Becoming Bond: How a Car Salesman Landed the Role of James Bond 007

A new documentary looks at the colorful life of one-and-done James Bond actor George Lazenby.

Sean Connery was finished with James Bond. After five films in the role, which catapulted him to a level of stardom almost unheard of at the time, the exhausted Scottish actor was ready to get off the 007 machine and reclaim his life and whatever privacy he could salvage. Following the release of 1967’s You Only Live Twice, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli began a massive worldwide search for a new actor to play the British secret agent. Although many actors were seen and considered, they ended up going with a total unknown who had never acted before.

That man was George Lazenby. A native of Australia, Lazenby had worked as a car mechanic and an auto salesman both in his homeland and in England, where he eventually fell into a successful career as a male model. Impressing Saltzman with his fashion sense (he had gone to Connery’s tailor to get a suit made similar to that of his predecessor) and his physical prowess (he accidentally punched out a stunt coordinator during an audition), Lazenby won the role — despite never having acted a day in his life.

He made his debut as Bond in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a film that took the series back to its roots and discarded the increasingly outlandish gadgets and plots of the last few Bond films for a tale that was perhaps the most faithful adaptation ever of one of Ian Fleming’s original novels. Director Peter Hunt emphasized a grittier, more in-your-face style of action, while also focusing on character development in a way that the Bond films had never done before: in a surprising and ultimately heartbreaking series of events, Bond falls in love with a woman named Tracy (Diana Rigg) and ends up leaving MI6 to wed her — only for her to be murdered just hours into their marriage by vengeful arch-villain Blofeld (Telly Savalas).

Even with a new actor and a bleak ending, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service did sizable business at the box office (if a bit less than the Connery films) and Lazenby was offered a million-dollar contract to star in six more movies. Instead, he walked away, doing a little more acting for a few years before venturing into real estate. His one film as Bond, at first a footnote in the history of the series, has since been reappraised as one of the finest in the franchise’s 50-plus year run.

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And now the story of George Lazenby’s rollercoaster ride of a life has been told in a new documentary called Becoming Bond, which premiered this week on Hulu. Writer/director Josh Greenbaum takes the unusual tack of alternating between a face-to-face interview with the now 77-year-old actor and recreating scenes from Lazenby’s life, as he describes them, with Josh Lawson playing Lazenby and well-known actors like one-time Bond girl Jane Seymour and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Jeff Garlin in small but key roles. Speaking separately with Greenbaum by phone and Lazenby in person, we were able to piece together how Becoming Bond came out and the light it sheds on Lazenby’s quirky rise and fall.

“A mutual friend of mine and George’s essentially introduced us,” says Greenbaum. “This friend had known George for a long time and he mentioned to me, ‘This guy’s got some interesting stories. You, as a filmmaker, I think would be interested to meet with him.’ I of course knew of George, the little that I feel like I knew of him prior to making the film, and to be honest was a little skeptical going in: ‘I don’t know exactly what this guy’s story is and really how much of the story that I’ve read online and the folklore of it all surrounding George Lazenby is true and whatnot.’”

Greenbaum says he was “totally hooked” within five minutes of sitting down to lunch with Lazenby, “both in terms of ‘Wow, his story’s incredible,’ but probably even more importantly, I was blown away by how gifted a storyteller he was.” It took five or six more lunches to convince the actor himself to commit to the project: “He wasn’t one of those overeager people saying, ‘Point the camera at me, I’ll tell you my highlight reel of my life,’” says the director. “I think he knew he would tell the warts-and-all story, and I think was trying to get a sense of if he could trust myself and my producer partners.”

Lazenby, tall and still physically imposing decades after making his debut as Bond, confirms the multiple lunches, adding, “Eventually I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it,’ because I liked their style. I mean, they were capturing a bit of me. I once did a book with a guy, and I’ve never released it because it’s not me. It’s, you know, what his version of me is, rather than me. I know that he got all the locations right, and the dates right, but it wasn’t me.”

Greenbaum admits that it took a while to earn Lazenby’s trust, but also says that the latter took a “leap of faith” in agreeing to let Greenbaum stage re-enactments of events from his life — often in a jocular or somewhat comedic tone — using actors as Lazenby and others. “I remember as I was driving home from that first lunch, I thought, ‘Wow, I can picture all these scenes he’s telling me,’” recalls Greenbaum, who says they only got up to age 16 and didn’t even touch on Bond in their first meeting. “Of course, part of the inspiration is creative limitations. I don’t have footage of him. There’s a good amount of footage of him once he becomes Bond but everything prior, there’s really nothing.

“I was just so excited to do these reenactments largely because I’ve never seen it done before,” continues Greenbaum. “Obviously we’ve seen lots of reenactments in documentaries but I can’t name one that uses them in a narrative, comedic style. The movies I was drawing from in my head were Forrest Gump and Big Fish. That’s really what his story felt like to me, this incredible larger-than-life tale. I was very excited about this format and I was very excited by the way to also just interview him (and) let him tell me his story.”

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What’s interesting about Becoming Bond is how much time it spends on Lazenby’s life before he gets to play 007, starting with his birth in Goulburn, Australia and a pivotal moment when he spent 18 months in a hospital in Sydney as a toddler. “I was peeing backwards into my kidneys,” says Lazenby calmly. “They didn’t know why I was screaming every time I had a pee. They operated on my bladder 68 times over a period of 18 months. And then this doctor came over from England and said, ‘we had an Asian kid had that problem; he was peeing backwards into his kidneys.’ So after they looked at my kidneys and saw that one and a half rotted already, they took them out. And I had half a kidney left.”

