The star of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Of all the actors to have played James Bond, George Lazenby is something of an anomaly. Famous for appearing in just one film – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, released 50 years ago in December 1969 – he landed the role without any prior acting experience, or even the interest to become an actor. Unlike the other names to have played the British spy, who have been English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish, Lazenby came to our screens from Australia, and was aged just 29 when he took the part.
So how does a young unknown from Down Under, who has never acted, land one of the biggest and most lucrative roles in cinematic history? This was at a time when the original Bond, Sean Connery, had already made five movies and the franchise was a global sensation. Why would the studio risk it all by replacing him with someone unsuitable? Unless, of course, they were unaware…
Taking a break from signing autographs at the London Film & Comic-Con earlier this year, Lazenby, who turned 80 in September, is in high spirits. He may have been quick to turn his back on Bond, but Bond fans are a different matter. “I was a fan myself,” he says. “Before I got the role, I’d read all of the James Bond books and seen the films. But I didn’t want to be an actor. I was a model, living in Paris, and I’d burned out. I’d done all of the biggest jobs there were.
“I came to London to visit a friend, and he knew an agent who thought I’d be right for James Bond. I said to her, ‘What? But I’m not an actor.’ And she told me, ‘They’ve met 3,000 guys already and none of them have what you’ve got.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Arrogance! You’re so sure of yourself.’
“So she sent me to an audition at a talent agency, and the receptionist threw me out! I wasn’t an actor and I wasn’t in the union, so I couldn’t formally audition. I didn’t look like the other guys waiting either, who were all dressed like Bond, and I had sideburns and bell bottoms [laughs].
“I bought a suit, and I got my hair cut to look like Connery, then I came back and snuck in upstairs when the receptionist wasn’t looking. Someone pointed me to the right office and I stood there in the doorway. I said to them, ‘I hear you’re looking for James Bond.’ In an Australian accent, by the way.”
Lazenby was called in by the casting director, Dyson Lovell: “He said, ‘Tell me your story. What have you been in?’ I told him I’d be an actor in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and all of these places I didn’t think he could check up on [laughs]. Then he asked me to meet the producer, Harry Saltzman. I was pretty lucky, as Dyson repeated word for word to Harry every lie I’d just told him – there’s no way I could’ve remembered. But they told me to come back Friday to see the director, Peter Hunt.”
At this point, Lazenby’s conscience got the better of him. “I met with the director, and I knew I wasn’t meant to be doing this,” he says. “I opened my mouth and the first words that came out were, ‘I’ve never spoken in front of a camera before in my life.’ He looked up, completely shocked, then let out this huge belly laugh – he couldn’t stop laughing!
“He had to tell Harry. I waited outside, but I could hear Harry shouting, ‘Get him out of here, he’s a clothes peg.’ But Peter said no, he wanted to screentest me. Harry said, ‘We can’t test him at the studio, we’ll be a laughing stock.’ So we did it at Harry’s house, and somehow I made the shortlist.
“It took a few more months, and in that time I had some acting lessons. Then they wanted us to try a fight scene, and I accidentally knocked out a Russian wrestler [laughs]. Harry pinned me against the wall and said, ‘That’s it, we’re going with you!’”
Lazenby’s life was transformed in an instant. A press conference was called to announce the casting, with his face appearing in newspapers and magazines around the world. He was to star in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, based on the novel by Ian Fleming, featuring Telly Savalas as Blofeld and Diana Rigg as Bond’s love interest, filming in Switzerland, Portugal and England.
He may not have acted before, but Lazenby’s performance was commended – he even earned a Golden Globe newcomer award nomination. Perhaps a relief, as it was not an easy shoot. “I did all of my own stunts,” he reveals. “I didn’t know that Connery had a stuntman [laughs], so it was really tough for nine months. But I was good at remembering my lines and I liked the James Bond lifestyle, so that helped.”
But Lazenby’s arrogance, which the agent had seen as a bonus, would also be his downfall. “My manager, Ronan O’Rahilly, said to me, ‘Don’t sign for another one,’” he recalls. “The No 1 film was Easy Rider. He told me, ‘James Bond is over. There’s this guy in Italy, Clint Eastwood, making Westerns, getting paid a fortune. Go and do that.’ So I wouldn’t sign to do more Bond. At one point they offered US$1 million [AED3.67 million], which in those days was huge. But I thought, if I make a few Westerns I’ll have that anyway.
“It didn’t happen. If I met any directors, they would immediately get a call: ‘Don’t use him, he’s under contract. If you hire him, we’ll sue.’ It wasn’t true, but it meant I never got any work.”
While Lazenby stumbled, Bond went from strength to strength – before casting Roger Moore, the studio persuaded Connery to come back for Diamonds Are Forever, paying him a then-record US$1.25 million (AED4.59 million) salary. Lazenby, his money running out, bought a catamaran and sailed around the world for 15 months with his new wife.
On his return to London, he had figured out the one man who could help him: Bruce Lee. “It was 1973, and Lee had all of the top films, so I flew out to Hong Kong to try to find him,” Lazenby recalls. “I had the address of the film studio, so I took a taxi and got in to see Raymond Chow, the producer. He called Bruce, who was in the editing suite: ‘Hey Bruce, George Lazenby’s here to see you. He played James Bond.’ And I could hear the response. Bruce said, ‘Ah, f**k him,’ and hung up. Raymond told me, ‘He’s busy, sorry.’
“I went back outside, feeling a bit disappointed, and this Mercedes pulls up. The window came down, and I see the driver, who is huge, big muscles, and Bruce Lee is curled up in the back. He shouts, ‘Get in!’ So I did, and we drove to a nearby restaurant, with Bruce’s wife and his entourage following in a limo behind us. When we finally sat down, Bruce said to me, ‘George, if I had a fight with my driver, he’s a big guy, it would take me a minute to finish him; Raymond Chow, 10 seconds; my wife, she’s a black belt, maybe a minute. How long would it take me to beat you?’
“I replied, ‘As long as it took you to catch me, I guess.’ He said, ‘Good answer. Give George US$10,000 [AED36,725]. I’m going to make a movie with him.’ And sure enough, Raymond wrote me a cheque, and for the next three days I got to hang out with Bruce Lee. On the third night, he didn’t show up for dinner. He’d been complaining at lunch that he had a headache, and that was the last time that I would see him – that anyone would see him – as he sadly passed away.
“Then when I came back to London, I got a call from Raymond Chow. He said, ‘The money Bruce gave you, that was mine – you do a movie for me or you give the money back.’ But I was broke, I’d already paid bills, so I told him, ‘How? I don’t know kung-fu.’ He said, ‘We’ll send someone over to teach you.’ They did, and as a result I made three kung-fu movies.”
Afterwards, in 1978, Lazenby moved to Hollywood, but in the decades that followed only cameos and voiceovers were available, or the chance to spoof his time as Bond in a comedy sketch. In recent years, he has made a documentary, Becoming Bond, about his experiences.
So how might Lazenby be celebrating 50 years since he took the iconic role? After all, he seems to have no regrets and enjoys speaking with fans, signing the photos and memorabilia they present to him. “I was glad it happened,” he says of leaving the franchise. “Roger Moore once said, ‘If George Lazenby hadn’t quit, we wouldn’t have had James Bond.’ And he was right, it would have been different. I’m really okay with that.”