Remembering Roger Moore

rog-laldI’ve been taking the death of Roger Moore pretty hard, considering I never met the guy.  But after all, 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 beheld 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, to succeed by wit and wisdom 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-anyaSome have complained that Roger’s version of 007 was too unflappable, too flippant about the chaos exploding around him, but for me, this was the whole point of Classic Bond, the foundation of his portrayal: Roger’s Bond wasn’t immune to fear or pain, but he worked to remain their master.  His seeming indifference to danger was the key to surviving perils where indulging in panic meant courting death, and more than that was a strategy designed to drive his opponents nuts.  He remained nonplussed by their efforts to intimidate him, bored with their demonstrations of strength, bemused by their grandiose speeches, because he refused to grant them the satisfaction of knowing they were getting to him.

There are, if you look for them, plenty of moments when panic threatens to take hold, 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 was old school, stiff-upper-lip English hero stuff, and I ate it up.

As a kid, it irritated me when adults said, “I liked him better as The Saint.”  I hadn’t seen The Saint at that point, but I knew it was a TV show, so the clear implications were 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.  Eventually I did get to “meet” Simon Templar and I realized those old folks may have been on to something: I found that on the whole I liked Roger better as the Saint than I liked anyone as James Bond.  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 glorified civil servant who had to show up at the office in the morning and take orders from a boss.  Templar was a “free agent” who went where he pleased and involved himself in cases when he felt like it, and for his own reasons.  That archetype of the hero motivated by a personal sense of right and wrong as opposed to patriotic duty was a better fit for Moore, more comfortable as the “knight errant” than the “blunt instrument” of a government agency.

When he transitioned from Templar to Bond, Roger brought along this sense of moral authority, the sense that he is in the game to right wrongs and deal evil-doers their just desserts.  It’s not a motivation that particularly applied to Connery’s Bond, who just did what he was assigned as ruthlessly as required, not because it was “right” or “justified,” but because it was his job.  It also doesn’t apply to Daniel Craig’s current take on 007, who we sense would just be out killing someone else if he wasn’t killing bad guys.  More so than any of the other Bonds, Moore’s is a “crusader,” an approach that plays to Roger’s strengths as a performer even though at times it runs counter to what the character’s about.  Sometimes it helps a scene, as when he kicks a killer’s car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only  (we know he deserves it) but sometimes it doesn’t, as when the script for Man With The Golden Gun has him slapping around Maud Adams; with Connery, it might have worked, but when Roger does it, he seems caddish and cowardly.  Later in Golden Gun, the high-priced hitman Scaramanga compares himself to Bond and touches a nerve: “When I kill,” Roger-Bond responds icily, “it’s on the orders of Her Majesty’s government, and those I kill are themselves killers.”  It’s a rare and odd moment of Bond trying to justify what he does for a living, and it’s hard to imagine Connery’s Bond offering the same defense.

Over the course of Roger’s 12-year tenure, Bond morphs to fit Moore’s screen persona as much as, or more than, Roger conforms to the Bond template, until, by the end, he’s chivalrously 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.

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.

Often mocked — 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 007, 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 films with their over-the-top sensibilities and lack of pretension.  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 ridiculously 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.  Given the shenanigans most celebrities are prone to, it was great 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 being manhandled by mob enforcers at the behest of a dying Mafia don, who’s just ordered his execution. The expiring villain 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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Chess Master Jason

Jason’s been on a tear this year with a series of successful performances in his chess tournaments.  This past weekend, he took first place in the Under 2200 section of the Cherry Blossom Classic in northern Virginia.  In the process, he boosted his USCF rating to 2203, marking a 123-point rise from the start of this calendar year and officially earning him his “master” status.

Jason had set himself a goal of reaching “master” by age 15, so this puts him almost a year ahead of schedule.  It’s especially impressive to me given what’s involved with chess; namely, maintaining the focus and discipline required to play 5, 7 or even 9 games per tournament, any or all of which can last up to five hours each.  That strikes me as a rare talent for a 14-year-old.  Certainly it would’ve been for me at 14.  It would be now.  What’s more, he’s done it all pretty much on his own, aside from helpful input from some kind mentors; he’s never had a coach per se and living here in Richmond, his access to tournaments has been very limited.

