George Lazenby is one of the great pop culture enigmas of all time. In his career he has been a car salesman, a male model, a kung-fu star, a world traveller and a real life adventurer. However, the world will always remember him for taking Sean Cannery’s place as secret agent James Bond in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Still one of the most popular entries in one of film history’s longest running franchises, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a huge success, and even producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli was quoted as saying that George Lazenby could have been the best Bond ever. With his good looks and a strong sense of confidence, Lazenby was a natural to take over the part, and proved it when responding to Life Magazine about his new role by saying “I’m looking forward to the broads and the bread.”
Yet what made George Lazenby legendary was not his portrayal of James Bond, but that after the film was finished he did the unthinkable – he walked away from a franchise that would have made him both a millionaire and an icon. In the years that followed George Lazenby stayed under the radar. Blacklisted in the UK for walking out of his Bond role, he found an unlikely friend in martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, and had the unique opportunity to appear in a series of Raymond Chow’s Kung-Fu films in the mid 1970’s. While the rest of the world got to know Sean Connery and Roger Moore so well, George Lazenby became a mysterious underdog of sorts. Strange stories followed his reputation and while most of what has been said about George Lazenby isn’t true, a great deal of it is. However, the strangest occurrence in George Lazenby’s story is that in the last decade he has found his way into the pop culture lexicon as an adjective to refer to people who have only done something once, or for a short period of time. The phrase “The George Lazenby of…” has made George Lazenby even more legendary than his film career could ever had.
In September 2009 I had the unique opportunity to spend three days in Toronto with George. George Lazenby is, in many ways, still playing the role of James Bond. He is full of stories of his jet setting younger years filled with adventure and sexual conquests. He is still quick with a cutting joke and even quicker with a come on to a beautiful woman. Although he seems to have mellowed since his glory days, it is easy to believe that George was a devil in his younger years. Often fabled as being both difficult and egotistical, I rarely saw that side to George when I was with him, but I had no doubt that he could most likely be both. George Lazenby is a man who has a strong sense of who he is and has a firm set of opinions. As long as you and George are going in the same direction everything is going to be fine.
Currently living in Los Angeles, George is officially retired from show business but is currently working on his memoirs, and is a favourite guest at autograph shows throughout North America. During my three days with George Lazenby I was allowed into his inner circle, where I had the opportunity to have a glimpse into the character of one of pop culture’s most notorious figures.
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
THE GEORGE LAZENBY OF 007S:
A CONVERSATION WITH GEORGE LAZENBY
Sam Tweedle: For years On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was my all time favourite James Bond film.
George Lazenby: What is it now?
Sam: Casino Royale.
George: You’ve got poor taste.
Sam: Do you ever grow tired of people asking you about Bond, or the Bond phenomena?
George: No, not recently because it doesn’t happen much.
Sam: Why is that?
George: Because I don’t mix with a lot of people. I don’t get interviewed every day like I used to. I don’t mind. I learn things when I talk.
Sam: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is one of the most popular of the James Bond franchise. What do you think the appeal of that particular film is?
George: It’s hard to say. In retrospect it was well done. I can’t say I was Richard Burton, or a great actor in it because it was my first acting experience, but I did carry the role. It was tough carrying the role after Sean Connery because he was good. I liked him. You’ve got to understand the story was good, and it had some substance while most of them, I hate to say, don’t.
Sam: I love it because of the tragic ending; it has a lot of subtle humour, a great cast, and some of the best chase scenes in film history. Were you doing any of the chase scenes or any of your own stunts?
George: No. I skied past the camera a few times. They wouldn’t allow me to ski but they’d allow me to do the fight scenes and hang on cables. I did most of it except the bobsled and the skiing which was great. A guy named Lucky Lightner did the skiing. He was amazing. He was an alcoholic. He couldn’t walk straight, but he could ski.
Sam: Before you were an actor, you were a car salesman and a mechanic. How did you get into modelling?
