George Lazenby: The One that Got Away

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George Lazenby: The One that Got Away

“I heard you’re looking for Bond. James Bond.”

With those few fated words, George Lazenby, a 29-year-old Australian model and former used car salesman, bluffed his way into the gig of a lifetime—replacing Sean Connery as the ultimate icon of cool: James Bond.

At 77 years old, Lazenby still maintains a rugged handsomeness, and towers over six feet tall—a trait shared by all Bond actors aside from Daniel Craig, as if all of the latest Bond’s predecessors had been cut from the same cloth of darkly polished good looks and deadpan wit. This particular 007 is as spry (and refreshingly cocky) as ever, and eager to share the definitive version of how he found his way into the shoes of the world’s most famous spy.

He’s also an incorrigible flirt, implying before we even sit down that if it was still the 1960s, I’d already be upstairs in his hotel room—female journalists had always liked him. Which, having seen the film, chock-full of surprisingly candid descriptions of threesomes, backseat fumblings, and studio snoops, seems more likely to be truth than fiction.

Moments earlier, Lazenby had recounted to me how he had slipped unnoticed up the back stairs of a talent agency—an unintended audition in espionage, perhaps—to pay a visit to Bond series casting director Dyson Lovell one day in the fall of 1968, after a receptionist denied him entry the easy way.

“She threw me out,” he admits unabashedly, with a gleam in his eye. He had been given the tip off about the role, but couldn’t formally audition because he wasn’t in the union. After a brief glimpse at his competition for the part in the waiting room before being tossed out, “I saw that they were all dressed like James Bond, and I was dressed like a Paris model.” So in true Bond fashion—literally—Lazenby returned later in disguise, having purchased a Rolex, a brand new suit, and having his hair cut at Sean Connery’s own barber.

After sneaking upstairs, Lazenby “stood at the door, with my Rolex showing, and [Lovell] happened to be on the phone,” with none other than producer Harry Saltzman, who was having a helluva time recasting the role of Bond after Sean Connery’s departure. “If he hadn’t been on the phone, he would’ve found out I was a fake. But he said, ‘Who are you?’”

The rest is history.

But only a year later, after topping the U.S. and UK box office in his one and only Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby walked away from a seven-film deal and a million-dollar contract, and into legend.

The incredible journey that found a lovelorn car mechanic chasing a lost love halfway across the globe and into international stardom is chronicled in Hulu’s raunchy, no-holds-barred documentary Becoming Bond, narrated by the one-time 007 himself. I spoke with Lazenby, Becoming Bond director Josh Greenbaum, and actor Josh Lawson on a sunny March morning when the team was still high on the film’s premiere at South by Southwest a few days earlier. (It would go on to win an Audience Award at the festival before the week was over.)

So how did this non-actor, now an entirely accidental household name, get the idea to audition for James Bond, the hottest role on the planet in 1968? From a woman, naturally. After all, what’s a Bond without his Moneypenny?

“I went out with an agent [Maggie Abbott], because a friend and I double dated, and he wanted to be an actor. She called me up after our date and said [she thought I was] right for a part,” though she wouldn’t reveal what part it was—at least not yet. Lazenby, then working as a model, forgot about the call, until his friend brought it up a few weeks later, wondering what the agent had wanted. “And I said, “Fuck do I know.’”

On his friend’s eager suggestion, the pair went to see Abbott. But she only wanted Lazenby. “She made him wait outside, and he’s the one who wanted to be an actor!” he recalls, with only the barest hint of remorse for his friend. Once alone, Abbott lifted her veil of mystery, telling him point-blank: “‘I think you’re right for James Bond.’”

Lazenby still seems taken aback by the suggestion, all these years later.

“I’m like, ‘What? But I’m not an actor.’ She said, ‘But you’ve got something that they’re not finding in the 3,000 guys they’ve looked at.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And she said, ‘You’re very sure of yourself. And your arrogance.’”

It was Lazenby’s arrogance that attracted Harry Saltzman, a notoriously gruff producer who cast him on the spot without checking the host of false foreign credits he’d bullshitted to Lovell on the walk over. “Harry liked me because I wouldn’t sit in front of his feet.” Lazenby says, succinctly summing up that first meeting. His description of Saltzman conjures up an image of fast-talking studio mogul chomping on cigars, rather than the stately, no-nonsense bureaucracy of Bond’s own MI6 boss, M. “He had his feet up on the desk, and pointed at the chair, and instead [of sitting down] I went and looked out the window. And then he asked me my life story.”

What wild story did Lazenby tell Saltzman? None. “I told him to ask Dyson Lovell, the casting director. ‘Let him tell you.’”

“Because you couldn’t remember your own lies!”

