I assume that, by now, many of you have seen No Time To Die, the 25th “official’ James Bond, movie. The film marks Daniel Craig's not-so-subtle departure as the British superspy, and kicks off what will no doubt be next year’s big show biz story: The Search For The New 007.
James Bond is a lot like your sister's boyfriends. They’re all kinda the same guy, but the first one you met is your favorite. In my case, thanks to the ABC Sunday Night Movie, it’s Sean Connery. Contrary to popular assumption, Connery was not the first man to play the British secret agent. That honor belongs to American actor Barry Nelson who portrayed "Combined Intelligence agent Jimmy Bond" in a 1954 TV dramatization of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale as part of the CBS television series Climax! (I know, I know). Sean Connery would be issued his license to kill eight years later, for 1962's Dr. No.
Dr. No was a mild success and begat From Russia, With Love. From Russia With Love did well enough to warrant a third film, Goldfinger. The third James Bond adventure struck just the right note of espionage thrills and tongue-in-cheek humor and the movie went on to blew the doors of the joint. Goldfinger's runaway success gave birth to a full blown spy craze, catapulting James Bond to the forefront of pop culture and Sean Connery to super duper star status.
It's important to remember just how huge Connery’s Bond was in the 1960's. Daniel Craig is popular today, but in the mid 1960's, Bond's fame was only rivaled by that of The Beatles, a fact Connery acknowledged later when he pointed out, somewhat ruefully, "Yes, but there were four of them and only one of me."
The Spy Craze, as it was called, came to a head in 1966. Bondmania was in full bloom and movie and TV screens were groaning with Bond copies and parodies like The Ipcress Files, In Like Flint, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart! There was even a groovy, all-star comedy version of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale starring Peter Sellars, David Niven and Woody Allen... all playing different versions of James Bond. Poor 007. Not only did he have to save the world, he had to compete with himself to do it. Entering that fray came You Only Live Twice. Following 1965’s super-mega blockbuster Thunderball, You Only Live Twice was Sean Connery’s sixth James Bond film. It is also my personal favorite.
You Only Live Twice is a fitting title, as the movie performs a double duty. With a screenplay by children's book author Roald Dahl (Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, James and The Giant Peach), the film acts as both the next thrilling James Bond story and, at the same time, it's a pre-Austin Powers parody of itself. It starts with a rocket ship that eats other rocket ships and ends inside a secret base inside hollow volcano (who did the plumbing?) In between, the film is crammed full of cultural insensitivity and insanely-dated sequences that speak to what was culturally permissible in 1967. And 1967 was a long time ago. As the old saying goes, “You couldn’t do that today.”
Bond is sent to Japan and partnered with his opposite number, the head of the Japanese secret police, Tiger Tanaka. The role of Tanaka was played by the excellent Japanese actor Tetsuro Tamba. Tamba spoke English well, but was nonetheless dubbed by a non-Japanese actor in post-production. Okey doke! In the film, upon their first meeting, the Scottish Bond congratulates the Japanese Tanaka on knowing how to properly serve sake. Christ, what a dick! Then the two men take bath with some “sexifull” girls. It is during this scene, which objectifies women only a ton, where Bond laughingly berates his host for not having hair on his chest. Later in the movie, Connery’s Bond is surgically altered to look Japanese (by a team of hot, sexy, bikini-clad Japanese plastic surgeons). I think this could accurately be called “yellow face,” but of course, at the time, nobody blinked an eye.
Scene through a modern lens, You Only Live Twice is off the rails insane. It's racist, sexist, and sexually abusive. Connery, on the other hand, seems bored and lost. It's wall-to-wall lunacy. I love it.
Fun fact! The best scene in the movie - for my dollar - is Bond's fight with the giant henchmen on the offices of Osato Chemicals. The henchmen, played by Peter Maivia, is Dwayne The Rock Johnson's grandfather.
Filmed largely on location in Japan, the production was a less than pleasant experience for Connery. Bondmania in Japan had reached truly manic proportions and Connery and his wife couldn't go anywhere or do anything. The last straw occurred when a Japanese tabloid photographer followed Connery into the toilet. But the root of the issue was, as it always is, money. When the Bond series exploded in popularity, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman renegotiated their financial arrangement with United Artists, giving themselves a much larger slice of the box office pie. They did not include their star in the negotiation, and that rightfully rankled. For example, although Dean Martin’s Matt Helm films were pale, lightweight comic parodies of the Bond films, Dean Martin got paid more to play Helm than Connery got paid to play Bond. And Connery knew it.
Aware of Connery’s unhappiness and knowing their relationship with him was fraught, Broccoli and Saltzman let Connery out of his contract. Despite owing them one more film, it was announced that You Only Live Twice would be Connery’s last appearance as 007.
1968, as if it didn’t have enough going on, also became a year dedicated to The Search For The New 007.
Casting directors went into overdrive. British acting giant Michael Gambon had a meeting although he felt the idea was preposterous, Michael Billington, Oliver Reed, Ian Richardson, Adam West (!!) had meetings. Roger Moore was interested but committed to two movies as The Saint, Timothy Dalton, hot off The Lion In Winter, turned it down thinking he was, at twenty-five, too young and that Connery was too good an act to follow. No one ever accused Timothy Dalton of being dumb, did they?
As it turns out, the man who would get the part was not even an actor. George Lazenby was a male model. He had done some TV commercials, but the only acting involved was throwing candy bars and waving. Of course, he said he was actor. In his first interview, he said he had done some plays and some films in Eastern Europe, and in those pre-internet days, it was impossible to quickly confirm or deny the claim. And so this guy, who had never acted before, literally overnight, became an international movie star.
He would make but one film as James Bond, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and contrary to popular assumption, he was NOT fired afterward. In what can only be described as an orgasm of naiveté and bad, bad, bad advice, he threw it away.