George: When I was a sales man I sold a car to a photographer. I thought he was a gay guy at first so I sent my girlfriend to get her picture taken and he said “No you fool, I want to take yours.” I went down to the modelling agency. There was this guy who was supposed to be working with Jean Shrimpton and a male model in England and the male model walked off because the babies they were working with kept peeing on him. The photographer came to the agency and saw some pictures that I had left over my lunch hour, and he said “I’ll take him”, so they called me at work and told me to get over there straight away. I knew nothing of modelling. I thought models were just accidental photographs of people smoking in the street. I didn’t think of the business, but when I got there Jean Shrimpton was just leaving. She had done the female part and I was to do the men’s part. I had no idea where the camera was. I was dodging baby piss and three months later the pictures came out in all the magazines and I was in demand as a model. I must have worked three or four months before I knew what modelling was all about. I didn’t have any idea of what the hell I was doing, but they liked that.
Sam: There seems to be a full mythos around you, which over the last few days I have come to found out is mostly not true. However, one thing I did read is that you had the same barber as Cubby Broccoli…
George: And Sean Connery. Well, it was right next to Broccoli’s office, which is why they probably went there. His name was Kurt. I had my hair cut there incidentally because I was passing by and he was famous for cutting Connery`s hair. When I went for the interview the first time I couldn’t get in and I had long sideburns and a French style haircut. So to go back again I decided to go down and find this barber and get him to cut my hair like Connery`s. Cubby Broccoli happened to be sitting in the chair behind me. Very coincidental because Cubby didn’t realize it because he said to Kurt once I’d left that “That guy might make a good James Bond” and Kurt told Cubby later “You remember that guy you said might make a good James Bond?” Cubby said “Yeah, what about it?” and Kurt said “That’s the guy you chose.” So Cubby used it as a bit of a publicity stunt.
Sam: But you said to me last night that you got the James Bond role through lying.
George: Yeah, I did because I wasn’t an actor. I’d never spoken in front of a camera before. I told them I worked in Russia and China and places I didn’t think they could check on. I was in their office and telling these lies, and they asked me to come back and see Peter Hunt the next day, and when he came they had already discovered I’d been a male model and they didn’t want a male model as James Bond because they’d be the laughing stock of the industry. Peter Hunt knew I lied and he said “You fooled two of the most ruthless men in the world so you’ve got to be an actor. Stick to your story and I’ll make you the next James Bond.” Four months later they said “I’m going with you.”
Sam: There’s been a lot written about your stormy relationship with Peter Hunt. Is there truth in that?
George: Oh yeah. There is a lot of truth in that, and it’s simple. Peter Hunt got me the job. If it wasn’t for him wanting to use me as James Bond, I wouldn’t have been there. But then we got on the set. Peter is gay as gay can be and I had no idea. I wasn’t sophisticated enough at the time, but there was a bunch of gay guys who were friends of Peter’s running around the set. Someone told me to clear the set and I said “How do I do that?” They said “Just pick up the speaker over there and say that you want the set cleared and if anybody’s not working on the scene to get of the set.” I did that and all these guys that were Peter’s friends had to leave. They told Peter that I had thrown them off the set, but I had no idea what I was doing. I was just doing the crew a favour. But Peter wouldn’t talk to me through the whole movie. He never spoke one word to me. I did that whole movie without speaking one word to the director after that day, and that was the second day on the set.
Sam: Well if he wasn’t discussing things with you, how were you to know what you were supposed to be doing?
George: The assistant director would say something to me sometimes. If you look at the records I did one take on every scene. I didn’t know the difference. I didn’t know what “take” was to be honest with you, so I did one take every go and Peter used to say my first take was the best anyway, so that’s how it worked out. Except on the end scene. On the end scene, in the car, after Diana got shot, I got tears in my eyes. I became an actor by that time, after acting for nine months. But Peter said “Do the scene again without the tears. James Bond doesn’t cry.” That was the only time I got any information from him. His excuse for that was “The meaner we are to George, and the badder we treat him, the better he comes across because he looks meaner, and James Bond has meanness to him.”
