Remembering Roger Moore

rog-laldI’ve been taking the death of Roger Moore pretty hard, considering I never met the guy.  But after all, he’s been a part of my life as far back as I can remember.  Basically, he was who I wanted to be when I grew up.

As an awkward, buck-toothed beanpole of a kid living in a succession of middle-of-nowhere small towns, I was completely in awe of  this impossibly handsome, witty and sophisticated jet-setter who got to do the coolest things in the most wonderful places with the most interesting people in the world.  Early on, I decided that was the life for me.  If my off-the-rack Sears Toughskin leisure suits were no match for Roger’s bespoke creations from Cyril Castle or Douglas Hayward, and our Country Squire station wagon was a far cry from a Lotus Esprit, at least I could manage an approximation of Roger’s hairstyle, and after hours of practice in front of the mirror, raise one eyebrow at a time.

Looking back, I wonder if I could sense somehow that the “Roger Moore” I beheld was himself a construct, the invention of an insecure, pudgy and often sickly kid from  working class South London who grew up idolizing screen heroes like Stewart Granger and David Niven with dreams of following in their footsteps.  Young Roger George Moore taught himself to speak with a precise and measured upper-class accent and comport himself with the manners and grace of a true English gentleman, to the point where it was hard to imagine him not having been born into the peerage.  No one batted an eyelash when he played a full-fledged English Lord in The Persuaders, and when he was eventually knighted in real life, it seemed a logical development.  Even before I knew his biography, his carefully constructed public persona inspired my efforts to mimic the traits I most admired: an unflappable sang-froid under even the most stressful conditions, an air of class that never strayed to snobbery, pride in appearance that stopped short of vanity, the ability to weather reversals with humor and elan, to succeed by wit and wisdom where muscle was not sufficient.

Obviously, I tended to blur the lines between Roger Moore and James Bond since I knew the latter better than the former, but the great thing was that when Roger showed up on talk shows or interviews, he was a match for his fictional roles; dressed to the nines, debonair, cultured, witty and charismatic.  For me, Roger Moore WAS James Bond and vice-versa. Critics would dismiss his performances as not “acting” at all, saying he was just being himself.  Oddly, they seemed to be suggesting that was a bad thing.  Personally, I cherished the notion that somewhere out there in the “real” world was a guy every bit as cool as he seemed on screen.

bond-anyaSome have complained that Roger’s version of 007 was too unflappable, too flippant about the chaos exploding around him, but for me, this was the whole point of Classic Bond, the foundation of his portrayal: Roger’s Bond wasn’t immune to fear or pain, but he worked to remain their master.  His seeming indifference to danger was the key to surviving perils where indulging in panic meant courting death, and more than that was a strategy designed to drive his opponents nuts.  He remained nonplussed by their efforts to intimidate him, bored with their demonstrations of strength, bemused by their grandiose speeches, because he refused to grant them the satisfaction of knowing they were getting to him.

There are, if you look for them, plenty of moments when panic threatens to take hold, when Roger’s Bond realizes he’s in the soup and he’d better think fast:  Trapped on a tiny island surrounded by hungry alligators, clinging precariously to the side of a mountain as a villain kicks away the pitons holding him up, spinning to seeming doom in an out-of-control centrifuge.  In For Your Eyes Only, he’s tied to girlfriend du jour Melina as a motorboat prepares to pull them across a coral reef and tear them to shreds.  “I didn’t think it would end like this,” says Melina.  Looking her in the eyes, he answers calmly, “We’re not dead yet.”  With only the girl to hear him, and no villains to impress, he shows what’s at his core, not flippant disinterest but the dogged determination that he WILL, he MUST survive, or that if he must die, he’ll at least not give the enemy the satisfaction of breaking him.  This was old school, stiff-upper-lip English hero stuff, and I ate it up.

