“Bond, James Bond.” It’s one of the greatest lines of dialogue in movie history—the 22nd best ever, according to the AFI—but if you say it to five people, they will likely think of five different scenes. Will it be Sean Connery who springs to mind with the original utterance, cigarette drooping from his mouth, a look of simultaneous boredom and excitement twinkling in his eye? Or maybe it’ll look like a more recent vintage with Daniel Craig’s own iconic 007 standing over a foe while holding a machine gun? I’m sure there’s even someone out there who’ll jump to the jokey way George Lazenby is forced to smirk it out, as if even he can’t believe he’s the first bloke not named Sean giving this a go.
Everyone has their favorite Bond, and everyone has their favorite reading of the character. When producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman insisted that 007 is bigger than any single actor, they meant it and have convinced multiple generations to insist that theirs is the best James Bond who ever donned a tux. So we’ll freely admit picking a “best” 007 actor is purely subjective—an attempt to answer an impossible question. Even so, we polled our editorial staff and readers to make it as evenhanded and fair as possible. Here’s their ranking.
6. George Lazenby
Alas, poor George. While his single Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), has been reappraised over the years, with even Christopher Nolan counted among its many admirers, Lazenby finished in last place here. Certainly the most unpolished Bond, as both an actor and screen persona, we still can’t help wondering if Lazenby could’ve done better in the polling if he simply had starred in more than one 007 movie.
Because, frankly, he’s actually pretty good in his single outing in the tuxedo. Physically more imposing than any other Bond, and certainly more physical, period, than the two interpretations he’s sandwiched between, one could readily believe Lazenby’s Bond was doing all those miraculous skiing stunts and winning the fistfights with moves that would one day impress Bruce Lee. Yet there is an unevenness to his performance, which at times can be downright wooden, especially when he’s trying to be as suave as Sean Connery.
Nonetheless, there are elements Lazenby introduced that were ahead of their time. For starters, his effete undercover creation as Sir Hilary Bray is still one of the more amusing subplots in any Bond flick, one where an internationally famous spy actually goes undercover! More importantly, he brought a vulnerability and even sense of believable fear to the Bond persona, as relayed through his doomed romance with Diana Rigg’s Tracy. When it came to being the coolest guy in the world, he was still rough around the edges, but if he had a chance to smooth them out in an encore or two, he might’ve finished a lot higher.
5. Timothy Dalton
Largely rejected by general audiences in the 1980s when The Living Daylights (1987) and particularly License to Kill (1989) underperformed at the box office, Timothy Dalton has been re-embraced for his gruffer and no-nonsense take on the character in recent years, especially by those who grew up with it. Dalton certainly made a conscious choice to get away from the high camp and raised-eyebrow schtick of his direct predecessor, Roger Moore. Instead Dalton favored a grounded Bond who is curt, taciturn, and more in line with Ian Fleming’s original literary creation.
Here’s the problem, though, audiences typically fell in love with how the Bond films turned Fleming’s intentionally stiff character into a glamorous fantasy hero. So while Dalton tried to channel Fleming, he discarded many of the elements audiences cherish, including the sense of humor and suaveness. The screenplays occasionally give Dalton a quip or pun worthy of Moore or Connery, but it always falls flat on Dalton’s lips, and the way he brusquely rushes through his first delivery of “Bond, James Bond” underscores just how ill-fitting his choices were with this material.
He has his share of fans, including among a few on our staff who rated him high on their ballots. One could even say Dalton’s instincts were ahead of their time. But it took Daniel Craig finding a way to bring a distinct type of charm to “grumpy Bond” to make it a winning formula. Dalton’s Bond is a bit of a charmless prig by comparison.
4. Roger Moore
For audiences of a certain age, Roger Moore is the absolute best Bond. And I don’t just mean for those who grew up in the 1970s and early ‘80s. If you first binged your fair share of Bond flicks before the age of 12 or so, nobody did it better in those early years than Moore, the funny 007. And with seven outings under his belt, he still commands the largest spate of official, canonical Bond movies (Connery ties if you count Never Say Never Again).
Yet when Roger first picked up the mantle in Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), it was not entirely clear his Bond would become a cartoon superhero. During those early installments, his interpretation was written to be more in line with Connery’s colder, more brutal 007. Luckily, everyone realized by The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) that Moore is better inclined to disarm a situation with a droll joke than a ruthless bullet. And for the rest of his tenure, his movies played to those strengths, often becoming outright comedies. This led to admittedly uneven results, with The Spy Who Loved Me being a delightful rom-com, and its direct follow-up, Moonraker (1979), feeling more akin to a bloated Looney Tunes cartoon.
Nonetheless, Moore’s 12-year run with the character was as impactful as Connery or, more recently, Craig. Better than any other era, Moore’s convinced audiences that Bond is a character to share a laugh with, which some might argue is missing these days.
3. Pierce Brosnan
Pierce Brosnan was an actor who seemed so perfectly suited to play the character that after he was forced to drop out of The Living Daylights because of a TV contract, Eon Productions felt nigh obligated to give him the role again in GoldenEye (1995). The fans expected it, and there was good reason too. As the first franchise lead who grew up as a fan of the series, Brosnan synthesized elements of both Connery and Moore into his even suaver interpretation, which brought the character back to relevancy in the 1990s after more than a decade since the last major 007 hit.
