“I was always destined to play heroes”, Sir Roger Moore told us this afternoon, at the outset of his interview with his biographer Gareth Owen. Sir Roger (he told us we could call him anything we liked, but it’s not very often you get to meet a knight of the realm) was at the Southbank Centre for the conclusion of its ‘Being a Man’ festival, a brilliant annual event which celebrates boys and men whilst addressing the pressures of masculine identity in the 21st century.
Although that remark of his might sound arrogant, in reality this lovely man was anything but – a more humble, self-effacing character you could not wish to meet. The point he was making, in relation to how his career turned out, was that because in his youth he looked a certain way, he was destined to be typecast – to his great frustration – in certain kinds of roles. Apparently, in Sir Roger’s first week in rep. he was told by the director, “You’re not very good, sonny, so make the most of how you look and just make sure you smile a lot when you come on stage”. Yikes!
Sir Roger’s career really took off in the late 1950s, when he won the part of Simon Templar in ‘The Saint’, which was to run for an impressive seven years. He’d already made some movies with MGM, but not as the leading man and they hadn’t been all that successful. At the time, there was a stigma against film stars moving into TV – but, as time would tell, this was to be a gamble that more than paid off.
‘The Saint’ was commissioned by the man known at the time as ‘The King of ITV’: Lew Grade. It was hugely successful and made TV history by being the first show where actors spoke directly into the camera. It also gave Sir Roger the opportunity to try his hand at directing and to work with up & coming stars such as Donald Sutherland and Oliver Reed.
It was thanks to ‘The Saint’ that Sir Roger was offered the film role that he remains most proud of: Harold Pelham, in ‘The Man Who Haunted Himself’. This, he told us, is the type of role he would like to have continued with – but casting directors had other ideas, much to his disappointment.
Having vowed not to do any more TV work, Sir Roger found himself talked into what was to become another iconic role, that of Brett Sinclair in ‘The Persuaders!’ – in which, of course, he got to work alongside Tony Curtis. Quite a character, our Tony: having banned every member of the cast and crew from smoking in his presence (and this was the 1960s, remember, when everyone smoked everywhere) because he was fronting an anti-smoking campaign in the States, his perfect image was shattered when a few months later he was arrested at Heathrow for carrying 3lbs of hash!
The first series of ‘The Persuaders!’ was a big hit all over Europe, but there was no opportunity to make a second because along came…Bond. James Bond. Can there be a better way to be remembered? Because it is with this character that Sir Roger will surely always be associated, much as he may have hankered after more “heavyweight” roles. Luckily, he has very happy memories of his time as Bond and the people worked with, speaking with particular affection of fellow actors Desmond Llewelyn (“a wonderful, lovely man”) and the pranks they used to play upon each other and also of Richard Kiel. He also spoke warmly about Barbara Broccoli and how successful she has been in continuing the legacy of Bond.
Asked who his own favourite Bond is, Sir Roger had no hesitation in saying Sean Connery, who he admires for having had exactly the right presence and personality to launch one of the most successful franchises ever. That said, he’s also a huge admirer of Daniel Craig, who he finds utterly compelling in the role. A favourite Bond gadget? The magnetic Rolex watch (I think we would all have liked one of those, wouldn’t we?).
Sir Roger was particularly eloquent on the subject of UNICEF, with whom he has worked for 26 years. It was his next-door-neighbour in Switzerland, Audrey Hepburn, who introduced him to the organisation and whose passion for and dedication to its work continues to have such an influence on him. In fact, he ended this fascinating conversation by quoting some of Audrey’s final words to her family before she died, when she urged them to do everything they could to continue her campaigning on behalf of vulnerable children everywhere. It was a very moving moment – and one which left many members of this predominantly male audience wiping away tears.
Sir Roger Moore: gentleman, raconteur and, most definitely, national treasure. Truly, they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.