He became the epitome of cool as James Bond. Now Sir Roger Moore prepares to launch a new stage show about his life. Exclusive interview by Tony Earnshaw.
Dialling a Swiss number I wait for the phone to pick up. When it does the voice on the other end is unmistakably that of Sir Roger Moore.
It’s weird but I don’t expect the man himself to answer his own phone. Surely the icon who was James Bond has skivvies for that sort of thing – the same personal aides who pick his towels off the bathroom floor, squeeze out his toothpaste and mix his favourite tipple?
Yet it is indeed Roger Moore, the ex-model, ex-TV superstar and ex-007 who later this month embarks on a nationwide theatre tour that kicks off at Leeds’s Grand Theatre on Sunday, October 27.
The voice that greets me is that of an octogenarian. For Moore will be 86 on October 14. Hard to believe? Not when one considers that this grand old man of movies has been in the biz for 68 years. And it’s that seven-decade-long career he’ll be recalling during his afternoon special at the Grand.
So what can Moore’s fans expect from the show?
“Lies!” quips Moore. “Lots of lies. I talk about whatever comes into my head. Or whatever comes to Gareth who certainly decides to try and throw me by asking me a question that I’ve no idea the answer of. He does it, the swine, just to punish me.
“We don’t prepare anything. I find that for me it’s much more fun to do things off the cuff. There’s a lot of things to reminisce about. We also finish both sections of the show with audience questions, which is fun in itself. I love doing that.”
And so we’re off with one of those typically irreverent Mooreish answers. The Gareth he refers to is Gareth Owen, the fan and biographer who latterly has run Moore’s office at Pinewood Studios and his various cinema and charity affairs.
It will be Owen who will act as interlocutor during An Afternoon with Roger Moore, skipping through a career that began with bit parts in costume dramas with Vivien Leigh, took in smash hit television shows like Maverick, The Saint and The Persuaders! and ended, for all intents and purposes, following a 13-year stint as 007 in seven movies.
There are some who look down their nose at Moore and his film output. Following Sean Connery (and, briefly, George Lazenby) meant that for some he was always going to play second fiddle to the original and the best.
Those same naysayers are also wont to ridicule Moore’s acting, pointing to the trademark eyebrow-raising and Moore’s apparent reluctance to play anything other than Roger Moore. When he did play himself in The Cannonball Run a lot of people didn’t get the joke.
But if Moore was the kind of movie star who played himself then he fitted into the same bracket as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and John Wayne. Not a bad cast list to belong to.
Along the way he enjoyed on-screen adventures with everyone from Lee Marvin and Richard Burton to Gregory Peck, Trevor Howard, Telly Savalas and Richard Harris. Leading ladies included Lana Turner, Carroll Baker, Susannah York, Stefanie Powers, Hildegard Neil, Barbara Kellerman and Farrah Fawcett. And that’s before anyone mentions James Bond...
Moore was a jobbing actor for years before he enjoyed TV success in Maverick. He bumped around in a succession of movies – The Sins of Rachel Cade, The Rape of the Sabine Women – before really hitting the big time in The Saint. It ran for seven years and was directly responsible for Moore being offered the role of James Bond.
In between there was theatre but Moore quickly left behind the restrictions of the proscenium arch for the quicker turnaround of television and movies. And was wisely advised by none other than Noel Coward to accept anything and everything that came along.
Recalls Moore: “That’s absolutely true. He said, ‘You should accept everything you’re offered, dear boy. And if you’re offered two things take the one that pays the most money. And if you don’t take anything at all you’re not an actor. When you’re not working you’re not acting so you’re not an actor.’”
He tells the story against himself in the self-deprecating way that has become his accepted mode when dealing with interviewers. The answers are succinct and well practised. Yet dig a little deeper and Moore is prepared to go into more detail. The self-mockery is diluted into something truer and more honest.
I ask whether there were any roles he actively pursued. I expect him to say James Bond. I’m not prepared for his answer.
