Critic's Notebook: Roger Moore Was More Than Just a Starchy Old Smoothie

Roger Moore - H - 1973

The late James Bond star relished his reputation as the last of the old-school charmers, but his self-deprecating wit concealed hidden depths.

Roger Moore was always fond of a wry joke, usually at his own expense. The veteran British screen star, whose death at 89 was announced Tuesday, liked to claim that his acting skills boiled down to three expressions: eyebrow up, eyebrow down and both eyebrows at the same time. This perpetual air of self-deprecating wit came to define his mature screen persona, and arguably damaged his career following his record-breaking 12-year run as James Bond. But it made Moore a better actor than his harshest critics might claim, and was an essential part of his charm.

Moore wafted onto a movie set like he had just walked off a yacht. For much of his career, he exuded an air of unflappable, patrician, old-school-tie Englishness, which belied his modest upbringing as the only child of a policeman and a homemaker raised in one of South London's poorer districts. He learned youthful lessons in poise from an older generation of well-groomed smoothies, notably his early screen idol Stewart Granger, and from the legendary Noel Coward, who smartly advised the ambitious young actor to accept any and every role that came along.

A sometime model before his acting career took off, Moore was a strikingly beautiful young man, which did not always work in his favor. He once claimed, "I was so pretty, actresses didn't want to work with me." More seriously, after moving to Hollywood and signing his first studio contract in 1954, his polished English manner appeared dated and lightweight just as new kind of rugged, raw, Method-era masculinity was revolutionizing American cinema.

Moore's early film roles were scrappy and undistinguished, but he eventually found his talents more suited to small-screen serials like The Alaskans, Maverick and his career-making breakthrough role as crime-fighting antihero Simon Templar on The Saint. Running for six seasons between 1962 and 1969, The Saint was a London-set star vehicle that fitted Moore's starchy Englishness and limited acting repertoire like a well-tailored Savile Row suit. The show was syndicated to 60 countries and made more than £350 million ($450 million) for its production company, ITC.

In between retiring The Saint and debuting as Bond, Moore made a handful of splashy pulp thrillers with lingering cult appeal. One appealingly trashy yarn was Alvin Rakoff's jaunty espionage romp Crossplot (1969), starring Moore as a womanizing advertising exec caught up in political intrigue in Swinging London, which now looks like a dry run for his 007 persona.

Moore also made another TV series in this period, The Persuaders!, starring opposite Tony Curtis as an odd couple of playboys fighting villainy on the French Riviera. The chemistry between the two stars was fractious, and the show only survived two seasons. But Moore was essentially playing himself, so his air of relaxed levity and John Barry's sublime theme music helped compensate for clunky dialogue and formulaic plots.

Moore did arguably the best work of his career in Basil Dearden's atmospheric psycho-thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970), playing a double role as a harassed London banker who splits into two different people following a car crash. For decades afterwards, Moore would ruefully cite this rare anguished, tormented performance as his personal favorite. "That was only chance I was given to act, to play something that really wasn't me," he told The Daily Telegraph in 2013.

And then he was Bond. James Bond. In sharp contrast to Connery's more earthy, athletic, sexually charged performance, Moore brought an aura of debonair after-dinner raconteur to the character, which was arguably closer to Ian Fleming's initial conception of 007 as a suave playboy sadist. Indeed, Moore was reportedly considered for the role ahead of Connery, but his small-screen contractual obligations kept him out of the running for years. Ever the diplomat, Moore later clarified that he was only officially approached after Connery made his retirement plans plain.

Most connoisseurs of the Bond franchise still lionize Connery as the greatest Bond ever — graciously, Moore himself endorsed this view many times. But the smooth Englishman was not quite the lightweight mannequin in the role that his detractors claim. His opening triptych of 007 performances — Live and Let Die (1973),The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) — are full of terse physicality, hair-raising stunts and eminently quotable one-liners delivered with just the right amount of arch self-mockery. Often while wearing a cravat.

The longest-serving Bond in history, Moore unquestionably overstayed his welcome and retired the role at 58 after a late run of creaky, sub-par outings. But in his prime, he brought a kind of glossy matinee-idol glamour to the super-spy franchise that no subsequent star has since matched.

Moore never quite recovered from the deep typecasting impact of his Saint and Bond years. His later film work, a patchy parade of labored comedies and self-spoofing cameos, is testament more to his good humor than his talent.

Sportingly, Moore played a surgically remodeled Roger Moore look-alike in Cannonball Run (1981), a record company boss in the Spice Girls movie Spice World (1997) and a jarringly dated gay caricature in Boat Trip (2002). He even voiced Santa Claus in a family-friendly animated short knowingly titled The Fly Who Loved Me (2004). However lame the joke, at least Moore could never be accused of taking himself too seriously.

Charity work became Moore's chief preoccupation in his later years. Encouraged by his friend Audrey Hepburn, he became a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1991 and went on to earn multiple awards, including a knighthood in 2003. This was recognition for his good deeds, he liked to remind people, not his acting skills.

Moore played the self-deprecating charmer right to the end, publishing a memoir in 2014 with the winning title One Lucky Bastard. Interviewed in The Daily Telegraph around the same time, he quipped: "If I was told I had 24 hours to live, I would have a dry martini." Shaken, not stirred, of course. Which is the perfect way to celebrate his long life and singular career: by raising a glass, and possibly an eyebrow, to the last of the old-school smoothies.