It’s hard for some to see how effortlessly Brosnan slipped into the dinner jacket now because the Irish Bond only has one great Bond flick to his name, the aforementioned GoldenEye. But we wonder if there was only one more classic in that oeuvre if his interpretation would be higher on this list. After all, Brosnan was the first actor to introduce a sincere sense of world-weariness to the character. It wasn’t quite bitterness, as we’d see from the next guy, but there was a small bleeding melancholy underneath all that charm. He was also similarly the first Bond to acknowledge he was a man out of step with his times—a Cold War warrior living in a world without the iron curtain.
Brosnan could tell a quip almost as good as Moore and gloss over even some pretty awful double entendres, but unlike Roger, when it came time to do a fight scene with 006, he could be as savage as Connery. Brosnan’s run is checkered, but from the way he still has the smoothest turn of any 007 actor in the opening gun barrels, and how he ever so elegantly draws out “the name’s Bond, James Bond,” it’s still hard to argue he wasn’t perfect casting.
2. Daniel Craig
As Daniel Craig’s tenure as James Bond comes to a spectacular end in No Time to Die, folks have rightly looked back with chagrin (and hopefully shame in a few cases) at the bile spewed at him back in 2005 because of blond hair and a few more creases on the face. The initial backlash looks ridiculous now given Craig not only reinvented the character, but he revolutionized the franchise as a whole. As the first Bond to start fresh with a hard reboot from the last guy, Craig was able to construct an entire psychological portrait of the Bond archetype, interrogating the idea of the man and then evolving him across five films and 15 years.
Technically, Dalton was the first “grounded” Bond, but Craig made the concept both fun and foreboding, portraying Bond as a bull in a china shop—or “a blunt instrument” to quote M. Filled with rage and childhood insecurities he wears just as well as those Tom Ford suits, this is a James Bond who’s always seething beneath the smiling surface, if not occasionally weeping. Also more aloof than his predecessors, there’s a self-loathing to this version that Craig uses to draw audiences into his icy baby blues, as opposed to the rare (and often awkward) attempt to throw out an old school quip.
For some older audiences, Craig’s discomfort with the puns and womanizing makes him a weaker Bond. But obviously for many of our staff and readers, those are the winning ingredients. To be sure, Craig’s Bond is a smug, self-satisfied chauvinist when we first meet him in Casino Royale (2006). But over the course of a decade and a half, we see his prejudices challenged, and his armor stripped from him, first by a character-defining romance with a true equal in Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), and then by the corrosive nature of his life experiences. His final installment as Bond sees Craig finally embrace so many of the conventions—a tricked out Aston Martin DB5; a bonkers shootout in evening wear; even a villain with a genuine secret lair and “end of the world” plot—but it feels so much more substantial since the movie asks can James Bond change… can James Bond grow up? It’s a hell of a sendoff for the next guy to follow-up.
1. Sean Connery
What is left to say about Sean Connery’s James Bond? The first actor to plant the flag is still king of the mountain as far as most of us are concerned. When Connery was originally cast as 007, author Ian Fleming became famously irate, apparently describing the actor as a “ditch digger” in private—and, indeed, the Scotsman really did work as a bricklayer, coffin polisher, and in other decidedly unglamorous jobs before succeeding in acting. But that is likely the secret to his Bond: He plays the character as an aristocratic elitist who realized long ago he was meant to have the silver spoon, so he simply took it and corrected the world ever since.
Connery’s sense of ownership of the character is worn as perfectly as his bespoke three-piece numbers. Apparently Dr. No director Terrence Young told Connery to go home and sleep in one of them after first taking the thespian to Savile Row. It was good advice since the clothes look like a second skin on a performer who brought the ruthlessness of Fleming’s character to life, but also an irrepressible sense of fun. In any given scene, whether on a beach with a beautiful woman or tied up by a supervillain aiming a laser at his crotch, Connery’s 007 is always having a pleasant time, boyishly confident in his inherent superiority above all others.
It was all there in 1962 with Dr. No, the first Bond movie. Most folks point to his introduction, where Connery says the “James Bond” line while winning a game of cards and the attention of his beguiling rival. But another scene in the movie is equally revealing. After romancing and then boorishly disposing of a SPECTRE female agent, he waits for hours in the dark of her house, knowing an assassin will eventually come for him. After the fumbling hitman empties his pistol into a pillow, Bond turns on the light with a Walther PPK and silencer in hand. Incredulously, Bond is nonplussed about the situation. In fact, he seems as concerned with lighting his cigarette as interrogating the killer. That’s because he knows how this encounter will end.
“That’s a Smith and Wesson,” Connery dryly says as he slowly picks back up his gun, “and you’ve had your six.” He then executes the man in cold blood and returns to his smoke. There is a chilly hardness to the original Bond, as unbending as iron, and it is the foundation for everything else we want from the character: humor, sophistication, playfulness, and finally action. No other Bond has ever been so well-equipped.