke creations from Cyril Castle or Douglas Hayward, and our Country Squire station wagon was a far cry from a Lotus Esprit, at least I could manage an approximation of Roger’s hairstyle, and after hours of practice in front of the mirror, raise one eyebrow at a time.

Looking back, I wonder if I could sense somehow that the Roger Moore I saw was himself a construct, the invention of an insecure, pudgy and often sickly kid from  working class South London who grew up idolizing screen heroes like Stewart Granger and David Niven with dreams of following in their footsteps.  Young Roger George Moore taught himself to speak with a precise and measured upper-class accent and comport himself with the manners and grace of a true English gentleman, to the point where it was hard to imagine him not having been born into the peerage.  No one batted an eyelash when he played a full-fledged English Lord in The Persuaders and when he was eventually knighted in real life, it seemed a logical development.  Even before I knew his biography, his carefully constructed public persona inspired my efforts to mimic the traits I most admired: an unflappable sang-froid under even the most stressful conditions, an air of class that never strayed to snobbery, pride in appearance that stopped short of vanity, the ability to weather reversals with humor and elan, the pluck to succeed by wits and wit where muscle was not sufficient.

Obviously, I tended to blur the lines between Roger Moore and James Bond, since I knew the latter better than the former. but the great thing was that when Roger showed up on talk shows or interviews, he was a match for his fictional roles; dressed to the nines, debonair, cultured, witty and charismatic.  For me, Roger Moore WAS James Bond and vice-versa. Critics would dismiss his performances as not “acting” at all, saying he was just being himself.  Oddly, they seemed to be suggesting that was a bad thing.  Personally, I cherished the notion that somewhere out there in the “real” world was a guy every bit as cool as he seemed on screen.

bond-anyaTo me, criticism that Roger was too unflappable, too flippant about the chaos exploding around him as 007 missed the point: Roger’s Bond wasn’t immune to fear or pain, but he understood the importance of maintaining an outward calm.  It unnerved his enemies to see him face threats with such equanimity.  They would pull up next to him in a speeding car and he’d flash them the friendly smile you’d give a fellow motorist on a Sunday drive in the country. They’d crush objects in their bare hands and he’d look on with mild bemusement.  Sometimes I got the impression the baddies spent all those millions on their enormous, stainless steel hideouts in hopes they’d finally pierce Bond’s nonchalance and elicit a gasp of awe.  Roger never obliged.

When, in Live and Let Die, two thugs drag him out to a Harlem alley for execution, he calls over his shoulder to the lovely Solitaire, “Now don’t go away, I shan’t be long.” Later in the same film, he’s helplessly restrained in the bad guy’s lair as an imposing henchman pulls his trick watch from his wrist.  Seeing as said henchman’s right hand has been replaced with a hook/claw device, it’s an awkward process, and Bond mockingly tut-tuts his efforts: “Butterhook!”  For me, this kind of thing defined the movie Bond:  captured, subdued and in imminent peril, his response is to dig himself even deeper with his smart mouth.  Some viewers would interpret this kind of thing as breaking the fourth wall, undermining the seriousness of the scene.  But if you viewed it — as I did — within the context of Bond’s world, and not a nod to the audience, it becomes a sort of psychological warfare, a mental jiu-jitsu that unnerves opponents and turns defeat to victory.

There are, if you look for them, plenty of moments when panic threatens to take over, when Roger’s Bond realizes he’s in the soup and he’d better think fast:  Trapped on a tiny island surrounded by hungry alligators, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain as a villain kicks away the pitons holding him up, spinning to seeming doom in an out-of-control centrifuge.  In For Your Eyes Only, he’s tied to girlfriend du jour Melina as a motorboat prepares to pull them across a coral reef and tear them to shreds.  “I didn’t think it would end like this,” says Melina.  Looking her in the eyes, he answers calmly, “We’re not dead yet.”  With only the girl to hear him, and no villains to impress, he shows what’s at his core, not flippant disinterest but the dogged determination that he WILL, he MUST survive, or that if he must die, he’ll at least not give the enemy the satisfaction of breaking him.  This is old school, stiff-upper-lip English hero stuff; not perhaps to the liking of fans who prefer Bond as a modern anti-hero type, but catnip to the hero-worshiping kid I was (and am).

