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James Bond, reinvented -- the first time, 50 years ago

In 1969, On Her Majesty's Secret Service put a replacement actor in Bond's tuxedo for the first time. Here's how it turned out.

George Lazenby as James Bond

When Sean Connery quit as James Bond, the 007 franchise turned to George Lazenby (pictured) for On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

United Artists/Getty Images

We've gotten used to seeing a new James Bond every decade or so, from Sean Connery all the way to Daniel Craig, whose final 007 film, No Time to Die, will hit movie screens in April. (So cue up the next new Bond.) It's a ritual almost as old as the franchise itself, but there was a time when replacing James Bond was a novel and untested thing.

Over the course of five blockbuster films, Connery had defined James Bond, seared his image into the minds of millions and cemented him into pop culture. The man who replaced Connery had never acted before. He'd been a... used car salesman. 

It worked, though. The newbie starred in what turned out to be one of the better Bond movies of the two dozen to date, and for my money, he could've embodied Bond -- one of the signature characters in movie history -- for the better for a new era. But Connery's replacement went one and done, and instead we got Roger Moore.

The movie was On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and the lively installment of the warhorse secret agent franchise hit theaters 50 years ago this week, in December 1969. Its star was the strapping George Lazenby, a raw and rambunctious Australian recently transplanted to London and working as a model, appearing most notably in ads for a popular chocolate bar. The film and the man deserve to be remembered as more than the answer to a trivia question.

I'll admit my bias right here. I was probably 13 or 14 the first time I saw On Her Majesty's Secret Service, back in the mid-'70s when it showed up on TV, and in an absolute frenzy for everything spy- and adventure-related. That was the core of my reading, my lodestone in the TV listings. I knew there was more than just Bond out there but, at the same time, Bond was The Man. The avatar. Connery, Lazenby, Moore -- bring 'em all on.

I wasn't disappointed by On Her Majesty's Secret Service. And as a Bond geek, I was very approving of the movie sticking close to the storyline and details of Ian Fleming's book.

I've watched the movie a number of times since, and it holds up well. True, it's old-fashioned now, a bit of a relic. Like the Connery films, it's a time capsule from when jet-setting was ascendant, Playboy was fashionable and movies still used that goofy cinematography technique in which actors stand in place, bobbing and weaving, while a projection screen behind them shows movement on a road or a ski slope.

Still, the action sequences are exciting, tense and crisply paced. The trademark quips are delivered with a light touch. There's lots of nifty foreshadowing and even some genuine irony. And On Her Majesty's Secret Service has the strongest romantic streak of any Bond movie: This is the one where Bond gets married.

'I was just doing the best I could'

Lazenby was 29 years old when he took on the role, the youngest of any of the Bond actors in their debut turns. He had swagger. He had an edge -- a combination, perhaps, of his natural cockiness with the rigors of learning on the job. One of the things I really like about the film is that he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself.

George Lazenby as 007

Lazenby in relaxed attire for his turn as 007.

Getty Images

He's charming. Raffish. Less menacing than Connery, more macho than Moore.

Lazenby knew he'd be held to a high standard.

"I realized very early people wanted to see Sean Connery's version," he says in the 2017 Hulu documentary about him, the quirky and endearing Becoming Bond -- which you should absolutely see. "After a while, I started having fun with it. I didn't know if it was good or not. I was just doing the best I could."

We've gotten used to seeing new actors stepping into franchises to take over lead roles. The Spider-Man movies, for instance, cycled from Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Tom Holland over about a 10-year span. Batman's done it even more so (Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, Bale, Affleck and soon Pattinson). Jack Ryan keeps on being Jack Ryan, regardless of who's on the casting sheet (Baldwin, Ford, Affleck, Pine, Krasinski).

But it was a big deal that first time around for 007, and the producers felt the need to ease us in. They billed Lazenby in the trailer for the film as "the different Bond from the same stable."

One of the best sequences in On Her Majesty's Secret Service comes in the first few minutes, as director Peter Hunt doles out teases of the new star. After a throwaway scene with regulars M, Q and Moneypenny in M's staunchly wood-paneled offices, which establishes continuity with the earlier movies, we get some delicious action. This isn't skydiving Bond. It's action on a more intimate scale.