Lazenby muses, however, that overcoming such a setback at a young age — he could have died — somehow imbued him later on with a confidence and sense of fearlessness to tackle anything that came his way, including auditioning for the biggest movie role in the world. “Absolutely,” he affirms when asked if that was the case. “See, I didn’t believe in authority. Because the doctors screwed up 68 times. And they were gods. They were demigods in that society. And I thought, ‘I don’t think so!’ I thought everyone was wrong about everything. So I never listened to anybody. And that was another thing that gave me, some people say arrogance, but, the confidence that they don’t know what I know.”

It was that headlong confidence that led Lazenby to try his luck with 007. While making top money as a male model, an agent named Maggie Abbott (played by Jane Seymour in Becoming Bond’s recreated scenes) suggested him for Bond despite the fact that he had never acted before. He got his hair cut like Connery, bought one of the former Bond’s rejected suits and impressed Harry Saltzman — no wilting flower — with his chutzpah and personal magnetism (look also for the amazing scene — apparently a true story — in which Jake Johnson plays a rep for Saltzman who brings girls to Lazenby’s room and watches him make love to them just to make sure he isn’t gay).

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was directed by longtime Bond movie editor Peter Hunt, with a large portion of the film shot in the Swiss Alps. “I tried to make it fun,” says Lazenby of his overnight fame at the time. “I went out every night. Stayed out till daybreak. I used to sleep two or three hours a day. In those days I could do that. I went to nightclubs. Eventually I got pissed off with being on the mountain and they gave me a helicopter so I could go into Geneva or Zurich at night and meet different people (read: women). But it was an ego thing in a way, because you get scooped up by the fact that everybody wants you around and everybody wants to know you, and being a boy from Queanbeyan, that was quite something. I was like, ‘Shit!’ You start believing it.”

Reports began to circulate at the time — possibly planted by Saltzman, who was having problems getting Lazenby to sign for the next film — that the novice actor had let fame go to his head and was “difficult” to work with, a charge Lazenby mostly denies. “I had a good relationship with everyone,” he maintains. “Except Diana Rigg. We fell out a couple of times. Telly Savalas and I got along. Even though Telly tried to steal my per diem playing poker. I was in the production office and I was getting my 100 pounds a week, and Harry was there and I said, ‘Harry, how much did the other fella (Connery) earn?’ And the accountant looked at Harry and Harry looked back at the accountant and said, ‘Tell him. 10,000.’ And so I gave Harry this look, and he said, ‘Okay, give him a thousand.’ But I didn’t have anywhere to spend it. Telly saw that and said, ‘Hey kid, you play poker?’ The next thing I know I lost half of it!”

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When Lazenby walked away from the role after finishing the movie, he said at the time that he didn’t want to be typecast and that Bond himself was quickly becoming a relic during the rise of the counter-culture. OHMSS was still a hit (despite some historical revision suggesting that it wasn’t) although Lazenby now humbly says he had nothing to do with that. “I never felt it was me,” he says. “I always felt it was James Bond. But, you know, my big claim to fame is that I took over Bond from 3,000 other actors, and I wasn’t an actor. But I had what they were looking for, whatever that was. And I turned down a million dollars to do another one, plus any movie that United Artist owned in between Bonds. Harry Saltzman offered me the million and when you think about it, when I tell anybody that, they say, ‘you must be nuts.’ But I didn’t want to be an actor in the first place.”

“Personally, I watch the film and I think it’s one of the better Bond films,” says Josh Greenbaum. “Incredible action sequences that I think, even though he was a first time director, Peter Hunt knew from being an editor how to build and craft those sequences really well. Of course, George’s performance is really strong, especially given his background.” Greenbaum adds that even an experienced actor would have faced incredibly intense scrutiny by following Connery: “I don’t think there was any way to win in terms of critics. Some people liked him but for the most part — I don’t want to say critics panned him, but certainly it wasn’t a warm reception . . . anybody who had stepped into that spot would be compared to Connery. I don’t think audiences were quite ready for that.”

OHMSS was strangely hard to see for many years: this author remembers seeing early Bonds like Goldfinger and Thunderball quite regularly on TV, but OHMSS was more elusive and, consequently, became almost mythical. In the intervening years, however, both the film and Lazenby’s performance have been re-evaluated, with the movie now considered by many fans and critics to be among 007’s very best adventures. “It’s the best story,” opines Lazenby. “And it stuck to the book. And, I mean, I was sincere. I didn’t know how to act, but I was sincere. And it came across.”

That sincerity — a willingness to open up and tell his remarkable life story, warts and all — makes Lazenby compelling to watch now and makes Becoming Bond a unique look at a life lived on one’s own terms. “This is George’s version of his story,” says Greenbaum. “He really did write his story the way that many of us can’t really fully feel like the authors of our lives. We try to but I think there’s a lot of other influences that lead us to decisions, be it family pressures or financial or fears and all those things that lead us to make decisions that I’m sure many people on their deathbed regret, and I think what inspired me about George is he’s a guy who, for better or worse, I don’t think has got many regrets. There’s certainly a couple you’ll see in the film, but he really lived the life that he wanted to live.”

Becoming Bond is now available on Hulu.

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