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Sunday 20 August 2017

Obituary: Roger Moore

Julia Molony remembers the longest serving 007, who charmed fans with his disarming good looks and sense of fun

DEBONAIR AND EASY TO LIKE: Roger Moore as James Bond
DEBONAIR AND EASY TO LIKE: Roger Moore as James Bond

Julia Molony

As 007, Roger Moore's deadliest weapon was his sense of humour. With the slightest lift of an eyebrow, his Bond lightened the tone of the popular but self-regarding cinema franchise, turning it into parody.

In real life, he deployed this weapon liberally and indiscriminately too, to charm his fans and to disarm journalists and irascible wives. Though it was a strategy that was arguably more successful with the journalists than the wives. He was thrice divorced, but throughout his long life, enjoyed almost unanimously good press.

When I interviewed Sir Roger in late 2014, he seemed, even then, to be pleasantly surprised at the popularity he had won and sustained over the course of his career. "Years ago I asked a friend, a journalist, 'Why is there never anything bad (written) about me?'" he told me.

"And he said 'has it ever occurred to you that people like you?'"

Certainly, he was easy to like. A twinkly old charmer still at 86, he treated being interviewed not as an inconvenience but as a social occasion - a thing of fun. He had just written his second volume of memoirs. Last Man Standing was packed full of eye-watering Hollywood anecdotes, alongside stories from his adventures with Unicef, for whom he became a dedicated ambassador in the latter part of his life. The book was irresistibly gossipy. Despite becoming the ultimate insider and one of the world's biggest stars, he remained an outsider at heart; a jolly, sometimes incredulous observer of the whole, mad Tinseltown circus.

When I met him, he had gone a round in the ring with prostate cancer and come out triumphant, had beaten double pneumonia and had recently had a pacemaker fitted. He had survived, much to his surprise, a lifetime of health concerns, some real, some imagined - he was a self-confessed hypochondriac. "Maybe I brought them on myself," he told me. "It gives some legitimacy to my theory that I'm a hypochondriac. I mean, a hypochondriac is someone who thinks they're sick. I know I'm sick!" he joked.

Roger Moore was born in Stockwell, London, in 1927. His father was a police constable and his background was firmly lower middle-class. He was chubby and cripplingly shy as a boy, and frequently suffered from ill health. On one occasion, he contracted pneumonia and his condition was so grave that the doctor told his parents he would be "back in the morning to sign the death certificate".

But Moore defied the prognosis and recovered. The only shadow on his happy childhood was a brief spell when he was forced to leave home as an evacuee during the Blitz.

His parents' marriage was harmonious and they showered their only child with attention and love. "It was an extremely privileged childhood," he told me. "I'm not meaning in terms of wealth or anything. But having two parents who were relatively young when they had me. With my father we were sort of like mates... I was spoilt." He considered being an only child as a boon rather than a burden. "I didn't have to share with anybody. I never had to wear anybody's hand-me-downs."

The young Roger excelled in school, winning a scholarship to Battersea Grammar, where he showed promise as an artist, and left school at the age of 15 to take up an apprenticeship in an animation film company in Soho. This career came to a grinding halt, however, when he was fired after making an error with some animation cells. Casting around for a new job, he went off to audition to be an extra in a production of Caesar and Cleopatra which was then filming at Denham Studios. It was his impressive stature, bone structure and blue eyes which won him the attention of the film director Brian Desmond Hurst, who, realising the extra in the red toga and sandals had promise, suggested he audition for RADA and offered to fund his tuition.

He was still a student - just 18 years old when he married for the first time, to professional ice skater Doorn Van Steyn. In those early, wilderness years during which he was trying to make it as an actor, the pair lived in a room in Van Steyn's parents' house with her toddler son from a previous marriage. Moore modelled knitwear in women's magazines to make ends meet. It was a tempestuous marriage, and the financial pressure didn't help. "All we ever did was row," he later said. "You'll never be a star,'' she famously told him. "Your face is too weak, your jaw's too big and your mouth is too small."

Soon after they divorced, he seduced world-famous singer Dorothy Squires. She was older than him, but it was to be a fortuitous relationship. She took him to America and introduced him to her contacts, helping him secure roles in TV and on Broadway. He signed a seven-year deal with MGM. But as his career took off, his marriage started to falter. It was another volatile relationship - she once smashed a guitar over his head.

His third marriage to Italian actress Luisa Mattioli produced the three children he adored, but was similarly turbulent. Though Moore himself would go to any lengths to avoid a row, he seemed to regularly find himself at the centre of them. "I'm an irritating person," he said simply, when I asked him what he did to drive his first three wives to such heights of fury. "Because I don't argue. I hate it... And I think the minute you lose your temper in an argument you've lost. You're not in control."

In 1963, he won his first big break, playing Simon Templar in a British TV adaptation of The Saint novels by Leslie Charteris. He played the part as a kind of proto-Bond, a good-hearted cad, beating off bad guys with the help of a fleet of fast ladies and faster cars. It wasn't much of a stretch then, when swiftly after he was cast as "millionaire-playboy" sleuth in The Pretenders.

He was 45 when he was chosen to succeed Sean Connery as Bond - his was an entirely new characterisation. Gone was the grit and menace Connery had brought to the role. Moore opted instead for wry, detached amusement. His Bond was all style over substance. Still, his 007 was a hit with the cinema-going public. Together, the films in which he starred grossed over a billion dollars at the box office. He was the longest-serving Bond thus far, starring in seven films. And when in 1985 he finally hung up his gun for good, he seemed content enough to let his acting career dwindle. Instead, his work with Unicef took centre stage as well as his writing.

In his career, he always seemed driven less by ambition than by a desire to enjoy himself. "I've noticed that the people who depart us early in life are ambitious," he told me. They have to win. I don't have to win. I don't get upset if I lose at anything."

He was schooled early in the benefits of opting out of too much striving and struggle. When he was about five or six, his mother used to go to play whist with friends, and to occupy the children, the card group organised a sports day. "And I was in the first race and I ran. And the second race started and finished and the third race started and finished, and I've never been able to run. But I went to the judges' stand and I stood there until they gave me a bag of toffees. And my theory in life is you don't have to win a race in order to get a bag of toffees."

He and Luisa Mattioli finally divorced soon after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1993. "When feeling fine I was quite capable of handling outbursts of Italian temperament," he wrote in Last Man Standing "however these new and unwanted circumstances left me unable to cope. I had plenty of time to think about my life and how close I had been to losing it."

Eventually he found happiness, and domestic peace, with his fourth wife, the Danish-Swedish socialite Kristina Tholstrup. The pair lived together in Monaco and remained inseparable up until his death last week aged 89 after a short battle with cancer.

"The only real time we ever have apart is when she goes to the hairdresser," he told me. "She really is the only person, the only lady that I ever am happy having lunch or dinner with alone... I just enjoy being with her."

Sunday Independent

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