007 MAGAZINE - The World's Foremost James Bond Resource!

The Search For Bond Part 1 of an exclusive 3-part article



Part One of The Search For Bond was originally published in 007 MAGAZINE Issue #55 in August 2012. This issue is now out of print but included as part of 007 MAGAZINE OMNIBUS #4.

The Search for Bond - How the 007 role was won and lost!


Only six men can lay claim to wearing the famous Savile Row tuxedo but hundreds more came within an inch of the 007 role. In this new exclusive three-part series, ROBERT SELLERS (author of the controversial book The Battle For Bond) tells the extraordinary story of how cinema’s most famous role was cast, featuring ‘exclusive’ contributions from Michael Billington, Michael Craig, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Julian Glover, Michael Jayston, Sam Neill, Ian Ogilvy, Adrian Paul, Peter Snow, Oliver Tobias, Rikki Lee Travolta, and many others.


The search for an actor to play James Bond didn’t start with the journey that ultimately led to the monumental casting of Sean Connery in 1962, but a full three years before in 1959 when 007 looked a dead cert to make his cinematic debut in a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock; though Ian Fleming had his fingers heavily crossed on that one. After years of hawking his books around film studios in England and Hollywood, with no takers, Fleming had teamed up with a young maverick Irish filmmaker called Kevin McClory and together formulated an original plot line that saw Bond take on nuclear terrorism.

Richard Burton

It was during Fleming’s meetings with Paul Dehn, an early candidate to write the screenplay, that the subject of who to cast as Bond first arose. In a letter dated 11th August 1959 to his long-standing friend Ivar Bryce, Fleming announced, ‘Both Dehn and I think that Richard Burton would be by far the best James Bond!’ It’s a fascinating suggestion, and undeniably the first recorded statement by Fleming about who should play his hero. Years later Fleming would champion David Niven as Bond, a very traditional English actor and a million miles away from the wild Celtic image and brooding manner of Burton. But what a Bond a pre-Cleopatra/pre-Elizabeth Taylor Burton would have been, before vats of vodka and a heady dose of disillusionment had frayed his edges beyond repair. According to Burton’s brother, Graham Jenkins, the Welsh actor was a fan of the Bond books, numbering them amongst his favourite pulp reading along with Agatha Christie. Guy Masterson, a theatrical producer and director, and Burton’s great-nephew, told me that the great man once confided in him about his decision to turn the Bond role down. “At the time he was doing Camelot on stage and enjoying great stardom because of it. My uncle told me that Ian Fleming had approached him, asking him to play Bond. But back then Bond was a new concept – nobody had any idea it would be as big as it became. My uncle told me that he thought it was going to be just another movie.” No matter how big Bond became Burton never admitted to family or friends that he regretted missing out on the role. “Had Burton played Bond,” says Masterson. “I think he would have been absolutely fantastic.”

The potential casting of Burton was inspired and showed far greater insight into what kind of actor any potential Bond film needed in order to connect with world audiences than a previous screen incarnation of the character. Back in 1954 CBS broadcast a live one hour production of Casino Royale. Since 007 was virtually unknown Stateside the network took creative licence to Americanize the character and cast the Hollywooden Barry Nelson. The whole affair was pretty dismal and Nelson’s only merit was to become one of the great movie trivia questions.

Barry Nelson and Bob Holness

ABOVE: ORIGINAL BONDS (left) Barry Nelson played James Bond in the 1954 CBS TV Broadcast of Casino Royale and (right) Bob Holness, who voiced 007 in a 1958 South African radio adaptation of Ian Fleming's third novel MOONRAKER.

Another pre-Connery James Bond that must be mentioned in the history of those who have played the character is, apparently, Bob Holness, a TV presenter who became a cult figure in the 1980s with the quiz show Blockbusters. Born in South Africa, Holness was 25 when he began to find work as an actor in local theatre in Durban. As he has related on many occasions, “Then in 1955 I started a career in radio and was in a repertory company that did a multitude of different productions from soaps to the classics and it was with the South African Broadcasting Corporation that I was offered the chance to play 007 in a live radio adaptation of MOONRAKER in 1958, I think.” When he won the part Holness hadn’t even heard of James Bond, let alone read a Fleming novel. Holness recalled, “However, when enquires were made about the possibility of doing another adaptation we were told that there were plans to turn a novel into a film and they wanted to see how that went. The rest, as they say, is history.”

