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It was December of 1969 and the sixth James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, was opening. It has been said that pop culture in the 1960's was defined by The Three B's, Beatles, Bond and Batman. By 1969, Batman had been cancelled, Sean Connery had left the Bond franchise and The Beatles had broken up (the official announcement would come four months later). The 1960's were leaving, and they nailed the door shut behind them.
As stated in the previous article, for Bond fans, the general understanding of the following events was as follows: Sean Connery, fed up, bored and chafing at his paycheck, announced he was leaving the James Bond franchise. After a wide-ranging talent search, the producers gave the role to an Australian male model named George Lazenby who's only acting experience had been throwing candy bars at children in a TV commercial and one informal acting class in his neighbor's apartment the night before his screen test.
And danged if he didn't get the part.
The general understanding is that On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a box office bomb and a critical disaster, leading the producers to panic, fire Lazenby and beg United Artists to drive a truckload of money to Sean Connery's house in order to lure him back for one more turn to get the series back on the rails.
None of that is true. Except for the very true, "truckload of money" part.
Despite having no experience as an actor, Lazenby gets by okay in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the reviews at the time, by and large, agreed. The absence of Connery is wincingly acute, but Lazenby manages a pale impression that keeps the audience staying from scene to scene. The action sequences are stellar and Lazenby's co-stars, post-Avengers Diana Rigg and pre-Kojak Telly Savalas, carry the film over the finish line.
The box office took a 50 % dip from You Only Live Twice. That certainly got the studio's attention, but the film did make a profit and the producers were prepared, in fact eager, to double down on their investment , stick with their new star, and re-grow the franchise.
The problem was.... their new star wasn't interested.
What the huh?????
If you recall, the night before his screen test, Lazenby sauntered across the hall of his apartment building to where an acting teacher named Kevin Duggan lived in the hope of snagging an impromptu acting lesson. You know, good to get at least one under your belt before starring in a major motion picture. Also present at that fateful meeting was a guy named Ronan O'Rahilly (pronounced O'Reilly).
O’Rahilly was an entrepreneur and very influential figure in Swinging London. He was one of the founders of Radio Caroline, the offshore pirate radio station that broke the BBC’s stranglehold over what music got played on the radio. Prior to Radio Caroline, the BBC monopolized the airwaves. If someone at the BBC decided your record wasn't going to get played, your record was not going to get played. Radio Caroline was able to circumvent this by broadcasting from a series of ships anchored just over the line in international waters. The Who’s album The Who Sell Out was is a paean to pirate radio. There is also an excellent film about it called, you guessed it, Pirate Radio, in which O’Rahilly is more or less portrayed by Bill Nighe.
Because of Radio Caroline, O'Rahilly was widely regarded as a tastemaker and pop cultural guru in the heady days of Swinging London, and at some point he became George Lazenby's manager. At that time, the younger generation was waging full on war against The Establishment and O'Rahilly was a four star general in the conflict. Radio Caroline was a full-throated, f&%$! you to the established order and from O’Rahilly’s point of view, it was just the beginning.And to him, nothing symbolized The Man more than the James Bond franchise.
According to Some Kind Of Hero, Matthew Field and Ajay Chowdury's remarkable book about the James Bond series, Lazenby's contract held him for seven movies, On Her Majesty's Secret Service and six follow-up Bond adventures. The completion of this contract would find George Lazenby fabulously rich and famous. Were this deal to be made today, Lazenby would not be allowed within a hundred miles of a camera without signing his contract. That's today. Back then, things must have been a little more "groovy."
Filming commenced, and the new James Bond still had not signed his contract and people started getting nervous. Maggie Abbott, Lazenby's agent, was screaming at him to sign his contract. Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were screaming Maggie Abbott to scream at George Lazenby to get him to sign his contract. United Artists was screaming at Broccoli and Saltzman to scream at Abbot to scream at Lazenby to sign his contract. What was the hold up?
The hold up was Ronan O’Rahilly. He was the only person not screaming. He was whispering. And what he was whispering into George Lazenby's ear was that James Bond was a thing of the past. That if he was smart, he would forsake 007, grow his hair long and join, “the youth movement.”
Filming wrapped and still no signature. Bond producer Harry Saltzman, who had originally gone to bat for Lazenby, was in very hot water. With his ass on the line, he offered Lazenby a million dollar bonus if he would just sign the Goddamned contract and please agree to play James Bond in six more movies. Please?
He did not sign. Lazenby, quoted in Mark Altman and Edward Gross's oral history of the Bond franchise, Nobody Does It Better, countered that O'Rahilly had a better idea. As the new James Bond, he could make half a million dollars for a few weeks work on European films like Clint Eastwood was then doing and he wouldn’t be tied up for six films playing a secret agent who, by O'Rahilly's measure, was about to become painfully passe'. Bond had no appeal to the groovy new youth generation and Lazenby would be wise to put as much distance between himself and the character as possible.
Then Easy Rider came out, seemingly bolstering O'Rahilly's case about the new direction of cinema. Someone gave Lazenby an advance cassette by the band Blood, Sweat and Tears. Lazenby gave it to Broccoli and Saltzman, saying they should use the band and give Majesty's a rock score. They dismissed the idea and rightfully so, but to Lazenby it was just further proof that he was with it and now and they – and James Bond – were not. 007 was Secret Agent Squaresville, man. Lazenby grew a beard and long hair. When Broccoli and Saltzman asked him to shave and get a haircut for the film's premiere, he refused.
At the time of its release, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a moderate success, nothing on par with the previous Bond films but it did turn a respectable profit. Had Lazenby stayed with the series and dedicated himself to his craft, who knows what would have happened. After the film's release, it was he who informed the producers he was no longer interested in being James Bond, not the other way around. At the time, his comments were, "Bond is a brute ... I've already put him behind me. I will never play him again. Peace – that's the message now."
The European movies "like Clint Eastwood was making," never materialized as word got around that Lazenby was difficult. I can't imagine why. He did become friends with Bruce Lee and there was talk of them doing a movie together, but Lee tragically died before the project was realized. Eventually, Lazenby moved to Los Angeles and made a fortune in real estate. So, good for him.
Ronan O’Rahilly was flat out wrong about the continuing appeal of James Bond as a character but he was, if nothing else, sincere in is belief. He continued in his many pursuits, becoming involved with spiritual leader Ram Dass and actively promoting the theory of “Loving Awareness.” He sadly passed away in 2020.
Fortunately, among his many pursuits, an advice column was not among them.