The Bond bunch: the failed contenders for coveted role

From matinee idol Dirk Bogarde to TV quizmaster Bob Holness, the role of 007 has attracted some unlikely contenders. Andrew Roberts on the ones who got away
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"He reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless [about him]," was how Ian Fleming's heroine Vesper Lynd described Commander James Bond in Casino Royale. Today, in a world when computer users with too much time on their hands have been logging on to www.danielcraigis, it is refreshing to remember that, 44 years ago, another leading actor from British television was not universally warmly received as Bond either.

When Dr No premiered in November 1962, many British cinemagoers would have been chiefly familiar with Sean Connery, thanks to his many starring roles in BBC TV plays, in addition to a varied film career that encompassed a role as a romantic lead opposite Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place, plus his unique brand of crooning in the 1959 Disney epic Darby O'Gill and the Little People. After Dr No, however, his pre-007 acting career seemed to fade in favour of the "penniless, hitherto unknown lorry driver" that made for much better PR.

Connery's casting followed that now traditional filmic process known as "parallel Bonds". Prior to the shooting of Dr No, it appeared that virtually every cultured British actor was considered for the role. On 5 October 1961, the trade paper Kinematograph Weekly announced that production on Dr No would not now take place until the following year, allowing the producers to concentrate on their search for a star. A national newspaper ran a competition for the ideal screen Bond, although Peter Anthony, the eventual winner, turned out to be a model with no acting experience.

A few years earlier, the rights to Moonraker were owned by the Rank Organisation, which was scrutinising Fleming's work with a view to providing a vehicle for Dirk Bogarde, and in 1958 James Mason was even scheduled to star in a television adaptation of From Russia with Love. EON Productions founded in 1961, started by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, also considered Mason, for the first Bond movie, Dr No. Cary Grant was in the running too, but was reluctant to commit to a sequel.

Meanwhile, David Niven was seen as too old, and after briefly considering Peter Finch and Trevor Howard, the producers targeted younger actors such as Stephen Boyd and Rod Taylor.

As history relates, the Bond producers even considered an American actor - albeit long based in the UK - Patrick McGoohan. However, ITV's own Danger Man famously spurned both 007 and Simon Templar on the grounds that both characters were "immoral cads".

The square-jawed Rank leading man Michael Craig and B-film smoothie William Franklyn were also briefly considered, while the Shakespearean actor Richard Johnson apparently came the closest to being cast, being screen tested no less than three times by the director Terence Young.

However, as the series progressed, and Connery relaxed into the role of Bond, the actor became indivisible from the part, which did not stop the producer Kevin McClory planning to cast another actor in his own version of Thunderball. At one stage it almost seemed as though the soignée charms of the Lithuanian-born British actor Laurence Harvey, then fresh from his successes in Room at the Top and The Manchurian Candidate, would inherit the part. However, although Harvey was one of the actors mentioned by McClory - the other being Richard Burton - an agreement was reached with EON, leaving fans to speculate that Bond's label snobbery could have been written with Harvey in mind, as indeed could one of the few physical descriptions that Fleming ever issued of his anti-hero - "...something cold and dangerous in that face... Bond knew there was something alien and un-English about himself".

The other plausible British alternative to Connery was Oliver Reed. In 1967, at which point Connery had seemingly left the role of 007, Reed was in the frame and despite Broccoli's subsequent claims that, "...with Reed we would have had a far greater problem to destroy his image and remould him as James Bond. We just didn't have the time or money to do that", the role could have been ideal for him. By the late 1960s, Reed's many B-film roles of teddy boys, beatniks and werewolves were well behind him, thanks to the suave public school-voiced angry young men that he had essayed for Michael Winner in The Jokers and I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name, which leaves the faint suggestion that post-Oliver!, Reed may been dropped on the grounds of cost.

Whether Reed would have made a better 007 than George Lazenby will always be open to debate, but when Broccoli and Saltzman announced that their leading man for Diamonds Are Forever would be than John Gavin, the reaction from United Artists was not entirely favourable. Gavin, then famed for being utterly unmemorable in both Spartacus and Psycho, and a future US Ambassador to Mexico, might well have achieved the prized award as the world's worst-ever Bond, fending off stiff competition from Burt Reynolds.

Fortunately, after being visited by Broccoli, Reynolds refused to believe 007 could be played by an American, leaving the way for Roger Moore to achieve the role of his career in Live and Let Die - otherwise Bond fans would have deprived of one of the greatest-ever camp fests from 1970s British cinema. Live and Let Die might combined safari suits with the sensitivities of Love Thy Neighbour, and Moore might have been older than Connery, but his eyebrow-raising charm was enough to fend off the opposition of Julian Glover, Patrick Mower, Christopher Cazenove and the New Zealand actor David Warbeck over the following 12 years.

By the mid-1980s, once Roger and his stunt doubles were enjoying well earned rest, the role of 007 almost appeared to be a straitjacket for any ambitious young actor. Lewis Collins was once allegedly in the frame, but the failure of his SAS epic, Who Dares Wins, apparently put paid to that notion, while Sam Neill lost the role to Timothy Dalton.

Over the past 20 years, many names have come to the fore, from the plausible (Hugh Jackman), the unlikely (Russell Crowe) and the surreal (John Travolta), to the potentially horrific (Mel Gibson). As for the recent debate concerning Clive Owen, all that need be said is that in The Croupier he does bear a marked resemblance to a young Laurence Harvey. Still, the world was spared more than one appearance of Neil "brother of Sean" Connery as agent 0007 in the 1967 Italian Z-film Operation Kid Brother - just imagine Sean with an Acker Bilk Beard and a dubbed American voice.

Ironically, the original Bond actor has never once been considered to portray 007 on the silver screen. In 1956, Bob Holness was a young actor working for South African radio and, given the fact that television would not arrive there until 1976, the fact that Bob may not have particularly resembled Hoagy Carmichael in appearance was of no consequence. Instead, listeners across the Union thrilled to Bob's cultured tones as he defeated evil master criminals in search of world domination with the same assurance as he would subsequently quell stroppy sixth-formers who were in danger of losing that pony-trekking holiday in the Lake District on television's Blockbusters.

'Casino Royale' opens nationwide on 17 November