Roger Moore: From modelling knitting patterns in Yorkshire to 007

HE was not really an actor, he insisted - not in the Olivier sense - but from the 1950s to the 1970s he was probably the most bankable star in Britain.

Roger Moore, playing the title role of secret service agent 007, James Bond, is shown on location in England in 1972.
Roger Moore, playing the title role of secret service agent 007, James Bond, is shown on location in England in 1972.

Sir Roger Moore, who liked to joke that if he could not convey an emotion by raising his right eyebrow he could do so with his left, was the third actor to play James Bond and the longest serving.

But unlike his predecessor, Sean Connery, he was already a star when the producers came knocking.

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His death yesterday at 89, following a short battle with cancer, brought forth tributes and memories of a career that could be traced back to the woollen mills of the old West Riding, when he had hired himself out as a cover model for their knitting patterns.

He brought to them, it was said, the same air of dashing elegance and effortless sophistication that would define the rest of his career.

Roger Moore had been a TV star as long as most people had owned a TV. Some 15 years before James Bond’s producers came knocking, he was Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe in the ITV series based loosely on Sir Walter Scott’s novel of 1819.

He was a panhandler in the Klondike gold rush, in The Alaskans on American television, and James Garner’s English cousin, Beau, in Maverick.

But it was his next role, and especially its notable title sequence, that would make him a fixture on screens both sides of the Atlantic for a decade.

“I know you,” an adversary would intone at the beginning of each new episode of The Saint, “you’re the famous Simon Templar. One of the Moore eyebrows would raise as a halo appeared above him. It was a signature gesture that made him not only recognisable but also powerful - so much so that when ATV’s Sir Lew Grade wanted to sign him for another series, The Persuaders, he had to hand over the unheard sum of £1m and equal billing with Tony Curtis. It was a contract that made Moore the highest paid TV star in the world.

It was a long way from his roots in the pre-war squalor of south London. The only son of a policeman, he went to primary school in Stockwell and won a scholarship to Battersea Grammar, but was evacuated to Sussex when war came.

After National Service with the Royal Army Service Corps and some extra work at Denham, near Pinewood, he went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and married a fellow student, Doorn van Steyn. They lived for several years in one room of her sister’s house.

Acting work was scarce, but modelling shoots were available for the likes of Sirdar, the spinning company set up in Ossett in the 19th century. He was also photographed with Audrey Hepburn in an advertisement for Valderma soap, “to get rid of the blemishes off your back”.

A second, often unhappy marriage followed, to the Welsh singer Dorothy Squires, 13 years his senior. But it with was his third marriage, to the Italian actress Luisa Mattioli, that he found lasting happiness.

They had met on the set of the forgettable 1961 film, The Rape of the Sabine Women, but it was the end of the decade before Squires granted him a divorce.

It was after The Persuaders, and Sean Connery’s brief coda as Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, that the producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman beat a path to his door. Some critics read the failure of George Lazenby in the role to mean that it could not be played by anyone else, but Moore, his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, imbued it with a character all his own.

Six more Bond films followed over the ensuing 12 years, before he decided that “jumping around with bullets and bombs in my middle-fifties was really daft”.

He was also quoted as saying he felt embarrassed to film love scenes with actresses young enough to be his daughters.

He made a number of other films but discovered the cinema-going public could not always accept a change of image. In some cases, he said, heroes were meant to remain heroes.