Other moments of depth and showcases for Roger’s acting chops come in The Spy Who Loved Me, generally regarded as his best Bond (and his personal favorite). Two come opposite Barbara Bach as Russian spy Anya Amasova.  In the first, they engage in a game of secret agent one-upmanship, rattling off details from each other’s dossiers, until Anya broaches the death of Bond’s wife, Tracy, at which point the affable playboy act vanishes and he tells her, in essence, to shut up.  Moments later, he’s back in “charming” mode, but we’ve seen a flash of what’s beneath. Another moment comes later in the film when Anya demands to know if Bond killed her former lover on an earlier mission.  Roger-Bond answers with candor and a degree of weary resignation that, yes, killings are in his job description and yes, this was one of them.  Little moments like this added a welcome layer of depth that worked well within the overall lighter nature of the films.  If you wanted to take the whole thing as a lark, fine, but if you wanted an indication that underneath it all, something deeper and more substantial lurked, well here it was.  Overall, I have to say I prefer this approach — the occasional glimpse of Bond’s core — to the relentless sturm und drang of the more recent Bond films, and their “This time it’s personal….again” schtick.  The more we dwell on Bond’s “inner life,” the less mysterious and awesome he becomes.

sean-roger1As a youngster, it irritated me when adults said, “I liked Roger Moore better as The Saint.”  I hadn’t seen The Saint at that point, but I knew it was a TV show, and this left-handed compliment clearly implied that (1) no matter what Roger did, Sean Connery would always be better, and (2), Roger’s talents might have been good enough for TV, but he was clearly out of his depth in movies.  Far from brow-beating me into switching to Team Connery, this kind of criticism just caused me to dig in my heels and defend my chosen favorite more steadfastly.  It was a crusade I’d have to keep up for the next few decades.

Whenever I met another Bond fan (which, to some degree, is pretty much everyone), they’d start the discussion with enthusiasm, but when they asked my favorite and I said, “Roger,” more often than not they’d look at me with disappointment, or even pity.  Poor boy, you obviously don’t know your Bonds if he’s your favorite.  “Purist” Fleming fans assumed I must never have read the books, older fans assumed I was just too young to know better.   With the arrival of the internet, I “met” Bond fans from around the world on the old usenet group alt.fan.jamesbond, some of whom I would go on to meet in the flesh and several of whom remain friends today.  When I started a popular fansite (“Mr KissKissBangBang”) with one of those fellow fans, one of my first contributions was an article called, “Who Says Less is Moore?”, a defense of Roger offered at a time when his era was widely derided (and preserved at this Polish site).  I felt like a voice in the wilderness, though thankfully he has plenty of champions, now.  Possibly that’s because with the benefit of hindsight, most fans can agree Roger had a positive impact on the series, and indeed may have ensured its survival.  Nowadays we take it for granted that the mantle will be passed every few years and a new actor will take the reins, but in 1973 it was by no means certain the series would survive the loss of Connery.  Under Roger, it not only survived but thrived, bringing in over a billion dollars in ticket sales.  And where in the 70s there was an either/or choice for Bond fans, now there are multiple interpretations to choose from; it’s easier to like someone other than Connery without feeling like you’re disrespecting the original.  Plus, whereas in the 70s you may have felt Roger was leading the series to rack and ruin and changing it forever for the worse, now we’ve had three successors with their own approaches and we can enjoy Roger’s era on its own merits; it had a beginning and an end and with the passage of time it’s no longer a “threat” to anyone.

By the way, eventually I did get to see The Saint and I realized those old folks may have been on to something: on the whole I liked Roger better as the Saint than I liked anyone as James Bond.  He just seemed to fit more naturally into Simon Templar’s skin than 007’s.  Where Bond was largely amoral and professional about his job (which was, in the end, to kill people), Templar was motivated by a strong personal sense of right and wrong (if not strict adherence to the law).  Bond was, for all his glamorous trappings, a civil servant who had an office and took orders from a boss: Templar was an unsupervised free agent who involved himself in cases when and where he chose.  Roger Moore’s patented on-screen persona was largely defined by a sense of moral justice and personal authority, which fit Templar’s “knight errant” archetype but was at odds with Bond’s nature as a “blunt instrument” wielded by the British government.  This creates a friction between actor and role in those moments when Bond’s harder side comes to the fore; sometimes it works (as when he kicks a killer’s car off a cliff in FYEO; we know he deserves it) but sometimes it doesn’t (slapping around Maud Adams in Man With The Golden Gun, an act of needless cruelty).  Over 12 years, Bond mutates to fit Moore’s screen persona as much as, or more than, Roger conforms to the Bond template, until, by the end, he’s hanging from airplanes and blimps to rescue damsels in distress.  With Roger at the wheel, the role is incrementally steered away from “ruthless assassin” to something closer to “white knight.” Fandom remains divided over whether that’s a good thing.

For the last month or so, I’d  been working my way through the early seasons of “The Saint” and working on this Youtube tribute, hoping to post it in honor of his upcoming 90th birthday.  It was nearly finished when I got the bad news:

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and by the time of A View To A Kill in 1985, even I was ready for Roger to move on.  Unfortunately, what he went on to was a series of progressively awful films until he pretty much threw in the towel on acting, but on the up side that left him free to devote his time to his charity work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, championing the cause of underprivileged children around the world and becoming at last a hero in real life, as well.