Sam: Do you think there was any truth to that?
George: I don’t know, but that’s what they thought.
Sam: What was it like working with Diana Rigg?
George: Working with a professional actress, and you’re not an actor and you’ve got the leading role, is a pain because she’s got to respect that you’ve got the leading part, but she doesn’t have to respect your acting. So there was a conflict there. Also, I wanted to screw every girl on the set and she wanted me to behave myself.
Sam: Were you screwing every girl on the set?
George: You’ll have to use your imagination.
Sam: Did Diana Rigg have her own designs on you?
George: She attempted to entice me into her web but there were conditions that I had to stay away from all the other girls and all the rest of it and that wasn’t possible at my age. It didn’t work out.
Sam: Is there any truth about the famous garlic incident?
George: That was weird. Diana and I were going to do a love scene and it was the first time that the press had been allowed on the set and she was trying to be funny and yelled across the commissary where we have lunch, “George, I’m having garlic for lunch. Are you?” It was just a joke but the press picked it up and wrote “Diana Rigg Eats Garlic Before Love Scene.” If you watch the love scene and if she had eaten garlic and I was put off by it you would have known it. Diana was a serious actress. I took acting seriously later in my life. I didn’t understand her when I was doing the Bond film, but I understood her later in my life.
Sam: What do you mean by that?
George: I had a powerful time in my life where I could do anything I wanted. I would just decide on something and it would happen. I was a poor boy from a struggling town in Australia, but I had this feeling about life. You’ve got to remember that I got the Bond role by walking off the street with no acting experience and knocked out three thousand guys that put the name on for it. So I had something going. I don’t know what it was, but it gave me an ego problem. That gave me a feeling that I must have something. Now I’m looking back on that and now I’m writing my memoirs.
Sam: How is that process going?
George: It’ll take a while. I’m dealing with a divorce at the moment. I’ve got to deal with that first and get my kids sorted out and then I’ll get stuck in the book. I’ve already got some agents interested in it. It’ll only be a matter of time. Again, I’ve put my mind into it and something always happens when I do that. It’s been forty years since I’ve put my mind into anything, so we’ll see what happens.
Sam: Now I know this is a question you’ve been asked in nearly every interview you give, but why did you give up the role of James Bond? I’ve heard three stories. I’ve heard that your relationship to Peter Hunt lead to you being let go from the franchise, that Sean Connery regretted not doing Majesty’s Secret Service after seeing it and wanted the part back, and that you took poor advice from your agent. What is the most accurate reason?
George: The third is correct. I wanted to do the next one because they offered me a million dollars under the table which is probably ten million today, and I was offered any movie between the Bond movie that I wanted to do. So I looked at my manager and said “What’s wrong with that deal?” and he said “No. You’ll die doing Bond because it’s over. It’s finished.” It’s hard for people to understand that, because we are back in a Bond-type culture. At that time we were into hippie culture. You’d have to put yourself into long hair and bell bottoms and peace and love-consciousness to be able to understand what rung through to me. Otherwise, right now, it looks foolish. Back then it looked foolish, but money was not the “in” thing at that time. Love and peace was in. Guys running around with suits and guns couldn’t get laid. Honest to God. They thought you were a waiter or a cop or something. Nobody was wearing a suit. Not even Wall Street. They even took their ties off. Unless you can put yourself in that time zone you’ll understand that it wasn’t because I was that stupid, it was that I was walking in Sean Connery’s shoes and wanted to walk in my own. But I would have done it if my manager had not been around.
Sam: Have you ever met Sean Connery or Roger Moore?
Sam: What were your impressions of them?
George: We never knew each other for that long of time personally. I’ve met Roger more times than Sean, but Sean, to me, is a very earthy guy. He’s obviously been very successful and I like him. I like Roger too. Roger’s a very different type of guy. He works a lot harder than Sean at what he does. Their both decent people.