As a kid, it irritated me when adults said, “I liked him better as The Saint.”  I hadn’t seen The Saint at that point, but I knew it was a TV show, so the clear implications were that (1) no matter what Roger did, Sean Connery would always be better, and (2), Roger’s talents might have been good enough for TV, but he was clearly out of his depth in movies.  Eventually I did get to “meet” Simon Templar and I realized those old folks may have been on to something: I found that on the whole I liked Roger better as the Saint than I liked anyone as James Bond.  Where Bond was largely amoral and professional about his job (which was, in the end, to kill people), Templar was motivated by a strong personal sense of right and wrong (if not strict adherence to the law).  Bond was, for all his glamorous trappings, a glorified civil servant who had to show up at the office in the morning and take orders from a boss.  Templar was a “free agent” who went where he pleased and involved himself in cases when he felt like it, and for his own reasons.  That archetype of the hero motivated by a personal sense of right and wrong as opposed to patriotic duty was a better fit for Moore, more comfortable as the “knight errant” than the “blunt instrument” of a government agency.

When he transitioned from Templar to Bond, Roger brought along this sense of moral authority, the sense that he is in the game to right wrongs and deal evil-doers their just desserts.  It’s not a motivation that particularly applied to Connery’s Bond, who just did what he was assigned as ruthlessly as required, not because it was “right” or “justified,” but because it was his job.  It also doesn’t apply to Daniel Craig’s current take on 007, who we sense would just be out killing someone else if he wasn’t killing bad guys.  More so than any of the other Bonds, Moore’s is a “crusader,” an approach that plays to Roger’s strengths as a performer even though at times it runs counter to what the character’s about.  Sometimes it helps a scene, as when he kicks a killer’s car off a cliff in For Your Eyes Only  (we know he deserves it) but sometimes it doesn’t, as when the script for Man With The Golden Gun has him slapping around Maud Adams; with Connery, it might have worked, but when Roger does it, he seems caddish and cowardly.  Later in Golden Gun, the high-priced hitman Scaramanga compares himself to Bond and touches a nerve: “When I kill,” Roger-Bond responds icily, “it’s on the orders of Her Majesty’s government, and those I kill are themselves killers.”  It’s a rare and odd moment of Bond trying to justify what he does for a living, and it’s hard to imagine Connery’s Bond offering the same defense.

Over the course of Roger’s 12-year tenure, Bond morphs to fit Moore’s screen persona as much as, or more than, Roger conforms to the Bond template, until, by the end, he’s chivalrously hanging from airplanes and blimps to rescue damsels in distress.  With Roger at the wheel, the role is incrementally steered away from “ruthless assassin” to something closer to “white knight.” Fandom remains divided over whether that’s a good thing.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and by the time of A View To A Kill in 1985, even I was ready for Roger to move on.  Unfortunately, what he went on to was a series of progressively awful films until he pretty much threw in the towel on acting, but on the up side that left him free to devote his time to his charity work as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, championing the cause of underprivileged children around the world and becoming at last a hero in real life, as well.

Often mocked — sometimes not so gently — for being such a powerful avatar of the 70s, with its outlandish fashions, fatuous pursuits and general goofiness, over time Sir Roger became something of a national treasure in the UK.  When Timothy Dalton succeeded him as Bond, many fans were eager to embrace a more serious approach to 007, and it was easy to put down Roger for the same things that had sold all those tickets just a few years before.  But the further his era slips into the past, the more fondly it seems to be remembered.  It’s difficult to look at where the series is today, under the often grim and intensely physical Daniel Craig, and draw a through-line to Moore’s Bond, but certain vestiges remain.  If anything, his legacy is more obvious in non-Bond films like Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible series or The Kingsman films with their over-the-top sensibilities and lack of pretension.  I’d say if any franchise approximates what the Moore era was to Young Me, it’s Marvel’s superhero films, with their emphasis on dazzling spectacle, their embrace of humor, and their skill at transporting audiences to impossible but engaging worlds for a couple hours of pure, unapologetic escapism.

