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"I heard you're looking for James Bond." How George Lazenby Went from Car Salesman to 007

April 28, 2015

After acting in five Bond films, Sean Connery walked away from the iconic role. TCM's Ben Mankiewicz guessed the casting search rivaled the one for Gone with the Wind's Scarlett O'Hara decades before, but George Lazenby, the man who stepped into Connery's shoes, narrowed the number down: approximately 3000 actors were looked at and 300 tested on film. 


I don't know if those numbers are true or not - I took most everything Lazenby said with a grain of salt - but by his conversation with Mankiewicz, you could definitely tell why he won the role of James Bond. His laid back attitude, bordering on indifference at times, combined with his slight sense of egotism (slight may be too light a word here) made him a perfect Bond, on screen and in real life. Well, minus the violence in real life (as far as I'm aware).

George Lazenby at the screening of On Her Majesty's Secret Service. (Photo credit TCM)

So, how did a car salesman with zero acting experience land one of the most sought after roles at the time/ever? Lazenby sat down with Mankiewicz before a screening of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) at the 6th annual TCM Classic Film Festival to explain. Basically, it boiled down to a bit of luck and a few lies.


Well, a lot of lies.


It all started when a friend of Lazenby's asked him to help him out on a double date he booked with an agent, Maggie Smith of ICM. The next morning (Lazenby said he wouldn't tell us what happened the night before, which became a theme of the evening), Smith told him she thought he would be perfect for an upcoming (unnamed) film, because his arrogant attitude was exactly what the filmmakers were looking for. Hmm...


Time passed, and Lazenby forgot about the conversation. However, Smith eventually came back around a few months later and told him that the team tested other men but no one had that 'it' factor - in this case, that arrogance that Lazenby liked to refer to as naivety. He simply had no clue what an actor was at the time!


Smith gave him the details to meet with the team, and when Lazenby went to the casting office, he saw all the other guys dressed in a, well, Bond style, so he ducked out and bought himself a haircut, Rolex, and suit to match. When he finally made it inside producer Albert (Cubby) Broccoli's office, he stood with arms crossed and casually said: "I heard you're looking for James Bond." You can believe the nonchalant delivery of that line brought some chuckles from the audience. Modest is one thing you certainly can't call Lazenby.

Lazenby as Bond, looking dapper and badass at the same time.

That smug attitude was partly a facade, though. When asked by Cubby what films he acted in, Lazenby vaguely answered that he had worked in Czechoslovakia and Russia. Really?! Then, when Lazenby was taken in to producer Harry Saltzman's office, Saltzman asked the same question. Since Lazenby couldn't remember the lies he spewed, he simply uttered: "Ask him [referring to Cubby]; I just told him!" Years later, Saltzman admitted that no one ever spoke to him like that before, and Lazenby's confidence, really a mixture of hauteur and panic, impressed him. 


More falsehoods flowed when the producers asked Lazenby to return at 4pm the next day to meet with director Peter Hunt, who was taking a break from location scouting in Switzerland to meet with actors. Now thoroughly in a jam and trying to play hardball to get himself out of it, Lazenby said he couldn't make it; he was filming in France and being paid £500 a day, which was an astronomically high number that somehow worked out for him in the end: the producers matched that amount so Lazenby would come back the next day. When Lazenby spilled the news to Maggie Smith moments later on the phone, she couldn't believe it - actors aren't paid for callbacks, she exclaimed! "Well, I'm a car salesman, not an actor," was Lazenby's now expected impromptu reply.


Well, the truth finally came out in front of Hunt the next day when Lazenby, who had an acting lesson the night before, for some reason blurted out, "Peter, I've never acted before!" The director's reply? "You fooled two of the most ruthless guys I've ever met in my life. You're an actor. Stick to your story; I'll make you the next James Bond." Or, at least that's how Lazenby remembers the conversation going.


A few months later after some acting, talking, and walking lessons (prior to this, he would "swagger like an Australian coming out of a pub on a Friday night"), and Lazenby was on set as James Bond. Hunt told stars Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas to help him out as much as they could, but after his first scene, it was clear that Lazenby's confidence level was high enough that he didn't need any help. 

Diana Rigg and Lazenby lounging on set.

Lazenby boasted that Rigg told him if he "didn't mess" with any of the other thousand gorgeous girls on set, then maybe something could happen between them. That potential proposition was revoked real fast, though, when Rigg walked in on Lazenby and a receptionist in the stunt man's tent. "Her desk was right above us, so you didn't have to go far!" was Lazenby's defense, which prompted Mankiewicz to proclaim, "You ARE James Bond!" Sure seems like it so far!


In addition to the (assumingly) insane female distraction he inevitably faced on set, Lazenby's first acting experience could also be termed unique because he had a falling out with Hunt the first day and didn't speak to him for the next nine months. According to Lazenby, Hunt, who was gay, had some of his "gay mates" on set the first day of shooting. The first AD asked if Lazenby could make an announcement asking that all those not needed on set could clear so they could begin shooting. Lazenby didn't think anything of it, so he complied. Apparently, Hunt was angry that his friends had to clear the set (and the fact that the direction came from Lazenby), and director and star didn't speak for the rest of the shoot. That story doesn't sound 100% realistic to me, but who knows. Lazenby explained that since he wasn't an actor, he didn't know he was supposed to talk to the director, so the fact that they weren't on speaking terms didn't bother him at all! 

Obviously, these ladies won't be any distraction (on and off the set), right?

After the movie wrapped, Lazenby assumed the James Bond series was over. He admits he didn't think - he had someone do that for him - and that person asked why he would want to stay in a game that was over; all one had to do was look outside to see everyone wandering around in bell bottoms, long hair and earrings. "No one was killing each other; they're making love," Lazenby was told, and he definitely wanted in on some of that action.


Thus, though he was offered one million dollars to film the next movie anywhere in the world, Lazenby turned it down. Mankiewicz interrupted and said that must have been the worst advice anyone could have given him, but Lazenby defended his decision: he's had a great life, he said. For instance, he had the chance to sail the world for 15 months with a beautiful he was told couldn't get pregnant but - SURPRISE! - she did. So, the broke Lazenby returned to land to find some money, I mean, work, which wasn't very easy.


On Her Majesty's Secret Service was Lazenby's first film. Looking back, he admitted that he acted stupid and didn't know what he was doing; consequently he was labeled "difficult," which made it - well, difficult - for him to secure work. Harry Saltzman always said that if he didn't sign on for another Bond flick he'd end up working those spaghetti Westerns, but to Lazenby and his agent's disbelief, he couldn't even land one of those. 

A French poster for the film. The mountain chaos on the left is quite accurate. I also like how Lazenby cradles those skis with one arm like a champ.

Ironically, he found work in Hong Kong, and who brought him there? Bruce Lee. Once again, Lazenby impressed Lee and producer Raymond Chow within an hour and secured $10,000 for a role in a martial arts film, but Lee tragically died three days later. Lazenby left Hong Kong after Lee's death, but Chow called him up and told him he was on the hook for the $10,000, so he had to do the movie. Lazenby being Lazenby, it turned out that he did not know kung-fu, of course, so Chow sent someone over to teach him. And there's that pattern again...


Seriously, is there anything that Lazenby can't get around or out of? (Other than that pregnancy situation). Perhaps he really is James Bond...

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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