Sam: What are your feelings on where the franchise has come since your time as Bond?
George: I didn’t like Quantum of Solace. Bond became a killer. But Casino Royale…Daniel Craig was good in that. They scored again because they got the right guy and a good movie. I was surprised that they could pull it off, but they blew it with the next one.
Sam: In 1970 you went to Hong Kong to see Bruce Lee. What were the circumstances that lead to you making this trip?
George: First off, all it was was money. I couldn’t get a job in the movies because Broccoli told everyone that I was under contract to him and I had never signed a contract. Never. But they told everyone and I couldn’t get a job.
Sam: Where they trying to blackball your career?
George: Oh, absolutely!
Sam: Why would they do that?
George: Because they didn’t’ like that I turned down their Bond movies. That’s the way life works. So I went sailing for fifteen months to get away from the media and the people. I was confused. But then I ran out of money. So I heard about this Bruce Lee guy, and everybody was telling me he was the big thing, so I went to Hong Kong to see Bruce. I went to Singapore first. The movies were distributed out of Singapore and I figured that’s where he was so I took a charter flight out there. I had no money. None. I was literally on my last few bucks, and I had a girl who was eight months pregnant, who would later become my first wife, so I went to Hong Kong to meet Bruce Lee and he didn’t want to see me. So I was waiting at a bus stop in Hong Kong, I had no money, and Bruce Lee pulled up, gave me a ride, we liked each other and he gave me ten grand.
Sam: Just like that?
George: Just like that. He knew I didn’t have any money because I was at a bus stop so he said “You have no money. Here’s ten grand. Get yourself a suit.” He actually opened a bank account for me. He went to the bank, opened a bank account for me, bought me a suit, and then he died on me.
Sam: Didn’t he die a few days after you met him?
George: I was there for about three or four days and we were together day and night. He would call me at three o’clock in the morning with ideas for the movie we were going to do. It was funny. The phone would be ringing, I’d wake up and pick it up and Bruce would say “Buh buh buh…what do you think of that idea? Call me back” and he’d hang up. I’d be like “Fuck. It’s three o’clock in the morning!” but that was Bruce. I had lunch with him the day he died. He said he had a headache. Next thing I knew I was with Bruce’s producer Raymond Chow and we were waiting for Bruce to come to dinner and he hadn’t come. I said to Raymond “Give me his wife’s number.” Raymond said “He’s not with his wife, he’s with his girlfriend.” I said “Well give me her number” and he did and I called her and she said that Bruce was sleeping and she couldn’t wake him up. I said “I’ll call you back in five minutes and if he’s not awake I’m calling an ambulance.” So I called back and she said “I just called an ambulance.” Then, when I got back to the hotel the phone was ringing. I got back to my room and it was the press. They said “Bruce Lee’s dead. What do you think?” That was it. I stayed there for the funeral.
Sam: You did make a few films in Hong Kong.
George: Yeah. I had the ten grand and Raymond Chow rang me up when I got back to London and he wanted to know what I did with the money. I said “What do you mean?” He said “That was my money Bruce gave you.” I said “Oh.” He said “I want you to do a movie for me, or give back the money.” I didn’t have the money so I said I’d do a movie for him, but I said, “But I don’t know Kung Fu. I know Judo, I know a bit of boxing, but I don’t know Kung Fu.” He said “I’ll send a guy out to train you,” and he did. This guy came out to my house every day for three months teaching me high kicks and all that kind of thing. He brought a whole team of guys out to fight with me and we put all the pads on and went for it. He really worked me over. He stretched muscles in my body that I never knew I had. That was fun.
Sam: Can you still do any martial arts?
George: No. I haven’t tried.
Sam: How many films did you do for Raymond Chow?