Becoming Bond director Josh Greenbaum is all grin as he chimes in, almost giddily waiting for his moment to strike with a punchline. The team behind the film has an enviable chemistry and seems equally as charmed by Lazenby as Saltzman was, reveling in the stories of his swinging sixties bravado like wide-eyed younger brothers, soaking in a freedom of expression and action that those of us born in the wrong generation can typically only admire on screen.

“Exactly!” Lazenby confirms, more than in on the joke. He explains Saltzman later revealed to him the two things about Lazenby that got his attention: first his arrogance, and a cool aloofness Saltzman mistakenly augured from his strategic deflection to Lovell. “‘Every other actor jumps and sits forward and talks like a rabbit when I ask them about themselves,” he said. ‘You were just so offhand. You had the attitude I was looking for.’”

But the meeting—and Lazenby’s bullshit—didn’t end there. Saltzman asked Lovell when Peter Hunt, the director of the film, would be back in London. He was away on vacation in Switzerland while the frustrating casting process continued at home in vain. Lovell said Hunt would return at 4 o’clock the next day. “And [Saltzman] said, ‘You be here at 4 o’clock on Friday!’ And then I was shitting myself.”

Unsure of how long he could keep up the charade, a voice in Lazenby’s head finally told him to get out of there, pronto. So when Saltzman asked him if he was available to meet the director, he doubled down on the bullshit, hoping for an escape route. He told the pair he was supposed to be in Paris making a movie. Saltzman replied, matter of factly, by asking how much he was being paid. “I said 500 pounds a day, which is half a year’s wages.”

“And for clarity,” adds Greenbaum, “he obviously was not in Paris, had never made a movie—”

“So meanwhile, to cut a long story short—”

“Way too late for that.” adds Josh Lawson from the peanut gallery, in his own Aussie drawl. Nearly unrecognizable out of character, he plays Lazenby in Becoming Bond, in the style-laden reenactments that help bring weight to a succession of larger-than-life tales that seem almost too tall to be true, as Lazenby transforms from devoted boyfriend in New South Wales to a London model, lothario, and overnight sensation at the height of the swinging sixties.

Lazenby does cut his long story short. “[Harry] said ‘go and see the accountant, he’ll give you 500 pounds, be here at four o’clock tomorrow.’ I did that, and then I rang [Abbott], and I said, ‘they gave me 500 pounds to come back tomorrow.’ And she said, ‘George, be serious.’”

And then she saw the check.

Lazenby-current.jpg
(L-R) Josh Lawson, Josh Greenbaum and George Lazenby at SXSW 2017. Photo by Jennifer Noble.

Production on the film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, started shortly afterward Lazenby was cast, with grueling location shoots in Switzerland and Portugal. Peter Hunt, previously an editor on earlier films in the Bond series, made his directorial debut with OHMSS, and often kept his distance from the actors. “If he hadn’t told me he was the director, I wouldn’t have known who the director was. I would’ve thought the first assistant; he was doing all the work. I had no clue about film crews, apart from little tiny crews I’d worked with on commercials.”

Unaware that features films, and certainly not films with the size and scope of the Bond series, weren’t shot in a matter of weeks, Lazenby found himself on location for nine months, enduring difficult reshoots when a second unit crew was fired and replaced. “I had to keep my cool.”

“Most actors would be like ‘nine months of work? That’s awesome!’” Lawson explains wistfully. “And George is like, ‘fuckin’ nine months. That’s work.’”

“It’s like having a baby.” Lazenby says of the laborious nature of the filmmaking process. “The other thing is that I was doing my own stunts, which Sean Connery didn’t do.”

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service places Lazenby on screen opposite Diana Rigg, as Bond-girl (and eventual Bond-wife) Tracy di Vincenzo, and Telly Savalas as Bond’s ongoing arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Both were big name actors of the sixties, with Diana Rigg a household name in England after starring in British series The Avengers, and Savalas fresh off The Dirty Dozen. How did Lazenby feel about acting alongside some of the leading names of the day?

Right at home.

“Oh, you have no idea the ego—”

“The ego of you, to clarify.” Greenbaum dips in with another zinger.

But Lazenby does admit that, as a first-timer, his costars were asked to report to the director about his performance off and on screen. But their feedback was positive. “Telly Savalas, after we did that first scene, he says, ‘he don’t need no fuckin’ help.’”

It’s pretty incredible when you watch that film,” says Greenbaum, “to realize, and I think most people don’t know, that he had never acted a day in his life.”

Lawson admits he was fooled by Lazenby’s performance, which still holds up. “Back then [...] the shots were a lot longer than they are these days, so you have to act a lot more. These days, you really can piecemeal a scene together.” Lawson thinks about it. “I will say, to Peter Hunt’s credit, the action sequences are really brilliantly edited.”