As far as playing Bond on the big screen, “It never even occurred to me,” said Holness. “When my children were younger I would take them to the cinema to see the latest Bond release but we all agree that after Sean Connery it was never really the same. Having said that, I think Daniel Craig was extremely impressive, so maybe I’ve now changed my mind.”

Editor’s Note: For many years this story was believed to be apocryphal, as there was no evidence corroborating Bob Holness’ claim. However, in 2019 a copy of the Artist's Contract Form offering Bob Holness the role of James Bond in the 1958 South African Broadcasting Corporation was reproduced in the book The Many Lives Of James Bond by Mark Edlitz. The contract had been recently discovered by Ros Holness after her father's death in 2012, and the few details do confirm several aspects of the production. MOONRAKER was adapted by Hugh Rouse (1920-1998), with rehearsals taking place on January 26th and 28th/29th January 1958. The production performed between 7.30pm and 9.00pm on Thursday January 30, 1958. Holness’ fee for the production was £11.

Sean Connery in On The Fiddle (1961)

The failure of the CBS production of Casino Royale didn’t do much to endear the Bond novels to prospective film backers, but in 1955 Hollywood actor John Payne purchased the film rights to Fleming’s third Bond novel MOONRAKER with the intention of starring as 007 himself. The details of Payne’s prospective Bond movie have never before been revealed and they make for fascinating reading. Born in 1912 in Virginia, Payne was a contract player with 20th Century Fox during the 40s and early 50s, starring in a string of forgettable musicals but also little gems like Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and the controversial drama The Razor’s Edge (1946) in which he co-starred with Tyrone Power, an actor he shared many similarities with, not least a certain muscular, dark matinee idol charm.

By the time MOONRAKER was published Payne was disheartened by most of the poorly conceived scripts he was getting and Fleming’s novel offered him something better and very different. ‘It was the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills who first alerted him to the thrillers of Ian Fleming,’ reveals Ronald Payne, the actor’s distant cousin. ‘John was very receptive and enthusiastic and immediately went about seeking the option rights to MOONRAKER with hopes of doing a series of films. Fleming’s hard living and dangerous super-spy appealed to Payne, who wanted his film to be absolutely faithful to Fleming’s novel. Payne liked the speed of Fleming’s rollercoaster plot.’

For director Payne sought out his friend Delbert Mann, then a hot property having just directed Ernest Borgnine’s Oscar winning performance in Marty. The two men set about making notes on how James Bond was to be portrayed on the screen, but friction emerged over whether or not Payne should actually play the character. Mann personally thought the actor was physically right for 007 but couldn’t ignore the fact that Bond was British and suggested Payne merely produce the film and bring in David Niven as 007, an idea also proposed to Payne by the actor/director Dick Powell, who was also interested in the project. Payne personally liked and admired David Niven but saw the MOONRAKER project as vitally important in helping re-launch his by then flagging career. ‘He loved the book and saw himself as Bond,’ Ronald Payne recalls Delbert Mann telling him in a series of conversations. ‘He would not budge on this.’

John Payne, Basil Rathbone, Maureen O'Hara and Peter Lorre

The James Bond film MOONRAKER as imagined by American actor John Payne (1) would have featured Basil Rathbone (2), Maureen O'Hara (3) and Peter Lorre (4) as his co-stars.

Mann went on to say: ‘I suggested that he portray James Bond as an American FBI agent or former OSS agent, but he did not want to go in that direction. Payne did not want to change the locale to New York or Washington DC or San Francisco (Dick Powell’s suggestion). He wanted to remain completely faithful to Ian Fleming and shoot the picture in Technicolor and Cinemascope in London with a fully British cast and crew. He placed all emphasis on his fidelity to Fleming, whom I don’t think he ever met. He was obsessed with the creation of a certain noir element in the writing of the script and the big slam bang conclusion at the end when Bond saves London and the girl from total annihilation.’