George: I did three. I could have stayed out there forever but I said that [the third film] was the last one. I said that that’s the last one after the first one, but then I did the second one and the third one. I needed the money. The western world wasn’t hiring me so I had to do them. I had no choice. Until I disappeared and went out of favour Broccoli kept the pressure on me.
Sam: I read a quote a few weeks ago where somebody in the press called Conan O’Brien “The George Lazenby of Tonight Show hosts.”
George: Yeah. I saw that.
Sam: I also have heard Pope Benedict XVI referred to as “The George Lazenby of Popes” and Paul McGann called “The George Lazenby of Doctor Who’s.” The list goes on and on with these references, but in recent years you have sort of entered the pop culture lexicon as a metaphor, or an adjective. What do you make of this phenomenon?
George: Well it’s true. Conan O’Brien isn’t a bad guy. He’s not untalented. I don’t mind being associated with him. I don’t know who the fuck the pope is but it’s my own doing. Its not anybody else’s so I’m happy with it. If I wanted to be a movie star tomorrow I’m sure I could figure a way. I don’t mean that egotistically. I mean there is a formula and I could figure a way. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if my book becomes a film.
Sam: Who would you pick to play yourself?
George: I don’t know. Clive Owens? Clive Owens wouldn’t be bad. Someone suggested him when they tried to make a film about me before but the studios had a problem because the Bond people were going to sue them. But if it’s my own book, and my own truth, and it is the truth, then they can’t do anything. So that’s why I say don’t be surprised if it becomes a film. Boy from small town Australia becomes James Bond.
Sam: Well I know that in the few days we spent together that I was impressed by your true stories about your jet setting adventures. In many ways you are the “real deal.”
George: Well I hope so. I’m only here once and I want to be real or then I’m just lying to myself. I want to die knowing that I did whatI wanted to do. I’m not saying I’m great. I’m just saying that I did want I wanted to do so I know who I was and why I’m here. Well, I think I know who I was. You never know. So I want to be truthful to myself. That’s why me pursuing a movie career, like Michael Cain for example, who never stops working, well I could never be like him if you paid me a million dollars a day. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that. It’s not my character. That’s what I’m saying. I was offered television roles and to sign contracts and I could never sign a contract. I never signed one for the Bond films. How could I sign one for anything else? I’m not that kind of guy and I don’t want to be locked into one place. Time is short.
Sam: What do you want to do with the time that you have left?
George: I just want to be who I am. I don’t want to follow someone else. I don’t want to be the best at anything. Its like, how can I be better at Sean Connery playing Sean Connery? That’s what my chances were at James Bond. I did the best I could as me, and this is what I’m telling you about life. You’ve got to be the best you can at life and the only way you can do that is being truthful to yourself. All I’m saying is if I write a memoir it’ll hopefully help somebody because that would make me feel good.
Sam: Help someone in what sense?
George: Don’t make the mistakes I made. Just be able to hop over the hoops I had to jump through because I may not be great, but I’m an original.
During my time with George there was one thing that stood out to me. Although he speaks of the future, George Lazenby is a man who seems to long for the past. He reflects fondly on the days where he travelled the world with no money in his pockets and spent his nights with good liquor and beautiful women. The politically correct age of the 1980’s didn’t seem to affect him and he still lives in the days of Playboy clubs, the Rat Pack and the cold war. While the other Bonds grew old and moved on, George Lazenby still lives the role of James Bond in his everyday life. Could it be because he never had the chance to continue to play the part? However, as George told me at one point, he often wished that he had lived his life without playing Bond to see what it would have been like. As George stated, he is an original, and that is what has made him one of the legendary oddities of the pop culture journey.
POP CULTURE ADDICT NOTE: I would like to send a special thanks to Carol Summers for her help in arranging this interview. Without her it could not have happened. I would also like to thank Bob Kotsopoulos of The Kots Collection and The Show of Shows for putting together the opportunity to meet and get to know George. Your help in what became one of the most memorable weekends of my life will not be forgotten, and is much appreciated.