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This has turned out to be a ridiculously long post, but like I said Roger meant a lot to me, even at a distance.  I’m fast running out of childhood heroes and Roger was at the top of the list.  Given the shenanigans most celebrities are prone to, it was great to have a hero who only ever went up in my estimation, never down.

In closing, I like to remember Roger in a scene from Vendetta for the Saint, one of the best stories from the series and one of two adapted for theatrical release. Near the middle of the film, Simon Templar is being manhandled by mob enforcers at the behest of a dying Mafia don, who’s just ordered his execution. The expiring villain says, “Goodbye, Simon Templar.  We will never meet again.”  “I know,” answers Simon, glancing heavenward with a wry smile.  “I’m going that way.”

Godspeed, Sir Roger, and thanks.  May your halo never droop.

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Murphy Anderson, RIP

Comic book artist Murphy Anderson passed away on Oct. 23, and while I always knew I liked his work, it hadn’t occurred to me until now just how many of the most powerful and best-remembered images of my childhood flowed from his brush.

I was a “Bronze Age” kid, introduced to comics in the early 70s when Mr Anderson was teamed with the late, great Curt Swan on the Superman family of comics. Their styles melded together so seemlessly, they became known as the blended entity “Swanderson,” producing not only memorable covers and interior art but also figural icons used on the comics of the era as well as countless pieces of Superman merchandising, including a good half of my school supplies.

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Decades later, the covers Anderson produced with (and without) Swan still have the same pull they did when they first appeared on the spinner racks, calling out to me, “Buy this book!”

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On the inside, “Swanderson” specialized in distinctive, expressive faces, something not even the best comic artists always truly master.  A great example occurs in the much-celebrated and often-reprinted story, “Kryptonite Nevermore.”

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I’d missed out on the “Silver Age” of Comics by a few years, but the images Anderson created with Carmine Infantino in the ’60s for Batman and related characters were omnipresent well into the 70s.  So again I knew Anderson’s work long before I figured out who he was.

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One of the things that made me a “DC Kid” when most of my friends were Marvel Zombies was the more “polished,” elegant “house style” of DC art, which seemed tied to the tradition of classic magazine illustration, compared to the more hi-octane, cutting-edge Marvel style.  In retrospect probably the best exemplar of “DC polish” was Anderson, who paired with Swan created Norman Rockwell-like imagery of life “not as it is but as it ought to be.” More vitally, for me, he smoothed out the rough edges of artists like Infantino and Gil Kane; each were brilliant at drawing figures that conveyed power, speed and agility, but those figures were often saddled with faces too sharp-edged and stylized (even “cartoony” at times) for my taste.  If I had a criticism of Anderson, it was that when he did both pencils and inks, his figures could be a bit on the stiff, posed side, so when he was paired with Kane and Infantino, we got the best of both worlds; dynamic, kinetic figures but with added elegance and attractive faces.

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This ability to, let us say, tame the wilder tendencies of some artists led to Anderson’s most controversial gig, re-drawing faces of Superman family characters in Jack Kirby’s “Fourth World” comics. Wooing Kirby away from Marvel was a coup for DC (although by the end, he couldn’t have needed much of a “push”), and for months his arrival was touted with house ads proclaiming “Kirby Is Coming!” But when he arrived, he seems to have been more than the company was ready for, so they covered up his signature style with something closer to what it was felt the DC readership would accept.

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This infamous editorial move is often cited as one of the many injustices done to Kirby by various publishers, though no one blames Anderson, who just did what he was told.  In all honesty, for me it worked.  I likely never would have pestered my folks to buy me Kirby-era issues of “Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen” without the comforting presence of Anderson’s handsome Superman.   As it was, the books were already crammed with trippy psychadelic vistas and creepy creatures like “The Four-Armed Terror” that alternately intimated and thrilled grade-school me;  Anderson’s reassuring inks were like having a trusted parent along on a walk through a Halloween “haunted house.”

Over the years, almost every major DC character was drawn by Murphy Anderson, and they always looked the better for it.

