Pierce Brosnan's Long and Winding Road To Bond

By Kimberly Last
[People magazine, 1986]
This article was originally written in 1995 and first published in the Spring 1996 issue of Goldeneye, the magazine of the Ian Fleming Foundation, under a different title. Some modifications have since been made.

Unknown actors starting out in their careers always live in the shadow of those who came before. When Pierce Brosnan appeared in a theatrical production of Noel Coward's Semi-Monde in Glasgow, Scotland in 1977, he was noted by the British reviewer who called him a "dead-ringer for Clark Gable." In his 1981 American television debut as the Irish firebrand in the mini-series The Manions of America, he was variously compared by critics to young versions of Tyrone Power, Warren Beatty and James Dean.

It was a review one year later in the Washington Post that seemed most prophetic for his future. A critique of the first episode of the new NBC television series Remington Steele noted: "Pierce Brosnan could make it as a young James Bond." The die seemed cast, but it would take another 13 years for it to come about.

Pierce Brosnan began his acting career in the theater, in London's West End and in repertory throughout the United Kingdom. His first 2 films were non-speaking roles in the 1980 Elizabeth Taylor-Rock Hudson film The Mirror Crack'd, in which he portrayed an actor, and in the British gangster classic >The Long Good Friday, in which he played an IRA hitman. He had also played small parts in various British TV programs.

A trip to the Greek island of Corfu in 1980 with his then-girlfriend Cassandra Harris was to have a major impact on Pierce Brosnan's career. Cassandra was filming her role as Countess Lisl in For Your Eyes Only, when she introduced Pierce to Cubby Broccoli. According to a 1986 report of the meeting, Cubby said, "if he can act...he's my guy" to replace Roger Moore when Roger decided to retire. Also while in Corfu, Pierce received the Manions script, and won the starring role in the 6-hour miniseries when he returned to London, a major coup for a European actor unknown to American audiences.

Manions aired in the U.S. on ABC in September 1981, and the Brosnans made a short trip to Los Angeles to take their chance on making it big in Hollywood. Borrowing money from the bank, Pierce spent 2 weeks going on auditions, but it was the very first one, for MTM's Remington Steele, that proved lucky. Brosnan was cast in the title role despite the fact that the producers had originally envisioned a middle-aged American, like James Coburn. Brosnan was offered the job after Anthony Andrews (star of Brideshead Revisited and The Scarlet Pimpernel) declined the part.

While on that trip to Los Angeles, Pierce and his wife Cassandra had dinner at Cubby Broccoli's home. Pierce later recalled driving back to their lodgings in a rented beater car, jokingly saying the famous line, "The name is Bond, James Bond."

Cassandra Harris Brosnan's Bond history is very interesting. In an interview with an Australian magazine in 1975, 5 years before For Your Eyes Only was filmed, the actress described leaving her native Australia for London to audition for a role in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. However, the parts had been cast by the time she arrived. She also unsuccessfully tried out for a role in The Man with the Golden Gun. She finally became a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only, in the part of the "sacrificial lamb," a victim of death by dune buggy.

With the release of each new Bond film, Roger Moore was perennially quoted as saying it would be his last. The release of For Your Eyes Only in 1981 was no exception. In an attempt to give him a scare during contract renegotiations, or perhaps in a genuine attempt to replace him, auditions were held to cast a new James Bond.

Pierce Brosnan was among those who auditioned in London. He told CNN's Bill Tush in May 1983 that he had mentioned to MTM producers at his Steele audition that he was under consideration for the Bond role. He was also apparently up for the title role in that long-rumored (and not released until 1997, with Val Kilmer) film based on the old Roger Moore series The Saint. Neither panned out, and Moore went on to make 1983's Octopussy. Brosnan took the TV job, signing a 7-year contract with NBC.

