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Book reviews: Old Moore's almanac of Tinseltown

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Lana Turner taught Moore how to kiss properly, which he said would come in handy later in his career

Lana Turner taught Moore how to kiss properly, which he said would come in handy later in his career

Roger Moore was hired by MGM

Roger Moore was hired by MGM

Roger Moore and Tony Curtis

Roger Moore and Tony Curtis

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Lana Turner taught Moore how to kiss properly, which he said would come in handy later in his career

Paul Whitington reviews another engaging memoir from the most likeable James Bond of them all.

In later life Roger Moore has followed the example of his old friend David Niven, receding discretely from the limelight with and busying himself with a string of lively showbiz memoirs. Last Man Standing is Moore's third trip down memory lane: a straight autobiography, My Word is My Bond, appeared in 2008, and Bond on Bond, a reminiscence of his time as 007, was published in 2012.

Last Man Standing is a chatty, meandering, informal little book, and reading it feels like listening to an amusing but slightly absent-minded after-dinner speaker. In it, Moore mixes anecdotes about himself and his many celebrity friends with hoary old showbiz tall tales of the kind purveyed so expertly by Niven.

Despite its endless digressions, Last Man Standing remains a charming read mainly because the author's wry, self-mocking and genuinely modest personality shines through every sentence. He's a hard man not to like and the same goes for his book.

Moore is an interesting and consistently underestimated actor. Though he grew up in Southwark, South London, not far from his old friend Michael Caine, Moore had his cockney accent knocked out of him at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and learnt the ropes in repertory, traipsing the length and breadth of England and staying in dodgy boarding houses.

Tall, suave and handsome in a strangely forgettable sort of way, he supplemented his meagre income by appearing in ads for knitwear and toothpaste, and revealed a natural flair for acting to camera when cast in early TV crime dramas. One thinks of Moore as a quintessentially British actor, and he's best remembered for his Bond films and TV shows like The Saint and The Persuaders. But he also worked extensively in Hollywood and in the mid-1950s was hired by MGM as a potential leading man. Some of Last Man Standing's better stories stem from these early experiences.

Moore had just arrived in Hollywood and was waiting nervously in the office of MGM's head publicist when he first met Grace Kelly. In the middle of his meeting, Grace stormed in, shouted "I do not have tits like that!" and left. She was referring to the posters for her new film, Green Fire, in which the studio had superimposed Kelly's head on to Ava Gardner's heroic body. Neither actress was amused, apparently.

Lana Turner taught Roger how to kiss properly on the set of the 1955 period drama, Diane. Nice work if you can get it, but Ms Turner revealed her steely side later on in the shoot when Diane's producer, Edwin Knopf, picked her up on something minor. "F*** off," she told Knopf pithily, and stormed off. When Moore asked her later why she'd behaved that way to an unusually kind producer, Turner was philosophical.

"Sweetheart," she told Moore, "when I first came on this lot all the producers f***ed me. So now I'm f***ing them." Fair enough.

Moore doesn't say much about his Bond films in this book, having covered the subject exhaustively elsewhere, but the fortune he earned from them allowed him to buy an expensive home in Monaco. There he fell in with a large group of ex-pat stars that included David Niven and Peter Sellers. Roger had previously been friendly with Rex Harrison, who wondered why no one ever invited him to parties.

They all loathed him apparently, and Harrison was known for his objectionable demeanour. According to Moore, Harrison used to run his main home in Belgravia like Downton Abbey. He would insist that his fifth wife Elizabeth Rees-Williams dress for dinner every evening and regularly sent his own wine back, shouting at the butler that it was corked! Perhaps unsurprisingly, there would be a sixth Mrs Harrison.

Roger got on much better with Tony Curtis, his co-star in the hit 1970s TV show The Persuaders, and the pair regularly socialised with each other off the set. But while commendably reluctant to say a bad word about anyone, Moore makes it clear that Curtis was rather tight with his money.

On one occasion, Moore and his wife were invited over for a disappointingly-frugal Christmas dinner with Tony and his spouse. During the meal the doorbell was rung by a group of jolly carol singers collecting for a worthy charity. Curtis flung the door open and shouted "get away, get away or I'll call the cops!".

On another occasion Curtis made a great show of thanking the show's associate producer Johnny Goodman for all his hard work. "We've been working together for 15 months," he told him, "and I'd like to give you something in appreciation for everything you've done for me."

Goodman was delighted at this unexpected show of generosity, but slightly less delighted when the gift turned out to be a bottle of the cheapest, paint-stripping supermarket sherry.

In the 1960s Moore got to know most of the Rat Pack and became particularly friendly with Frank Sinatra who, whatever his other failings, didn't seem to have a mean bone in his body. Moore recalls languid afternoons sampling vintage wines in the singer's impressive cellar, and admits that Sinatra was pretty hard to keep up with.

"I feel sorry for people who don't drink," Frank said once. "When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day." That winning line has sometimes been attributed to other sources, including Sinatra's old buddy Dean Martin.

Moore also recalls Sinatra going head to head with John Wayne during a charity concert at the Moulin Rouge club in Hollywood. Wayne had insulted a singer friend of Frank's who was about to perform, and the chairman of the board lost his famous temper. "Seeing the tall-framed Duke face up to Frank - who was a lot shorter, thinner and, with his gaunt cheeks, certainly appeared less formidable - was something I'll never forget," Moore writes.

The title of this endearing memoir is a bit of a misnomer, given that Moore's old comrades Sean Connery and Michael Caine, for instance, are both younger than him and apparently fighting fit. But Last Man Standing may not be too wide of the mark when you realise that a good 95 pc of the people Moore reminisces about are dead.

The only son of a south London policeman, Roger Moore has come a long way in his long life, but maybe not that far in some senses. In his 2008 memoir My Word is My Bond, he fondly describes how he likes holing up in his second home in Gstaad, Switzerland, and eating beans on toast while watching videos of Dad's Army. You can take the boy out of Southwark…

 

Last Man Standing: Tales from Tinseltown is published in hardback by Michael O'Mara Books, at £20.

Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709 350.

Indo Review