December 2019 marks 50 years since George Lazenby, then an untested screen star, played one of cinema’s most iconic heroes in the James Bond film on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Half a century on and the Australian actor is returning to the spy genre, taking on the lead role of Dr Jason Love in an audio drama adaptation of James Leasor’s novel Passport to Oblivion, also starring Terence Stamp and Glynis Barber.
RadioTimes.com spoke to Lazenby about his new project, his one outing as 007 and what he thinks the future holds for the film franchise.
What was it about the Passport to Oblivion project that attracted you?
When I was first approached by producer/director Barnaby Eaton-Jones to make a return to MI6 via this audio drama I decided I’d give the spying game another go. I’m now 80 years young, but I am still always up for a challenge – and this job certainly took me outside my comfort zone.
Was it fun playing on the Bond associations, or did you have any reservations because of that?
I know the producers thought of me for the role of Dr Jason Love because of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Unbelievably, that was 50 years ago but the Dr Love books are from the same era. On his first appearance in print, Dr. Love was hailed as ‘the natural successor to James Bond’. I guess all those sort of spies were sort of the same thing: driving vintage sports cars – Love drives a Cord, Bond drove a Bentley – and meeting pretty girls and getting up to all sorts in the Cold War.
In fact, the author James Leasor was the first person approached to continue the 007 novels when Ian Fleming died. He passed on the assignment, which went to Kingsley Amis. There was a 1966 film based on this first book called Where The Spies Are starring David Niven as Love. David went on to play Bond in the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale. So he was the other, other fella! That film was co-written by Wolf Mankowitz who co-wrote the first draft of Dr No back in 1962. There is a strong Love-Bond overlap.
What are you enjoying about working in audio for the first time?
It was a new experience. In the past my physicality has always been a big part of the way I approach acting. For this project, it just comes down to my voice, but I threw myself into it. Although I’m stood behind a microphone, I suggested we do the fights for real. I’m still fairly active for a just turned 80-year old!
Audio stories require a different kind of energy and it is hard work – recording it took a long, long day. I arrived first thing at a tiny studio in Soho and was presented with 164 pages of dialogue – more than I’ve ever seen before. On all my movies, actions have always spoken louder than words!
Passport to Oblivion
How has the experience been working alongside such a stellar cast including the likes of Terence Stamp?
It was fun to hang out with Terry who voices C, the head of M16. Not M! I hadn’t seen Terry since the 1960s. He told me that Bond producer Harry Saltzman had asked him to take over from Sean Connery as 007 before me but instead he ended up starring in the movie Modesty Blaise, the first female spy if you like.
The rest of the cast – Michael Brandon, Glynis Barber and Nickolas Grace – were great fun to work with. The recording studios were like Piccadilly Circus with people coming and going all day as some only had a few pages or line. People came and went through a revolving door – by the end of the day my head was spinning. Afterwards, I had to race over and appear live on BBC One’s The One Show. Presenter Matt Baker even filmed a Bond-inspired opening sequence in black tie. They certainly know how to make a chap feel welcome!
Passport to Oblivion is the first of 10 planned audio releases – what are you most looking forward to, in terms of exploring more of Jason Love’s world?
Let me see now. There was Passport To Peril 1966, Passport In Suspense 1967, Passport For A Pilgrim 1968, A Week Of Love 1969, Love-all – 7 short stories – 1971, Host of Extras – in which Love makes a guest appearance – 1973, Love and the Land Beyond 1979, Frozen Assets 1989 and finally, Love Down Under 1992. The books have a complete story arc that sees the character growing older over the series so that will be fun. And it’s great to be 80 and able to play a much younger man!
The novels have a worldwide fan base – how do you think followers of the book will respond to this adaptation?
I hope they embrace me as Dr Love – he is Australian after all and I can play that in my sleep! If the first audio is successful – maybe, I’ll do more than one this time!!
On fan reaction, what has it meant to you to see On Her Majesty’s Secret Service re-evaluated and now hailed as one of the best Bond films, if not THE best?
2019 is the 50th anniversary of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In my own opinion it was the best Bond. I’ve been told over that directors like Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan figure my Bond movie to be the best one. It really holds up. This year I returned to the Palacio Hotel in Estoril in Portugal as well as to Schilthorn in Switzerland where we filmed it. We celebrated with generations of fans from all around the world and it was pretty special. I’m really grateful that new audiences have come to celebrate my time as 007.
Diana Rigg and George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
You were the youngest ever actor to play Bond at just 29 – but when he was in his early 20s, Henry Cavill lost the part to Daniel Craig on the basis of being too young. Could a younger Bond work? What is the ideal age to play Bond?
Age is just a number, but Hollywood is obsessed with youth. To play Bond the main thing you need is attitude and swagger and you need to be believable as a deadly killer, Taron Egerton was only 25 – and looked 18 – when he made the first Kingsman film which obviously was inspired by 007. I recall many people couldn’t accept the idea of Daniel Craig as a blonde Bond, but that evaporated when they saw him in action.
You were also the only actor outside of Britain or Ireland to play the part – do you think the part should be opened up to international talent?
Why not? It worked for me! You’ve had a Scot, a Welshman, and Irishman, a couple of Englishmen and me, an Australian. I guess anyone can play the guy from now on.
Was there ever talk of what your second Bond film might have involved? Did you ever have any discussions about a potential plot?
No, we didn’t get into talks about the plot – I refused to sign a contract to do a second film and despite Harry Saltzman physically offering me £1 million cash to do it I walked away.
You talked at the time about wanting to make Bond more human and flawed… very much like Daniel Craig’s interpretation. Was it satisfying to finally see that idea play out and to such success?
Daniel Craig is great as Bond, very physical like me. He brought something new and gritty to the role for a new generation of fans.
How was the experience of getting to tell your side of the story with the film Becoming Bond [the 2017 biopic starring Josh Lawson as Lazenby]?
That was a great experience – I finally got to tell the beginning of my rollercoaster life story on my terms, and I think it surprised lots of people. I narrate direct to the camera and then key scenes are dramatised. I think they got the period feel perfect.
Passport To Oblivion was released as a two-disc CD and downloadable audio set on November 29. For more on George Lazenby, visit georgelazenbyofficial.com