[People magazine cover from 1983]

The creators of Remington Steele wanted to recreate the atmosphere of 1930's and 40's mystery-comedies such as the Thin Man series for their detective show. Brosnan played a debonair yet shadowy con-man-turned-private eye. Critics compared the chemistry between him and co-star Stephanie Zimbalist to that of Myrna Loy and William Powell or Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

In the show's original conception, Zimbalist's character Laura Holt was the focus, with Brosnan's character just there for "window dressing." But Brosnan quickly became very popular with fans, and one of the main reasons for the show's success. Scripts began to be tailored towards him, and the character of Steele was changed significantly, from a near-gigolo to a dashing investigator. Brosnan was called "the new Cary Grant" by People Magazine. Despite this publicity, Brosnan's perception of the character of Steele was as "a cross between James Bond and Inspector Clouseau."

Steele was renewed for a second season in 1983, starting off in September with an episode filmed in Acapulco that was an obvious homage (or rip-off) of the James Bond films. The theme music from From Russia with Love was used as incidental music, and a character exclaimed during the course of the action that "This is just like something from a James Bond movie!" Pedro Armendariz Jr. (whose father starred in From Russia with Love, and who himself had a role in Licence to Kill) even had a guest spot.

Throughout the series Steele dressed formally in dark suits and tuxedoes, clothes that were not in fashion during the early 1980s age of Magnum P.I.'s Hawaiian shirts. In view of this, Los Angeles Magazine credited Brosnan in 1985 with "almost single-handedly rescuing the dinner jacket from sartorial extinction." Subtle or not, the television public was beginning to be fed the image of Remington Steele as a small-screen James Bond, a character who wears a tuxedo in most movie posters.

After the release of Octopussy in 1983, Moore was once again making noises about not returning to the role of Bond. US Magazine asked readers in October of that year to vote on who should be the next Bond. 14 contenders were nominated, such as Tom Selleck, Jeremy Irons, Mel Gibson, and former TV Saint Ian Oglivy. Pierce Brosnan won the poll in a landslide victory, with 46% of the vote. The next runner up, British actor Lewis Collins from The Professionals, received 11%.

Momentum for Brosnan's candidacy was growing. The Chicago Sun Times reported in a TV guide cover story in December 1983 that Brosnan was being touted as the next Bond. On August 6, 1984, an Australian newspaper reported that Brosnan had signed a secret deal with Cubby Broccoli to become the fourth 007. This was refuted by Brosnan in an interview with the Los Angeles Times the next month, where he said that he wrote to Cubby Broccoli denying that these persistent stories were originating from him. Roger Moore signed on as Bond again, and made A View to a Kill (1985), but he retired for good after this film.

This did not stop the rumors that still dogged Brosnan wherever he went. During an appearance on David Letterman's show in late 1984, Dave badgered Brosnan. "Aren't you going to be the new James Bond?" Pierce at first responded, "No comment," but then asserted that this was just a rumor begun by the supermarket tabloids. Dave countered with "You'd be good as James Bond," and Brosnan said he "would have a crack at it" if offered. Dave then asked if he would like to do "8, 9 pictures" or just one. Brosnan again tried to affirm that the whole story was just a "fabrication by the press," concluding, "I haven't even thought about playing James Bond."

Brosnan reiterated this in an interview with the Las Vegas Review-Journal in January 1985. "This is a fabrication. I read it all the time and I also encounter people saying 'You're going to make a great Bond,' but until (the producer) comes up to me and slaps me on the back and says, 'Well, it's so,' it's pure fabrication. I find it quite comical. I can't quite see myself as James Bond."

As a side-note, the rumor-mill surrounding Pierce Brosnan was not just focused on James Bond. In April 1985, a story had sprung up in the Philippines that Brosnan had committed suicide because his wife Cassandra had divorced him. NBC had been barraged by letters from distressed Far-eastern fans. He was in fact neither divorced nor dead.

Stories also prevailed that Brosnan was going to quit the still-popular Steele. The final episode of the 3rd season, which aired 2 weeks before the May 1985 U.S. opening of A View to a Kill, even had Steele mysteriously disappearing, rather convenient if the series' star were to do likewise. However, the 4th season of Steele began filming later that summer, on schedule with cast intact.

Roger Moore finally retired after A View to a Kill. Many contenders were tipped as his replacement, including Pierce Brosnan, Sam Neill, Bryan Brown and Simon McCorkindale. Supposedly the choice was to be unveiled at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1986, but this deadline came and went.