Anyway, I’m very proud of his ability to set long term goals for himself and keep at them until they’re achieved.  It bodes well for him in life.  Next up is that BSA Eagle rank he’s been shooting for since his first Tiger Cub meeting at age 6.  I have no doubt he’ll get there.

The Six Million Dollar Man: Population Zero

Back in the blow-dried, bell-bottomed 1970s, I was one of the millions of little boys who ran around a playground in simulated slow motion pretending to fight robots and death probes as The Six Million Dollar Man.  Nowadays, the miracle of DVD lets me revisit that era again whenever I like, even if sometimes the cold reality of what was actually preserved on film doesn’t nearly measure up to the nostalgia-tinged half-memories I’d harbored since childhood.

Still, I find it can be more fun to watch a 40-plus-year-old TV show than a lot of what’s on now, and it’s certainly more fun to write about it here than to comment on the relentlessly depressing headlines of 2017, so here we go with a look at Season One of TSMDM.

The debut episode of the series proper, “Population Zero” is also a strong contender for its best.

After a strong debut in the original Cyborg telefilm and two misguided forays into James Bond territory in a pair of mostly lousy sequels, Steve Austin finally finds his footing as Harve Bennett (later of Star Trek movie fame) takes the producer’s chair.   Where before Lee Majors had struggled awkwardly with a “suave superspy” routine that ran completely counter to his nature, now we find him re-imagined as an aw-shucks, plain-spoken man of the people, essentially a TV cowboy transported to the disco era.  It’s an approach that will play much more to his strengths.

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Things get off to a spooky start when the entire population of a small town apparently drops dead in the middle of their daily routines (in a sequence “borrowed” from 1971’s The Andromeda Strain).  Then follows an equally arresting visual as Steve Austin takes an eerie journey through the “dead” town wearing his Apollo space suit, but not before we’re re-introduced to the the formerly glamorous superspy in his new “casual cool” iteration, hanging out in an auto body shop and enjoying the decidedly unBondian hobby of customizing dune buggies (a hobby which, yes, will never be mentioned again in the course of the series, but by golly, ain’t it a “regular Joe” kind of hobby?).

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The script is structured to perform “pilot” chores despite the fact that it’s not the debut of either the character or concept, what with three TV movies “in the tank” already.  That’s partly because “Population Zero” actually represents the third “soft boot” of the premise in the space of a year.  Steve Austin started off in “Cyborg” as a rebellious, anti-authority test pilot and “civilian member of the space program,” morphed into a jet-setting Bond clone for the next two films and is now “ret-conned” yet again as a career Air Force officer more at home on a ranch or in a garage than at the roulette wheel of a European casino.

Some of the changes boil down to mere matters of tone, but others rewrite Steve’s history.  For instance, “Cyborg” established OSO [sic] director Oliver Spenser (Darren McGavin) as the architect of Steve’s bionic resurrection, with no Oscar Goldman in sight.  Oscar shows up in the subsequent films as someone who has (or thinks he has) the authority to order Steve around, but may or may not have been involved in making him bionic in the first place.  In “Population Zero,” however, the villain calls the concept of a bionic man “Oscar Goldman’s pet project,” suggesting that it was Oscar who masterminded Steve’s “upgrade” from the start.  This assumption is confirmed later in the series, retroactively erasing Spenser from the mythos entirely.

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Indeed, in the opening credits sequence aired through all five seasons of the show, Oscar appears to be watching Steve’s fateful crash in real time, which subtly changes the whole dynamic of Steve’s origin story.  In Cyborg, Oliver Spenser tells us he’ll settle for any mutilated test subject (“We’ll start with scrap!”) and Steve’s selection is a matter of random chance and timing.  It’s a whole different story if Oscar already knew Steve before the crash and was the one who arranged his physical rehabilitation.  That alteration transforms the whole scenario from that of an impersonal, military-oriented government project that might just as easily have worked with any old “guinea pig” to more of a humanitarian, medical project, undertaken to salvage the shattered life of a valued American space hero and patriot.  If Oscar really was there at the crash, then why was he?  Was the test plane itself part of an OSI project and if so, is it guilt that motivates him to rebuild Steve?  Was Oscar already an acquaintance of Steve’s and if so was friendship a motivation?  If Oscar was half as dark a character as Spenser, we might even suspect he was there because he engineered the crash as Step One of the Bionic Man Project.