Payne also had a clear mind when it came to casting. The Irish-born actress Maureen O’Hara, who made many films for John Ford and her friend John Wayne including the classic The Quiet Man, and had also co-starred successfully with Payne, was at the top of his short list to portray Gala Brand. For Hugo Drax Payne looked no further than Basil Rathbone, with instructions for the Sherlock Holmes actor to play the villain as, ‘cunning, dangerous and quite mad.’ In one scene, an obvious nod to Rathbone’s Robin Hood/swashbuckler days, Bond and Drax were to have engaged in an elaborate duel, ‘slicing at each other with fencing swords,’ according to Mann (strangely reminiscent of Bond and Gustav Graves’ swordfight in 2002’s Die Another Day). While in another, the famous card game at Blades, Payne told Mann he thought it would be fun to get some of his old Hollywood pals to come in and play nonspeaking cameos. The camera would pan around the table and the audience would spot the likes of Tyrone Power and Peter Lorre. In fact Lorre’s character, although non-speaking, was intended to be quite integral to the plot, as a former Nazi psychiatrist and Drax henchman (most likely modelled on Fleming’s specialist in torture in the novel, Willy Krebs). After the card game Lorre tails Bond’s ally, actor Cesar Romero, and knifes him to death in a dark Mayfair street.

As to how the film would look visually, Payne found inspiration in the bold, almost pulp magazine-like covers of the British PAN paperbacks, as Delbert Mann recalled: ‘He wanted that heightened sense of death defying last minute live-or-die suspense. He loved the Bond covers created for the Pan editions and kept repeatedly showing them to me and asking if I could reproduce them in the framing of the film in terms of lighting and cutting. Seeing them only once, I knew exactly how he wanted his Bond film to look and be perceived.’

British Pan paperbacks were the visual inspiration for John Payne's proposed film version of MOONRAKER

ABOVE: British PAN paperbacks were the visual inspiration for John Payne's proposed film version of MOONRAKER. Illustrated by (left) Josh Kirby, (centre) Sam Peffer ‘Peff’ and (right) Pat Owen - whose representations of James Bond and Gala Brand look remarkably like Christopher Lee and Joan Collins. The man pictured as Bond ‘holding’ a gun on the strap panel was in fact Ralph Vernon-Hunt, PAN Books’ Managing Director.

Mann recalled two set pieces that Payne was particularly excited about putting up on the screen. One involved the lorry carrying rolls of heavy newsprint that are dropped in front of Bond’s Bentley on Charing Hill in Kent and almost take him off the road. ‘Payne wanted Mann to shoot that from every conceivable angle and cut it to look like a real life threatening, hair raising event,’ confirms Ronald Payne. ‘White knuckle stuff!’

Another was Bond’s dramatic rescue of Gala Brand from being roasted alive from the flames of the Moonraker rocket as it’s fired on London. ‘He wanted the audience to be practically screaming in their seats to get out of there before it was too late. And, he wanted the audience to feel the heat of the exhausts and see the sweat on Bond’s face.’

So impressed was Mann by Payne’s rolled-up sleeves approach that he believed had the film been made it would have been a success. ‘In many ways he was on the same track creatively later followed by Broccoli & Saltzman. It didn’t really matter to me if John Payne’s James Bond was British or American, the story as he envisioned it was so gripping and exciting no one would have cared. John Payne’s James Bond would have been a hero like none other of that era. He would have been quite acceptable, I think, even to British viewers.’

It’s evident that John Payne wanted to pull out all the stops with his Bond film and avoid it looking like just another cheap B-movie. He was also keen on making a series of 007 films, but ultimately dropped the MOONRAKER option, for which he paid $1,000 a month, once he learned that the rights of the other Bond books would not be available to him.