During the last full season (1985-86) of Remington Steele, ratings were in a steady decline, despite a schedule change. After 88 hours of shows, Steele was canceled by NBC on May 15, 1986, with network keeping a 60-day option on the show. On that day, the New York Post reported that Pierce Brosnan was "signed to a multi-picture, multimillion dollar deal yesterday in what has to be the quickest turnaround for an actor in years," to be the new James Bond, on this, the eve of his 33rd birthday. The only problem was the 60-day clause. No contracts for the Bond film could be signed until the end of that period, and no formal announcement was made by the Bond producers.

Due to all the publicity Brosnan was receiving as the heir-apparent to the license to kill, ratings for the summer reruns of Steele were in the Nielsen Top 5, something the show hadn't managed to achieve during its 4-year run. There also had been much viewer outcry about the cancellation, and a letter-writing campaign was begun by devoted fans to save the show, a tactic that had previously worked with Cagney and Lacey.

On July 15, 1986, the 59th day of the option period, with just hours to go before the signing of the Bond contracts, NBC programming chief Brandon Tartikoff reversed his earlier decision to cancel Steele. Brosnan, with his 7-year contract, was obligated to return to the show. He had reportedly been threatened with a $20 million lawsuit if he broke his contract.

Tartikoff said that he was willing to cooperate with the Bond producers, to share Brosnan's time. The new Steele episodes were thus scheduled to be filmed in Europe to accommodate production of The Living Daylights. But Broccoli did not believe that the public would plunk down money to see an actor in the movie theaters when they could see him on TV every week portraying a similar character for free. There was a mad scramble in London as the search for a new Bond began.

On August 6, 1986, Timothy Dalton, whose name had never been publicly mentioned as a contender prior to late July, was publicly named as the 4th James Bond. That very week every newsstand in America featured an annoyed-looking Pierce Brosnan on the cover of People Magazine with the headline, "Take This Job and Shove It," referring to Steele's "uncancellation." Dalton's publicist requested a cover story for his client the following week, but the magazine declined. In many people's minds, this action typified Dalton why never gained widespread acceptance in the role - he was a "second-choice" Bond to many, considering the momentum and raised expectations Brosnan had been building for the past 4 years.

Filming of The Living Daylights with Dalton as Bond began in late September 1986. But within 6 months, before the film was even released, a story was printed in a British newspaper that said Pierce Brosnan would be 007 in the next Bond film after The Living Daylights. These continual rumors were to haunt Dalton throughout his whole tenure as Bond.

Remington Steele was brought back for three 2-hour TV movies in early 1987, to the dismay of most fans. Brosnan obviously did not want to be there, and the shows were badly written in a desperate attempt to gain ratings and tie up loose ends. In his words, the series went out "with a whimper." The last show that aired in March 1987 was the end, finally, of Steele. Brosnan fulfilled his NBC contract with the mini-series Noble House and Around the World in 80 Days.

Shortly after he lost the Bond role, Brosnan was hired by Coca-Cola to appear in a successful commercial for Diet Coke, which seemed to spoof the image of a dashing secret agent. This began airing in the U.S. during the Super Bowl in 1987. A second, even more blatant, Bond spoof was filmed (co-starring Joely Richardson, using the Nene Valley Railroad also used in Octopussy (and later GoldenEye). The commercial debuted during the Super Bowl in 1988.

These vignettes seemed to further reinforce Brosnan's image as James Bond, despite his not being cast in the films. He later did a similar series of 6 commercials for Lark cigarettes in Japan. It is difficult to say whether he had found his niche in this continual typecasting or whether, as some newspaper columnists seemed to think, he was thumbing his nose at the Bond producers.

[Lark telephone card]

The Living Daylights opened in London in June 1987. Brosnan and his family were in London at the time, but were hounded out of their home by the British press who wanted to know what his reaction to the film would be. Brosnan did not attend the premiere, and did not even view the film in a theater, but instead was forced to watch it captively on a Transatlantic flight several months later, as he recalled to CNN's Larry King.

