George Lazenby is James Bond. This was an indisputable fact in 1968 when the young Australian model convinced producer Albert R. Broccoli to let him pick up the reins from Sean Connery. Whilst Lazenby is notorious for being the only actor to play 007 on just the one occasion, the film in which he starred, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, is one of the finest instalments in the series to date. Yet despite this feat, he has become an object of mockery, a much maligned figure in Bond-lore. Has he been poorly treated?
George Lazenby’s audacious ascent to the role of Bond is the stuff of legend. The tale reads like one of Frank Abagnale Jr.’s ingenious cons from Catch Me If You Can. After seeing Dr. No in 1962, and despite having no acting background whatsoever, Lazenby became obsessed with becoming the next James Bond. With just a handful of commercial appearances under his belt, upon hearing the role was up for grabs, Lazenby snapped into action. He set about styling himself as a carbon copy of Sean Connery’s Bond. He acquired an unwanted suit, tailor-made for Connery, got his hair cut by the same barber, and even purchased the classic James Bond Rolex watch. He then sought an audience with Broccoli.
Having got the role of his dreams, things soon started to get tricky for Lazenby. A supposedly frosty relationship with the film’s director, Peter Hunt, and his co-star and onscreen love interest, Dianna Rigg, made filming far from straightforward for the novice actor. Rumours emerged that the producers quickly took a dim view of Lazenby’s attitude and began to get itchy feet. Despite this, Lazenby was offered the chance to continue in the role after OHMSS, but he turned it down, later claiming that he thought the Bond Franchise was a dying fad. Don’t go making any weather forecasts George.
Since then, the opinion that Lazenby was a shoddy actor has cemented in collective public opinion. However, whilst he is by no means the most convincing of those who have played the role, he has been unfairly treated. Remember, in 1969 Bond was by no means the established global franchise that it is today. Up until that point, audiences were used to watching just one actor play the iconic role. No matter the size of the acting chops, being the first person to take over the reins was always going to be a difficult ask. Herein lies another reason why posterity has been unkind to Lazenby. Although his audition invited the comparison willingly, Lazenby’s unfavourable contrast with Connery’s portrayal is often lazily held up as a reason for his unsuitability.
Indeed, a quick glance at some of the contemporary reviews of Lazenby’s performance paint a surprising picture. Far from lambasting his efforts, Variety declared that he was “pleasant, capable and attractive in role.” Admittedly, this falls short of glowing praise, but is a far cry from the level of derision which frequently pointed in his direction when debates occur around who is the definitive Bond.
Lazenby brought new and different aspects to the role of James Bond, contrasts which were only heightened when Connery returned for his last official outing in Diamonds Are Forever. Lazenby brought a physicality that lent itself very well to the fight sequences in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, during his screen test, Lazenby had to do a fight scene in which he inadvertently knocked his adversary out cold. Some of the film’s stunt sequences in general, in which Lazenby was heavily involved, are some of the most memorable of the series so far. The skiing chase midway through is particularly spectacular and unlike anything which had come before it.
But it wasn’t just death-defying stunts which made the film stand out. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is, with the exception of 2006’s Casino Royale, the Bond film with the greatest emotional core. For all his flaws as an actor, Lazenby helps us care about the central relationship between Bond and Rigg’s character Tracy.
These elements, combined with a seminal John Barry score, a typically villainous Blofeld and some classic ’60s styling, have led many to proclaim On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the most complete Bond film to date. To degrade George Lazenby’s contribution to this accolade is to misunderstand why fans are drawn to the franchise. Bond needn’t always be played by the finest actor of his generation. He is a product of whichever time he appears. Both Connery and Lazenby’s Bonds were cinematic expressions of ’60s British culture, in the same way that Daniel Craig’s interpretation is more complex to reflect a muddied age. Despite his limitations, George Lazenby does a stand-up job in his only performance as Bond and, in the final scene of the film, delivers one the few times in the entire franchise where Bond’s mask slips and we catch a glimpse of what lurks beneath.