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Picking The Best Bond: Connery And Craig Rise To The Top

<strong>The Gold Standard:</strong> In NPR's survey, most readers chose Sean Connery (above, in <em>Goldfinger</em>), as the best James Bond. Daniel Craig placed second in our survey.
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The Gold Standard: In NPR's survey, most readers chose Sean Connery (above, in Goldfinger), as the best James Bond. Daniel Craig placed second in our survey.

It's official: Sean Connery IS James Bond, according to NPR readers who weighed the question this week. The final results show that Connery set the gold standard as 007, the spy known for his playfulness, his ruthlessness — and his ability to look good in a suit. Today marks the Bond film franchise's 50th anniversary.

Six actors have played James Bond in the Eon Productions films that began in 1962, when Connery established the role in Dr. No. He went on to star in six of the first seven Bond films. And more than 50 percent of those who voted think that he made the most of his head start.

"Sean Connery," commented reader Pops Parker, is "the clear number one. There is humanity behind the noble facade and the man has an unassuming style."

Several others who wrote in followed Connery's name with "of course" — suggesting it's a no-brainer that the man who first immortalized the line "Bond... James Bond" and romped with Ursula Andress and Honor Blackman made the role his own.

"Certainly Sean [Connery] was a fantastic first Bond," says Michael G. Wilson, step-son of original Bond film producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, in an interview with Morning Edition's David Greene. "He really set the bar, and everyone else has to measure up to that."

Eon Productions, the company that Broccoli co-founded to produce the James Bond films, is now run by Wilson and his step-sister, Barbara Broccoli. The company will soon release its 23rd Bond movie.

The current Bond, Daniel Craig, placed a strong second in our survey, with more than a quarter of the votes. Many readers said they like the intensity and the humanity they feel in Craig's portrayal. And for both Craig and Connery, some folks just admit to being enthralled by their good looks and effortless cool.

Craig was praised for bringing "Bond back from the dead," as Mark Novak wrote, after Pierce Brosnan's run ended with 2002's Die Another Day. And he did it in Casino Royale, a box office hit that retraced Bond's origins and revived the edge and sophistication that marked Connery's best films.

Many voters said Craig's mix of strong acting skills and "physical prowess" won them over. But others docked him a few points because he doesn't share the tall and dark-haired physical traits of the other actors. At 5 feet 10, the blue-eyed and blond-haired Craig is the only Bond to stand less than 6 feet 1.

But to NPR reader Brim Stone, Craig's appearance helps to put him ahead of the others — because he is "by far the least concerned with the condition of his hair."

Some readers who sided with Connery added that they expect Craig to strengthen his position as more viewers see him in the role. He returns as Bond in Skyfall, which has its U.S. debut in November.

Many readers who prefer Pierce Brosnan's portrayal point to his charm, his good looks, and his ability to pull off action scenes like the fencing duel in Die Another Day. Others find him too "suave." But it's indisputable that when GoldenEye was released in 1995, Brosnan breathed fresh life into a franchise that had lain dormant for six years — the longest gap in the Bond films.

And it should be noted that if Brosnan hadn't been attached to the NBC TV series Remington Steele in 1987, he would almost certainly have been the Bond who followed Moore. Famously, the burst of publicity over his looming choice as 007 led TV executives not to kill the show, and Brosnan's contract required him to turn the role down.

If that hadn't happened, Brosnan might have reached his reported goal of appearing in six Bond films, instead of four. And his case as the best Bond could have been that much stronger.

Timothy Dalton and Roger Moore provoked some of the most polarized responses, with Dalton alternately praised for the light-hearted The Living Daylights and shunned for the "disturbingly vicious" License to Kill, to quote commenter David Brown.

Impressions of Moore seem to depend on which phase of his career is being considered. Is he the 1970s box office power behind Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me, or the 58-year-old who chased Grace Jones around Paris in A View to a Killin 1985?

"Roger Moore played the role for too long," wrote Sarah Rasul, boiling down the sentiments of several voters.

And perhaps he did. But Moore also set the record for starring as James Bond — an apt seven times. (Connery also played the role seven times, but one of those was the not-quite-official Never Say Never Again, a 1983 remake of his own Thunderball).

With the metal-toothed Jaws as his recurring nemesis, Moore put a sense of humor and fun into the role that, for better or worse, made Bond more approachable. Armed with two of the most agile eyebrows ever captured on film, Moore often seemed to invite his audience in on the fun.

His successor, Timothy Dalton, brought more subtlety to the role, along with a focus that leads many fans to see his two films as a crucial transition phase. A commenter who wrote in as "Stanford White Cat" says that Dalton, an accomplished stage actor, got Bond back on track from being a "gadget toting womanizer" to the more complex character of an elite spy.

Fans of the Ian Fleming novels that introduced the Bond character seem particularly likely to endorse Dalton, thanks to his no-nonsense approach. But Dalton didn't get a chance to build a true body of work, as he appeared in fewer Bond films than anyone except George Lazenby.

And then there was one. What to say about George Lazenby? He had the tough job of following Sean Connery, who had become so identified with James Bond that he stepped away from the role to avoid being typecast. After a gap of only two years, the Australian Lazenby stepped into the breach. And 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service didn't grab the fans — or the money — that its predecessors had.

As perhaps the most athletic Bond, Lazenby had no trouble with the role's physical demands. But his voice was dubbed in sections of the film, and he decided before its debut that he didn't want to continue in the role. Today, Lazenby seems to benefit from fans who are either suckers for an underdog, outright revisionist, or Australian. At 30, he was the youngest actor to play Bond.

For our survey, Lazenby figures in one of the funniest comments. It came from Dave J, who wrote, "A vote for lazenby is like a vote for ralph nader." But the remark didn't impress Lois Immerman, who responded with "Two words: BOBSLED CHASE; Lazenby is the MAN."

While our informal survey might not have settled this question for all time, it has at least put the actors into perspective, and into a rough pecking order. Each of them have their good points, as our more open-minded readers note. And all of them were at the mercy of the moviemakers behind their projects.

Many readers say that the films featuring Connery and Craig benefit from having the best scripts and the strongest cinematography.

As Donald Westrich notes, "I never thought I'd say it, but Craig by a nose over Connery.... thanks to the script writers for Casino Royale II, which allowed Craig to invest the Bond character with a depth earlier portrayers never had a chance to explore, even if they'd been capable of doing so."

Each Bond film also reflects its era, from the neato gadgetry of the 1960s to the cheesey indulgence of the 1980s. In the 21st century, producer Barbara Broccoli says, Craig "has allowed the audience into Bond's inner life. Into the complexities, the conflicts that Bond expresses in the novels."

Spanning 50 years, the Bond films have served as landmarks in many viewers' lives. And their appreciation for the actors who played 007 sometimes changed over the years, as well.

As reader Will Wood put it, "I grew up with Moore, and I liked him until I turned twelve, then I saw Connery and he clearly reset the bar for me. When I was in my twenties I decided to read the books, and I have to say, the Ian Fleming character is a restless, angry, violent, heavy drinking, barely in control, and deeply cynical spy fully aware that his license to kill is also a license to be killed."

The resourceful and volatile spy portrayed in Fleming's books is also the character that the current version of Bond aspires to, Broccoli says.

"And that Bond is, yes, a lot darker," she says, "but he also has vulnerability."

Note: Our informal survey was restricted to actors who portrayed Bond in the widely seen Eon/Broccoli-produced films.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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