Dalton went on to make 1989's Licence to Kill. Faced with such summer competition as the first Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade starring Sean Connery (and A View to a Kill's Alison Doody), the film did relatively poorly at the U.S. box office. The supermarket tabloid The Globe reported in August 1989 that "In a move to save James Bond from box-office disaster, producers are planning to give Timothy Dalton the boot," replacing him with Pierce Brosnan. Dalton sued the paper for libel, a case he won 7 months later. The issue was moot, however, as production of future Bond films was put on hold during various lawsuits after Licence To Kill's release. This litigation would leave a gap of 6 years between Bond films, the longest in the series' history to that point.

In December 1989, Kevin McClory was trying to package a new Bond film with the Thunderball rights that he owned, and had previously repackaged as 1983's Never Say Never Again. This one to be called Warhead 8, starring Pierce Brosnan as Bond. When asked about the role, Brosnan told People Magazine that month, "My mind would be open if the possibility came up again. It's like running for President - once you decide you can do the job, it's very hard to dissuade yourself."

McClory later licensed his Bond rights to producer Al Ruddy, who began developing a James Bond television series in early 1992. Ruddy's choice for Bond was also Pierce Brosnan, but Ruddy doubted Pierce would take the job, as his wife Cassandra had recently died after a long battle with cancer, and Pierce had children to look after. A lawsuit naturally ensued between the Bond producers and Ruddy, and the James Bond TV show was dead in the water. [McClory continuted to try for many years to make a Warhead film, until a 1999 court settlement.]

[Cold Fall cover]

In August 1990, there was some controversy with regard to John Gardner's latest Bond novel, Brokenclaw. According to USA Today, the profiled figure on the dustjacket looked very much like Pierce Brosnan, and people were asking him if he had posed for it. This image had been used on other hardcover editions of Gardner's books, and was actually discontinued for a time.

Media speculation continued that MGM wanted Dalton out as Bond, if and when another James Bond film would be made. In the spring of 1992, Die Hard producer Joel Silver said he would like to acquire rights to the Bond films, and cast Mel Gibson as Bond. This was the start of Gibson-as-Bond rumors, which continued for the next 2 years.

The litigation that had been holding up production was finally settled in late 1992, and everything was clear for a new Bond film to begin, amidst contradictory signals. In June 1993, the British magazine Film Review reported that Brosnan was "back in favourite's frame" for the role, but 2 months later reported that Dalton was in negotiations for his 3rd outing as Bond. In October 1993, it was reported that MGM offered Mel Gibson $15 million to play Bond, which Gibson had turned down. Meanwhile Dalton was still telling the press that he was still James Bond.

Despite suggestions that he jumped before he was pushed, on April 11, 1994, Timothy Dalton formally announced his resignation from the role of James Bond. He technically had not played the part for 5 years now and his contract with the producers had expired, though he was still the "Bond of record." British betting books immediately set odds on various actors. Pierce Brosnan, fresh off the hugely successful comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, was the 2-1 favorite, with the newly-hot Hugh Grant (after >Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Ralph Fiennes (after Schindler's List) both at 4-1.

In April and May 1994 the search for a new James Bond was put to a public vote. A poll was taken on the tabloid TV show Hard Copy, with viewers calling in to a 900 number, at 95 cents a call. Pierce Brosnan won handily with 85% of the vote, Mel Gibson a very distant second with 7%. Entertainment Tonight polled under the same conditions, and concluded with Brosnan the favorite as Bond, with 73% (over 10,000 votes), and Gibson again second at 16%.

[GoldenEye teaser poster]

In early May 1994, at a cancer fund-raiser in Los Angeles, Brosnan told Hard Copy that he knew nothing about becoming James Bond, no one had told him anything official. Finally, on June 1, 1994, as he was setting off to New Guinea to film a new version ofRobinson Crusoe, Pierce got a formal phone call offering him the part of James Bond. After all the contracts were this time signed, a press conference was held in London on June 7, 1994, formally, and finally, announcing Pierce Brosnan as the 5th Agent 007, to star in GoldenEye.

Postscript: Until it was surpassed by 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, GoldenEye was the highest grossing James Bond film of all time, with over $350 million in ticket sales. See Bond Boxoffice.

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