Ian Fleming’s Bond was ‘hard, ruthless, sardonic, fatalistic’; in short, ‘a bit of a bastard’. The producers of the Bond films felt that Fleming’s Bond was too much the English Gentleman. Cubby Broccoli found much to admire in Fleming’s work – the ‘virile, resourceful hero, exotic locations’, and the sophisticated sex – but Bond, for him, still a lacked a certain hardness. This view was not altogether unreasonable. After all, Fleming’s Bond does not slap women, unlike Marlowe, but feels protective towards them; he thinks about marrying Vesper Lynd, Gala Brand and Tiffany Case, and succeeds with Tracy di Vicenzo. So, Broccoli sought to give Bond ‘a coarser shading’ and more masculinity that downplayed the kinder, paternalistic aspects of the character.
Stories linking names with Fleming’s preferred choice, Richard Burton and James Mason, for instance, are largely apocryphal. Fleming’s own preferences for the actor to play Bond would appear to confirm the producers’ view that Fleming’s Bond was not tough enough. Fleming supposedly favoured David Niven or Roger Moore for the role. Niven in particular was well-known for playing upper-class, suave, charmers, and his post-war output up until 1961 had consisted largely of romantic comedies or melodramas. As Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Niven strayed into the world of the globe-trotting adventurer, but this was a rare excursion out of his usual sophisticated urban territory.
We must be careful, however, not to read too much into Fleming’s preference. Fleming was, after all, a friend of Niven’s, and his suggestion can be taken in the spirit of amiable duty. It did not necessarily reflect how he thought Bond should be played. It was in this sense of friendship that Fleming suggested Noel Coward for the role of Dr No, and gave starring roles alongside James Bond to many of his acquaintances in his novels. Indeed, David Niven appeared in the novel, You Only Live Twice, though as a cormorant belonging to Kissy Suzuki, one of the fisher folk of the Ama tribe. These were minor in-jokes that gave a knowing thrill to Fleming’s social circle. But these references demonstrate a generosity that would have put Niven at the forefront of Fleming’s mind for the role of James Bond.
Ian Fleming had other names in mind. According to his friend, Sir John Morgan, he admired Edward Underdown, a character actor usually seen in supporting roles. Underdown was born in 1908 and first appeared on the stage in 1932. Curiously, Fleming dismissed the possibility of Trevor Howard as Bond on the ground of age. This was despite Howard being Underdown’s senior by five years.
Underdown usually took roles in a range of melodramas, thrillers or wartime pieces. Fleming might have seen him as Inspector Johnson investing a murky London murder in Street of Shadows (1953), or as Harry Chelm in the African-set adventure, Beat the Devil (1953), also starring Humphrey Bogart. Perhaps fresher in Fleming’s mind was The Camp on Blood Island (1958), a tense drama following the fortunes of prisoners of war – including Underdown as Dawes – at the hands of a sadistic Japanese camp commander. Or there was Information Received (1961), a crime drama.
Despite his appearances in a range of exciting films, Underdown was regarded as a rather dull leading actor: worthy, but lacking the sex-appeal that Broccoli and Saltzman sought. Indeed, his subsequent casting in Thunderball (1965) as Air Vice Marshal only serves to demonstrate his fate to play secondary authority figures.