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I never got to meet Mr Anderson personally (I missed my chance at a convention once, and I’m still kicking myself for it), but he had a big impact on my youth and helped spark a lifelong love of comics.  If nothing else, his consistently excellent artistic output ensures he’ll live on through his work, as long as classic old comics are reprinted.

RIP.

RIP Patrick Macnee

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I couldn’t let the recent passing of actor Patrick Macnee go by without at least a tip of the bowler.

My memories of Macnee go way back.  It’s likely I heard him before I saw him, thanks to his ominous narration at the beginning of every episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. Later, he was the voice of the Cylon’s “Imperious Leader” in the same series, before finally showing up in (sort of) human form as the evil Count Iblis.  By then, I’d probably seen him as British agent John Steed on The New Avengers, running at 11:30 EST on the CBS Late Night Movie.

Naturally it was the Steed role that made the biggest impression, as James Bond had already predisposed me in favor of secret agents and all things British.  Though paired in The New Avengers with two more contemporary, youthful and “hip” agents, it was the comparatively anachronistic (if not fantasy-based) Steed who most interested me.  With his Edwardian outfits and ever-present umbrella, his impeccable manners and cultured ways, he was exaggeratedly “British,” which I suppose satisfied me in the same way that foreigners want all Americans to wear cowboy hats and talk with a twang.

Post-Avengers, Macnee went on to memorable roles in the horror film The Howling and the cult-favorite comedy, This is Spinal Tap, and practically innumerable guest appearances on TV shows.  He starred as Dr Watson opposite two Sherlock Holmeses, Roger Moore (!) in Sherlock Holmes in New York and his old school chum Christoper Lee in two other films.  Macneee also played Holmes himself in The Hound of London, making him one of very few actors to play both roles.  In the wake of his passing, I sought out the Magnum, PI episode titled “Holmes Is Where the Heart Is,” in which Macnee guest stars as a former British agent who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes in a sort of “two for one” package of Macnee specialties.

Indeed, the Steed role was the gift that kept on giving for Macnee, keeping him steadily employed from 1961 to 1969 opposite various screen partners on the original series, then again in 1976 in the aforementioned New Avengers revival, plus in-character cameos on talk shows, variety shows, music videos and commercials.  Even when he was “done” with Steed, he pretty much turned “ex-British agent”  into a second career; you could just imagine producers saying, “We need a former spy in this episode.  Get me Macnee!”  In 1983, he replaced the late Leo G. Carroll as Napoleon Solo’s boss for the Return of the Man from UNCLE TV movie, and if his precise status was somewhat unclear in the 1985 Bond film, A View To A Kill, his casting opposite Roger Moore was obviously meant to capitalize on the nostalgia appeal of pairing two former icons of 60s British adventure TV.

In the 90s, I finally got to see the original Avengers series on AMC, and it became a bit of an obsession for me.  Almost every episode had at least one moment for Steed to shine, but near the top of the list, for me, was a scene in “A Touch of Brimstone.”  Chiefly famous for a skimpy and suggestive outfit Mrs Peel wears as “the Queen of Sin,” (contributing mightily to the decision by American networks not to air the episode at the time), the episode also features the immortal scene where Steed applies for membership in the mysterious Hellfire Club, and is put through a tension-filled initiation by the wonderfully evil Lord Cartney, as played by Peter Wyngarde.

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Steed is first challenged to drink a ridiculously huge mug full of some sort of alcoholic spirit, which he does with aplomb (asking for a bit more as “the drive down seems to have given me quite a thirst.”) Then, with his wits and reflexes thus (presumably) impaired, he’s challenged to remove a dried pea from a chopping block before a club member can cut it in two with an axe.  Another member, and a veteran of this particular test in the past, holds up his two prosthetic fingers as a warning of what could happen.  Steed agrees gamely, with the air of a fatuous aristocrat out of his depth and blind to his peril.  Lord Cartney looks on with a cruel leer, al but licking his lips at the prospect of witnessing a gruesome maiming.  The signal is given, the axe swings down and Steed — puff! — blows the pea off the chopping block, thus meeting the challenge of removing it, and without ever risking his digits.