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Bond's driving fast on a sinuous road by the ocean, a silhouette in the car, and we're watching from his perspective. Switch to a tight closeup as he lights a cigarette -- hands, lips, cleft chin. He's passed by a fast red car, then stops at an overlook and pulls out a sniper's telescope to watch the driver, a woman, stroll the deserted beach. As she plunges into deeper water, intent on drowning, he races his car onto the beach, runs into the surf and carries her out. Only as she comes to do we see his face -- Lazenby's face -- from her perspective. "Good morning," he says with a cocksure smile, and delivers the familiar phrase: "My name's Bond. James Bond."

Two henchmen have snuck up, and a fight ensues. Bond prevails, but the woman flees in her car. In a meta moment, Lazenby/Bond looks into the camera and acknowledges the changing of the guard: "This never happened to the other fellow."

Much of On Her Majesty's Secret Service is set in the Swiss Alps, and that's where the big showpiece action sequences happen: a pair of downhill ski chases that marked Bond's first turn on the slopes, a car race on an ice track that turns into a demolition derby, a climactic high-speed showdown between Bond and arch-nemesis Blofeld on a bobsled run.

Don't watch this movie for the gadgets, though. It's light on that front. No jetpacks. No ejector seat, machine guns in the headlights or fountain pen firing explosive rounds. No collapsible one-person helicopter or car that turns into a submarine. (There is a computerized safe-cracking machine, with flipping number cards that reminded me of old clock radios.)

'This one's got heart'

What the movie does have is romance. (Per the trailer: "This one's different. This one's got heart.") Woven together with a standard Bond plot -- find Blofeld, foil a scheme that endangers the world -- is a separate storyline of Bond falling in love. That woman on the beach? It's the headstrong, free-spirited Countess Teresa, or simply Tracy, played by the indomitable Diana Rigg coming off three seasons as secret agent-y Emma Peel in the British TV series The Avengers.

Tracy isn't your average Bond girl. In the book, Fleming has 007 describe her approvingly as "adventurous, brave, resourceful ... exciting always," and Rigg certainly delivers. She's beholden to no man. It's Tracy who rescues Bond from Blofeld's baddies in a high-tension scene in the ski village -- she's the one driving the car, and gleefully so, in that ice race.

George Lazenby and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty's Secret Service

In this key action scene, Diana Rigg's Tracy is in the driver's seat. (The film's in color -- it's got a sumptuous palette, actually -- despite these black-and-white promo shots.)

Mondadori/Getty Images

We know James and Tracy are in love because there's a romantic montage of them courting: walking on a beach, strolling in a city, out riding on horseback, always in stylish clothing, to a late-in-life Louis Armstrong singing All the Time in the World. In a romantic interlude later in the movie, the two hide out in a barn, swaddled in blankets and furs, and Bond... proposes. They talk of settling down and buying real estate in tony locations. 

Still, Bond being Bond, he does have other carnal adventures. Blofeld's mountaintop lair is basically a variation on the Playboy mansion or an off-stage lounge at the Miss Universe contest. The gorging at dinner there reminds me of the famous foodie foreplay scene in 1963's Tom Jones.

At the end of the film, there's a wedding ceremony, and the newlyweds drive off toward their honeymoon. It's a short trip that ends in tragedy, when a vengeful Blofeld (turns out he didn't die at the end of that bobsled chase) and accomplice Irma Blunt shoot up the car, and Tracy dies in Bond's arms, as he chokes back his grief and goes into denial.

Diana Rigg and George Lazenby

A cozy moment for Tracy and James.

United Artists/Getty Images

And that was it for Lazenby's Bond career.

It didn't have to be that way. "I must have done a pretty good job because they wanted me for six more Bond films," Lazenby says in Becoming Bond, adding that producer Harry Saltzman offered him $1 million under the table to sign. (He'd done the one film on per diem.)

But he walked away from it all. 

It's a decision that seems in character with the reputation he'd earned on set, one that likely grew from a mix of arrogance and inexperience. To the studio's dismay, Lazenby showed up at the premiere of On Her Majesty's Secret Service with a beard and long hair, not at all the James Bond look.

"He was just difficult," Rigg says in a 2011 interview with the BBC. "I think he needed help -- not in the acting. He was really quite good, wasn't he? And attractive and sexy and all those things, but just difficult off-stage."

Edge. Attitude. It served him well in his brief turn on screen as 007. (He even got a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year.)

"When I look back on it," Lazenby says in Becoming Bond, "I should have done two just to prove to people that I wasn't fired."

When we look back, we see a mighty fine first try, and can only imagine what might have been.