“Well, I never went after it but I would have loved to have done it and that was Lawrence of Arabia. One of the best films ever. It’s on my list of best films. I remember going to see it with my then partner, Bob Baker, who produced The Saint and The Persuaders!.
“We came out and we were both rather down and decided we would give up the film industry because the best film had been made. When you make a film or you do a play you want to be doing the best. Or the best you can. When you see somebody who does it better than you or does it perfectly you think ‘Wow! That’s the end of me.’”
So he’s an admirer of Peter O’Toole. Who else is on Moore’s list of impressive contemporaries?
“Certainly Johnny Depp. I find him an actor of great depth and fascinating to watch. Albert Finney, of course. Tom Courtenay. We have so many wonderful actors in England; Johnny Depp is not of the English group. I think Daniel Craig is doing a hell of a good job. Very good indeed. And of course I’ve worked with a fellah from your neck of the woods, James Mason, who was wonderful.”
Moore worked with Mason in a ’70s thriller called North Sea Hijack. It represents one of the few occasions he was able to bury himself in a character part. Being the screen’s latest incarnation of James Bond meant that roles such as Rufus Excalibur Ffolkes, bearded bachelor, crossword solver, cat-lover and saviour of the shrinking British Empire were leaped upon. I suggest the role – Ffolkes knocks off a band of terrorists, led by Anthony Perkins, who are holding British oil rigs to ransom – is one of his best. Moore is grateful for the compliment but disagrees.
“North Sea Hijack was originally a book called Esther, Ruth and Jennifer,” says Moore. “They were the names of the oil rigs. It was going ahead under that title but Universal Pictures suddenly said ‘No, you can’t have that title. It sounds too biblical.’ I knew about Esther and Ruth but I didn’t know where Jennifer came in the order in the New Testament.
“No, my personal favourite is The Man Who Haunted Himself, which I did in 1970 with Basil Dearden directing. I think it was the only film I was allowed to act in.”
We’re back to the issue of movie stars only being allowed to be themselves. The public demands it and when they deviate the public is swift to condemn them.
Moore has been on the wrong end of that, too. “Yeah. It’s that behaviour that audiences expect when they see certain actors. I know somebody who worked on a film with Gary Cooper. They were rehearsing a scene and Gary Cooper said, ‘No, I can’t say that line.’ ‘Why? What’s wrong?’ ‘Gary Cooper doesn’t say that.’ You see Gary Cooper had a persona that audiences expected him [to live up to] and it limited how he should behave. It was the same with Gregory Peck and James Stewart. There’s a code – what you can do, which you know yourself.”
Moore hasn’t trod the boards since the 1950s. He was set to return in Aspects of Love in 1989 but unexpectedly dropped out two weeks before opening night, claiming his singing voice was inadequate. In 2003 he was the guest star in The Play What I Wrote when he collapsed on Broadway during a song and dance routine. It is easy, then, to understand the appeal of sitting on a stage and reminiscing. Given that he’s performing but not acting does he get nervous?
“I think if you don’t get nervous then it’s going to be flat,” he says plainly. “We all have to have a little nerves drifting through our bloodstream. It just makes you concentrate. The first thing before you walk on a stage, it’s like doing a play: ‘Oh my God, what’s the first line?’ The first line is to take a deep breath, step forward and allow the exhalation of the breath and out will come the words.”
He could be forgiven for feeling slightly nervous guest-starring in a new TV pilot for a revamp of The Saint. In it he plays an elderly ally of the gun-toting gentleman thief. Simon Templar – the role Moore made his own in 118 episodes between 1962 and 1969 – is played by Adam Rayner. Naturally Moore promotes the new guy.
“They were nice. They treated this old gentleman very kindly. It was interesting to do again. The young man that they have for the Saint, Adam Rayner, is awfully good. I think enough time has passed that people won’t remember my performance. They’ll just think that the new fellah is great. ‘Roger Moore did it? Who’s he?’”
An Afternoon with Sir Roger Moore starts at 2pm on October 27 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. Box Office: 0844 848 2700.