50 Years of James Bond: Pierce Brosnan Took 007 into 21st Century

Pierce Brosnan posing in front of a poster for ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ in Mexico City in 1998. (Roberto Velezquez/AP Images)

File this under Too Good To Make Up: the first Technicolor movie Pierce Brosnan remembers ever seeing was Goldfinger, the 1964 James Bond film starring Sean Connery as Agent 007.

The Irish-born actor, now 59, saw it with his mother and stepfather shortly after the then 11-year-old boy arrived in London to be reunited with his mum, who had moved there years before, leaving young Pierce with relatives. Little did the boy know that someday he would grow up to play the iconic role.

He is the fifth and penultimate actor to have had the privilege of announcing himself as “Bond. James Bond” in the official series about the British super spy, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last month. His predecessors were Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. He was succeeded by Daniel Craig, who stars in Skyfall, the 23rd film based on novelist Ian Fleming’s secret agent, which opens in the U.S. this Friday (Nov. 9).

After his boyhood experience seeing Goldfinger, Brosnan’s next brush with the series came in 1981 when his wife, Australian-born actress Cassandra Harris, played a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only (Moore was filling 007’s shoes then). At the time, Brosnan was making a name for himself as an actor in London and showed up the same year on American TV screens for the first time in a mini-series called The Manions of America.

A year later, Brosnan and Harris mortgaged their house in London and moved to Los Angeles to test their luck in Hollywood. At his very first audition, he landed the title role on new series, Remington Steele (1982-87). The role of the charming ex-criminal-turned-sleuth on the NBC detective series quickly catapulted him to TV heartthrob status.

His name began popping up whenever there was speculation about who might succeed the aging Moore in the Bond film series. The speculation became more serious in 1986 after Moore, knees creaking at age 58, retired from Her Majesty’s secret service following the release of A View to a Kill (1985). The Bond producers wanted Brosnan, and it looked as if the role was his. But then, after he’d already been fitted for his spiffy 007 suits, NBC unexpectedly reversed its earlier cancellation of the low-rated Steele series — renewing the show for what turned out to be a final, truncated season — and the Bond producers moved on to Dalton as their next 007.

Brosnan finally landed the role in 1994 when Dalton called it quits on Bond after two films and an extended court battle between the producers and MGM over rights to the series. Brosnan made his debut in GoldenEye (1995). The film scored at the box office, grossing $352.2 worldwide, and Brosnan’s ride as 007 was off to a promising start.

Reviewing GoldenEye, movie critic Roger Ebert wrote, “[Brosnan] is somehow more sensitive, more vulnerable, more psychologically complete, than the Bonds played by Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton. They were all, in their various styles, cold and dispassionate. Brosnan’s Bond looks at home in the casinos of Monte Carlo, but he’s more knowing, more aware of relationships. I am not sure this is a good thing. Agent 007 should to some degree not be in on the joke.”

New York Times critic Janet Maslin labeled Brosnan “the coffee-bar James Bond: mild, fashionable and nice in a very 90′s way. Mr. Brosnan, as the best-moussed Bond ever to play baccarat in Monte Carlo, makes the character’s latest personality transplant viable (not to mention smashingly photogenic), but the series still suffers the blahs.”

Sadly for Brosnan, Harris never got to see her husband in the role. She had died of ovarian cancer in 1991, leaving her two children from an earlier marriage, whom Brosnan had adopted, and their young son. In 2001, Brosnan wed journalist and political activist Keely Shaye Smith, with whom he has two young sons.

Brosnan made three more Bond films: Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World Is Not Enough (1999) and Die Another Day (2002). His Bond walked a middle ground between the snarling tough guys that Connery and Dalton had played and Moore’s bon vivant 007. (Lazenby barely registered in his solo outing.) Brosnan’s Bond was witty, suave and charming, but could take a punch and deliver one with equal assurance.

The problem was that the films, particularly after GoldenEye, were decidedly mediocre. They were over-produced, clattering affairs, full of hi-tech gimmickry and clunky one-liners. For sheer stupidity, it would be hard to beat the car that turned invisible in Die Another Day.

When Entertainment Weekly recently ranked all 22 previous Bond films, the highest a Brosnan film made it on the list was No. 6 for GoldenEye. His three other films were considerably farther back in the pack.

While Brosnan’s Bond films succeeded at the box office, their budgets and his salary kept climbing and the films became ever less profitable. Although Brosnan had signed for five outings as 007, after Die Another Day the producers opted for a change. He was relieved of the role and the series was rebooted with Craig as the new Bond in Casino Royale (2006), which returned to the nascent roots of the 007 story.

For Brosnan, leaving Bond behind seemed something of a relief. He had always been careful to star in at least two other movies for every Bond film that he did, including the critical and box office success, The Thomas Crown Affair (1999). Once he was free of his Bond bondage, he increasingly began appearing in smaller, indie movies that offered him greater acting challenges, such as his hilarious turn as a seedy hitman in The Matador (2005) and as a duplicitous former British prime minister in The Ghost Writer (2010). He also periodically pops up in big budget Hollywood, including playing one of Meryl Streep’s former beaus in the musical, Mamma Mia! (2008). (He proved in that film that his versatility doesn’t extend to singing.)

In his post-Bond years, Brosnan has never disparaged his stint as 007. At the same time, he has always made it clear that he never intended to let the role define him or his career.

“I was very aware of being within the confines of a very iconic character. I’d seen the men who’d gone before me, and I’d seen the careers that they had afterward and the lives that they had lived as actors,” he said in a 2010 interview with the Newark Star-Ledger. “Now, Sean [Connery] was the man for me — he was the Bond of my generation and the only one that I wanted to try to emulate, but with the firm knowledge that I couldn’t do what he did, that I’d have to do what I do. But within my time of service to Her Majesty in that role, I always knew I wanted to have a career thereafter. And so, since then, that’s what I’ve been busy with. A working actor, just chipping away, chipping away.”

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Is Pierce Brosnan your favorite James Bond?

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