Off-screen, Roger always came across as genteel and charming, with an almost supernatural patience for idiot interviewers who asked him the same questions at every press junket and kept it up for 40 years after his retirement from Bond: “How is your Bond different from Connery’s?  Who was your favorite leading lady? Will you say, ‘Bond, James Bond’ for us?”  For these facile, unimaginative questions, he had his practiced, equally facile answers, but he always delivered them graciously, as if it were the first time he’d been through it all, not the 14 millionth.  I can’t remember him ever making a petty or unchivalrous remark about another performer, and when other actors succeeded him as 007, Roger cheered them on, acting as an unofficial goodwill ambassador for the series, a sort of “Bond Emeritus,” ever grateful to his old bosses and his many fans.  In the wake of his passing, a great story is making the rounds of social media, recounting of Roger’s act of kindness to a young fan — doubtless just one of many — while in a remembrance penned for Variety, Pierce Brosnan revealed his own encounter with Roger as a young fan, and how much it meant to him.

A few years ago, Roger contributed commentaries to DVDs of the Bond films, and they were a cut above the norm.  I’ve gotten used to stars who either don’t remember old projects or pretend not to, but Roger recalled all the scenes and many of the lines.  He had stories about his co-stars, even in the smaller roles, and he remembered cameramen and behind-the-scenes crew, as well.  By all accounts he made an effort to know everyone from gaffer to gopher, sound man to cable puller, and never copped an “I’m the star, here” attitude.  You got the impression he was a guy who could focus on something beyond his next close-up, someone genuinely engaged in the movie making process, who appreciated everyone on the team and had more than a passing knowledge of the technical ins and outs of movie-making.   I don’t think I ever heard one of his co-stars say he was anything other than warm and generous.

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Sometime around 1998 or so, the nearby Kings Dominion theme park opened a “James Bond: License to Thrill” ride, and my “press” status from the MKKBB website let me attend the celebration.  There had been rumors early on that Roger would attend, which would have put me over the moon.  As it was, I had the great pleasure of visiting and eating lunch with “Q” himself, Desmond Llewelyn, which was beyond awesome.  I listened raptly as he traded memories with stuntman BJ Worth of the films they’d both worked on.  (I still remember hims saying, “The Spy THAT Loved Me.”)  Since he’d starred with five consecutive 007’s, that meant there were now just two degrees of separation between me and Roger Moore.  Alas, that was as close as I would get.

More recently, Sir Roger made himself available for Question and Answer sessions on his website, and naturally I sent in questions.  On two occasions, he answered them, and it made my day to read “Hello, David” from the man himself.  He was also the only movie star I ever requested an autograph from, and thankfully his assistant Gareth Owen passed it along even though I’d addressed it to his predecessor Doris Spriggs.  Getting back that envelope with a return address of Pinewood Studios — where all the magic happened! — was a thrill, and I cherish the photo (inscribed “Good luck, David! –  Roger Moore”)

Often mocked — and sometimes not so gently — for being such a powerful avatar of the 70s, with its outlandish fashions, fatuous pursuits and general goofiness, over time Sir Roger became something of a national treasure in the UK.  When Timothy Dalton succeeded him as Bond, many fans were eager to embrace a more serious approach to things, and it was easy to put down Roger for the same things that had sold all those tickets just a few years before.  But the further his era slips into the past, the more fondly it seems to be remembered.  It’s difficult to look at where the series is today, under the often grim and intensely physical Daniel Craig, and draw a through-line to Moore’s Bond, but certain vestiges remain.  If anything, his legacy is more obvious in non-Bond films like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series, or The Kingsman, with their over-the-top sensibilities and lack of pretension.  When the first Iron Man film was released, I saw more than one reviewer draw parallels to Moore-era Bond, and indeed I’d say if any franchise approximates what the Moore era was to Young Me, it’s Marvel’s superhero films, with their emphasis on dazzling spectacle, their embrace of humor, and their skill at transporting audiences to impossible but engaging worlds for a couple hours of pure, unapologetic escapism.

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This has turned out to be a long post, but like I said Roger meant a lot to me, even at a distance.  I’m fast running out of childhood heroes and Roger was at the top of the list.  After a few of my heroes let me down one way or another, I took to saying it doesn’t really matter what a person’s like when they’re not on stage or in front of the camera; it’s the music they make, the words they write, the performances they deliver that matter, because who are we to judge?  But when I’m honest with myself, of course it matters what a person’s like, and I was glad to have a hero who only ever went up in my estimation, never down.

In closing, I like to remember Roger in a scene from Vendetta for the Saint, one of the best stories from the series and one of two adapted for theatrical release. Near the middle of the film, Simon Templar is talking to an old and dying mafia don, who orders the Saint’s execution from his deathbed.  As our hero is jostled out of the room by enforcers, the Don says, “Goodbye, Simon Templar.  We will never meet again.”  “I know,” answers Simon, glancing heavenward with a wry smile.  “I’m going that way.”

Godspeed, Sir Roger, and thanks.  May your halo never droop.

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