Of course, the real-world reason Oscar shows up in those “origin”-recapping credits is because it’s the easiest way to show us what Richard Anderson looks like when his “also starring” credit appears.  (For the record the footage of his worried gaze is lifted from the “Solid Gold Kidnapping” movie, from a scene that has nothing to do with plane crashes.  But it looks good, so what the heck.)  Anyway, starting with this episode, Oscar is “rebooted” from his previous incarnation as a stuffy, bossy authority figure to be rebelled against, argued with and outwitted into a now-benevolent “big brother” type and sometimes partner/sidekick on missions afield.  He’s a sort of hybrid of “M” and “Dr Watson.”

The “pilot” also establishes that Steve is still trying to come to grips with his transformation into a “freak of science,” a subplot that calls back to the first movie but which will become less important as time goes on, and be a non-issue by series’ end (when being “bionic” is considered so cool, half the kids in America would willingly trade in their flesh-and-blood limbs for enhanced versions).  In a conversation with the villain, it’s further established that Steve’s bionic eye is capable of 20x magnification and that his top running speed is 60 mph.

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At this early stage, bionic feats of strength are shown minus the famous sound effects we’ll later come to know; instead we usually get the sound of metal creaking under great stress.  At one point Steve makes a bionic leap in silence, which makes it seem more spooky than “cool.”

The high point comes in the last third of the episode.  Steve is placed into a refrigerated chamber because extreme cold renders his bionics inert (introducing a “kryptonite” element to the mythos, though like the buggy-customizing, it’ll ultimately be ignored).  After he escapes (more by brains than brawn), we get a great sequence as Steve races to prevent the deaths of Oscar and numerous assembled extras, stumbling through the desert on bionic legs that are slow to thaw out, falling flat on his face repeatedly only to get up and try again. When he finally does power up fully to run at top speed it’s depicted in slow motion, a seemingly counter-intuitive approach that actually works very well.  Certainly it works better than the more literal approach taken in the earlier TV movies, where Steve is shown zipping along at superspeed like the Keystone Kops.  The slow-motion treatment, partly because it’s accompanied by the sound effect of Steve’s thumping heartbeat and partly just  by the nature of Major’s beefy physique, creates the impression of an unstoppable man-machine barreling towards the camera like a human freight train.  You do not want to get in this guy’s way.  (In fairness, it should be noted that like the “dead town” opening, the slow-mo gimmick was also borrowed from a then-hot property, in this case the TV series Kung Fu.)

Adding to the awesomeness of this scene is the attention to a minor, important detail: Steve is sweating profusely under his left — still human — arm, while his right, bionic arm is dry.

Then of course follows arguably the single coolest moment in the series and the one that exploded the heads of every red-blooded nine-year-old boy in America, when Steve ends the bad guys’ threat as only he can.

It’s safe to assume the villains are very much deceased after this encounter.  Today, Lee Majors likes to promote the show as good, clean fun for the kids with a hero who never kills.  The former is certainly true, but in the earliest episodes, Steve’s not above using lethal force.  In this case, it’s absolutely justified and quite exciting.  Certainly it would have spoiled the fun considerably if the villains had come staggering out of the still-smoking van, coughing and brushing the dust off their tattered clothes, and if this episode had come in a later season, that might’ve been exactly what we got.

Also, just as an aside, note the awesome musical cue provided for the above clip by the great Oliver Nelson, whose jazz-infused compositions constantly elevate this show beyond its low-budget roots to a whole new level of coolness.  Nelson’s untimely death in the middle of Season 3 would be keenly felt, and qualifies for me as a “shark-jump” moment for the series.

So there you have it; the first episode of The Six Million Dollar Man.  After a bit of shaky start, we’re off and running (ahem) with Steve Austin as we remember him.  Next time I’ll take a look at more episodes from the first season.  It’s probably it’s not too much of a spoiler to warn you the quality goes up and down as dramatically as Steve leaps on and off rooftops, but for us kids of the 70s, it was all pure gold.