Every actor who has played James Bond has brought something unique to the role of 007, and the iconic spy franchise has been stronger for all of their contributions. Whether it is Rege-Jean Page or Tom Hardy – or an actor otherwise not predicted for the role – the next star to play James Bond will have big shoes to fill. The most recent actor to vacate the role, Daniel Craig, had an unforgettable introduction to the franchise in 2006’s Casino Royale.
However, Craig was far from the first Bond to start strong. His franchise predecessor Pierce Brosnan also had an explosive debut, arriving onscreen in 1995’s Goldeneye. While Brosnan’s precursor Timothy Dalton received less critical love for his debut The Living Daylights, his brief two-movie reign was later seen as one of the James Bond franchise’s most underrated eras.
Before Dalton, Roger Moore had the role, as both the oldest Bond and the actor who stayed in the role for the largest number of movies. Roger Moore’s older Bond was something of an over-correction after his immediate predecessor George Lazenby only lasted for one movie before being replaced in the role. Lazenby’s James Bond had a hard time taking the place of the iconic original 007 Sean Connery, who began the franchise with 1962’s Dr. No. Each of these actors put a unique spin on the role of the suave super-spy, with every James Bond bringing something new to the franchise and reshaping the character for future actors.
The original (and arguably the best) James Bond, Sean Connery’s iconic version of 007 was the character that every subsequent actor built upon. He had charm, edge, gravitas, and a surprisingly sensitive side but, above all else, Connery’s influential Bond portrayal made the character cool. More than any of the stars that followed, Connery managed to make Bond feel like a fallible human while still simultaneously imbuing the role with an effortless sense of devil-may-care swagger. Some later versions of Bond, like Craig and Dalton, kept the humanity but dropped the slick veneer, while other Bonds, like Moore and Brosnan, paid less attention to the character’s heart and more to his superhuman charisma and unflappable super-heroics. Connery, however, provided the balance of these qualities that went on to define every variation on his James Bond archetype.
With his James Bond replacing Connery in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and no other franchise outings, George Lazenby had much less of a chance to change the character than the rest of the actors who played 007. However, this didn’t stop Lazenby from making a vital contribution to the franchise. With On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Lazenby gave Bond a surprising innocence beneath the spy’s cynicism and confidence. Falling for Tracy and marrying his love interest, only to see her gunned down in his arms in the movie’s finale, Lazenby’s James Bond proved that the famously cool, collected character could be heartbroken like anyone else. It was an idea that Casino Royale later built upon, but one that George Lazenby’s James Bond was the first to bring to the series.
Contrary to what some critics claim, Moore was not the first Bond with a sense of humor. However, there is a reason two of Roger Moore’s James Bond movies opening scenes begin with 007 being betrayed by beautiful women, prompting a goofy, over-the-top chase sequence before the opening credits can even roll. Moore’s time as James Bond brought larger-than-life humor and unabashed camp to the forefront of the 007 franchise, an impressive achievement in a series that had already featured death by piranha tank and a character named “Pussy Galore” before the actor arrived. While Bond never lacked a comedic side, the comedy of the movies became a primary part of their appeal when Roger Moore took on the part, much like the paranoid espionage of Connery’s movies gave way to more outlandish space-set adventures.
Years before Daniel Craig’s brutal James Bond debut, Timothy Dalton proved that 007 could be a stone-cold killer. Dalton’s version of James Bond remains a controversial figure in the fandom because of how much the actor steered away from depicting the spy as a charming, slick ladykiller and instead leaned into the darker side of Bond’s persona. While his body count isn’t much higher than that of his competitors, Timothy Dalton’s Bond is a more self-serious iteration of the spy and a character exists in something closer to the real world than either Connery or Moore’s earlier versions of 007. His closest spiritual antecedent is Lazenby’s more human Bond, but even that take on the character isn’t as tough, ruthless, and surprisingly mean as Dalton’s dour incarnation of James Bond.
After Dalton showed that 007 didn’t need goofy humor to succeed, Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond arrived to prove that having a laugh in the role couldn’t hurt, either. From his debut in Goldeneye through to his misjudged final movie Die Another Day, Brosnan imbued Bond with a sly, self-aware sense of humor that winked at the ludicrousness of the franchise’s over-the-top plots. While this wasn’t technically anything new (Moore practically mugged at the camera in his later outings), Brosnan’s Bond was the first to subvert the unwritten rules of the James Bond franchise. His Bond faced off against 006 in Goldeneye, fell hook line and sinker for an obvious villain in The World Is Not Enough, and even got caught and ended up being held prisoner in Die Another Day’s dark opening. While Moore laughed off Bond’s absurdity, Pierce Brosnan took 007’s self-referential humor further by subverting the tropes of the series.
After the breezy humor of Brosnan’s tenure in the role, Daniel Craig’s tenure as Bond was a bracing surprise. Inspired by a string of popular post-9/11 spy movies such as The Bourne Identity, Craig’s Bond brought angst and grounded gravitas to a role that had always been much more over-the-top. Craig’s take on 007 was more serious than ever before (until his later, goofier outings), and rooted the character’s story in tragedy. This Bond had a consistent character arc, lost Judi Dench’s M and his first love interest, and generally felt the weight of his work far harder than any earlier version of the character. Bond must be fun again now that Craig has left the role, but the actor still deserves credit for being the man who made James Bond genuinely tragic.
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