While critics savaged his stilted on-screen chops, the film was a box-office success. But in his post-debut glow and convinced that Bond’s shoot-’em-up antics were culturally irrelevant in the era’s peace, love and Flower Power-uprising, Lazenby opted out.
“I had a friend named Ronan O’Rahilly, he started Radio Caroline in the English Channel where he launched all the English pop groups: The Beatles, The Stones, The Who. He was the one who suggested to me that James Bond was over. I think the top movie then was Easy Rider and, you know, Bruce Lee, so it wasn’t hard for him to convince me,” recalls Lazenby.
“[United Artists] offered me a heap of money to come back. They must have had a thousand options on their shelves and they said, ‘TV, movies, you can do any one you like in between a Bond movie if you sign the contract.’ And I said to O’Rahilly, ‘Well, what’s wrong with that deal?’ He said, those movies, they’re old-fashioned. Times have changed, people have long hair, bell bottoms, they don’t look like James Bond. And he convinced me again not to sign their contract.”
Lazenby had hoped to get a gig with emerging new Hollywood stars, like Dennis Hopper and Arthur Penn. It wasn’t so simple.
“I didn’t know the industry was so cliquey; they just closed ranks. I couldn’t get a job. I got rejected by every film company because they were told I was under contract to the Bond people and they thought they wouldn’t be able to release their films if they used me. I used up all the money I had and I had to go sailing because I couldn’t afford to rent hotel rooms anymore. It was free ports in the Mediterranean so I just lived on a boat.”
He recalls his decision with the self-mocking regret of 50 years’ hindsight, an absurd shrug around a showbiz cautionary tale so fabled his name’s become lyrical shorthand for squandered opportunities. Did he at least feel vindicated that Bond’s relevancy continues to be debated?
“Well, I haven’t seen a Bond movie since mine. It just brings up too many bad memories,” he says. “But I’ve had to listen to people talk about it and I’ve watched how times have changed. Women are coming into power, you just have to look at the newscast: 75 per cent of the people on there are women and before it was 10 per cent, so women have taken over. I don’t say that as a bad thing but it’s different.
“And they got bloody squeaky voices!” he adds.
“Men, they haven’t got the balls they had 50 years ago,” he continues. “When I was born my mother had to get permission to speak. And now the men have to. It’s a different time. And, well, the movies have to show that.”
In recent months, Lazenby – who still acts when the opportunity finds him (“I haven’t got an agent anymore because I don’t like going to the readings and all the stuff they make you do, and I don’t have to do it anymore. I don’t need to be Bruce Willis or someone, I like having my own time,” he says) – has found himself on a tribute tour, celebrating On Her Majesty’s milestone in Europe.
“It does feel good,” he admits. “It shows I must’ve done a good job. I went to an autograph signing in London and 8000 people showed up. I’d never had that.”
The reverential treatment is a welcome conclusion. The 1969 film – with its kitschy brainwashed mod-girl army, a ski chase later borrowed by Wes Anderson, and an emotional parting shot soundtracked to Louis Armstrong’s bitterly ironic We Have all the Time in the World – has been reappraised by new generations of movie fans.
“Look, for a guy who never acted before I did a pretty shit job. But because of the story and the other people who worked on it, it’s probably one of the best Bond movies,” says Lazenby. “And, you know, I did eventually learn how to act.”
Robert Moran is a culture reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age