But after nine months of intense work, and the eyes of the world on the production, Lazenby was “worn out” and wasn’t sure if he saw a future for the series. So he walked away from a million dollar contract on the next film, hoping to secure a future in westerns as a cowboy, like Clint Eastwood.

“I thought Bond was over. It was hippie time,” he recounts with a hint of remorse, as if still trying to justify the decision nearly five decades later. “Everyone had long hair and bell bottoms and ‘make love, not war.’ And I’m going into restaurants and [people are] saying “Waiter!” ’cause I got the short hair and the suit. And I thought: this thing’s over. It wasn’t hard to talk me out of doing another one. Even for a million bucks.”

Lawson asks George if On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was the highest-grossing Bond ever when it came out. He doesn’t know, but Greenbaum has some good factoids. “I do know he is the only Bond who was nominated for a Golden Globe. Also the only Aussie Bond, obviously. And, of course, the only Bond who’s never acted a day before playing the role.”

Lawson remarks that OHMSS features a lot of Bond firsts, which reminds me of a few more. The interview has now become more of a round table, a lively conversation between close friends I’m suddenly privy to, at least for a few minutes.

“The film is the first where Bond has a real romantic relationship,” I recall. Greenbaum confirms. “And it’s the only Bond that doesn’t have a theme song I can sing at karaoke! What’s that about? It’s the best theme, and no lyrics.”

Luckily, Lazenby has another story to tell. “I tried to change that. I tried to change the music, with some group that was in Canada. I even tried ‘Louis Armstrong, he’s too old, get some new group.’”

Lazenby is a wellspring of new anecdotes, and Lawson is struck by the revelation that Lazenby fought for a pop group to do the theme, which isn’t addressed in the film. “He’d never acted a day in his life and, ‘nah, fuck Louis Armstrong!’ He’s amazing. He is amazing. Who would have the balls? It’s incredible.”

With stars in the eyes of anyone who spends a few minutes with him, it’s easy to see why Lazenby would make a sexy topic for a documentary, and stories about his casting and exploits have solidified as Bond legend in the decades since his outing as Bond. But the personal details that fill in the more familiar stories somehow bring just as much intrigue and humor as Lazenby’s stint as James Bond. After seeing the film I was surprised, as a longtime Bond fan, to discover that the core of Becoming Bond, and Lazenby’s entire career trajectory, was an untold love story, which Greenbaum discovered while getting to know Lazenby.

“A friend of mine and my producing partner, Rafael Marmor, introduced us to George,” he explains, reminiscing about the origin of the film. “I had heard stories about him—you know, there’s a sort of folklore around George—and as a filmmaker and documentarian it certainly piqued my interest.”

They had lunch, and Greenbaum was open to the idea of doing a film, though he was admittedly skeptical about what he’d heard through the grapevine; George’s escapades “sounded too good to be true, or stranger than fiction. And within ten minutes of the lunch I realized oh, no, this is all actually quite real.” Greenbaum found it refreshing that Lazenby was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, “warts and all. It wasn’t just the highlight reel of his life.”

“I also realized right away that he’s an incredibly gifted storyteller. Aside from living a life that’s worthy of a story, he’s incredibly gifted at telling it.” Greenbaum was smitten. “The idea for how to make the film was born right then and there, which was to have George tell us his story, and then do, for essentially the entire film, narrative reenactments using incredible talent like Josh Lawson.”

But it wasn’t a cakewalk getting George on board. “It took some convincing because George is not one of those doc subjects who said ‘let’s do a movie about me!’ It took five lunches, I don’t know how many—”

“He was just in it for the lunches, let’s be honest,” I get the zinger in this time.

“We had a lot of sushi.” Greenbaum acknowledges.

Lawson is curious, as a narrative actor, about the documentary process. “How often do doc subjects feel too keen?” His willingness to ask questions and engage with the other guys speaks volumes about the team effort and collaboration inherent in this project.

“It’s a big problem, I think. What you see in reality TV are people who are dying to be on television, or in a film, and I think that’s where you get a lot of bullshit and inauthenticity. I‘m always excited by someone who’s a bit reticent to have their story told because I know that there’s an honesty to that person. The reason I think [George] was reticent is that he knows himself. He knows he’s going to tell me the truth and the full story.” Greenbaum turns to Lazenby. “And I think you were weighing whether or not to trust me with that information.”

“Right,” answers Lazenby. “And which part are you going to tell?”

(Becoming Bond premiered on Hulu on May 20th.)


Elle Schneider is an independent filmmaker and writer who would like to also make one Bond film. You can follow her on Twitter.

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