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Wyngarde, still a couple of years away from iconic superspy status himself as Jason King in Department S, is perfect here, projecting first an oily sadism, then a fuming disappointment at Steed’s clever dodge.  Macnee handles the scene perfectly as well, playing up his “clueless fop” act while underneath he’s acutely aware of his danger, and Cartney’s treachery, and determined to outwit him.  By literally “blowing off” Cartney’s “ultimate test,” he makes a mockery of the whole exercise, and gives Cartney a figurative poke in the eye without ever dropping the pretense of fun and games.   Here we have Steed in a nutshell, the eccentric, flighty facade concealing a center of hard, English steel.  It’s no coincidence that the bowler secretly has a steel brim and the umbrella conceals a finely honed sword.

At the height of my infatuation with The Avengers, I bought a full-size umbrella to replace my collapsible version.  I wanted to practice all the “stage business” Macnee was so great at when he used his as a cane, a pointer or a hook (rarely did Steed’s brolly actually get opened).  In my defense, I never carried it unless their were rainclouds out, and ultimately I abandoned it as too hard to wrestle in and out of my car.  Plus I could never roll it even a fraction as tightly as Steed did.  Even at my most intense stage of fandom, I didn’t buy a bowler, but I definitely sympathized with Niles and Frasier Crane when they defended their love of Steed to their dad Martin in an episode of the sitcom, “Frasier:”

Martin: My point is, you guys could never resist putting on airs.  Even when you were in junior high, you used to love that TV program, “The Avengers.” You used to run all over the neighborhood pretending you were that guy with the umbrella…Steve.
Frasier: Steed!
Niles: (rolls his eyes) Dad!
Frasier: There were worse role models. Steed was dapper and witty.  When anyone tried to give him grief, he gave them a sound thrashing with the umbrella.
Martin: Well, that’s great, admire him if you want. But did you have to run through the neighborhood in bowler hats? I mean, you were just begging to get beat up.
Frasier: Come to think of it, it was rather a rough summer that year, wasn’t it?
Niles: I remember getting a chin strap so the bowler wouldn’t fall off when I ran.

It’s worth noting that much of what we associate with Steed are traits native to Macnee himself; the cheery good humor, the charm and pleasant manner and gentlemanly conduct.  In his book, “The Avengers And Me,” Macnee noted that it was largely up to him what form his character would take (not least because, at first anyway, it had been meant as just a supporting role):

“Nobody told me how I should play steed, or relate to other people.  I never, ever, got a brief. It was never written down.  The script for ‘Hot Snow,’ the first episode in December 1960 said; ‘Keel is about to push the bell button when the door is flung open.  Steed stands there.’  Just that, nothing else.  No description, nothing.  So I just made him up….[Steed] was never a character in literature, like Bulldog Drummond, Simon Templar or James Bond, or a persona somebody else had first created in another medium.  Steed was never written down — “Steed stands there.”– and I was the man.  I’m awfully proud of that.  As time went on, Steed and myself just grew together.”

Even in his heyday, Steed was an anachronism, and more’s the pity.  Macnee, likewise, seemed one of the last exemplars of a more civilized and decent era, a time either long past or maybe just imagined in the first place.  We’re a bit the poorer to have lost them both.

 

RIP Leonard Nimoy

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Long ago, before the geeks inherited the Earth, before “Big Bang Theory” ruled the airwaves and superhero movies ruled at the box office, before everyone and his brother had a Dr Who t-shirt, “nerd” was not a label we wore with comfort, let alone bragged about.  Being a nerd meant being ostracized, teased and bullied.  Back then, your love for science fiction or comic books was something you kept to yourself, until, through some secret signal or other, you connected with a fellow traveler, thereafter to spend your lunches in the school cafeteria together, gleefully — if quietly — comparing notes on favorite Bradbury or Asimov stories, debating whether the Flash could outrun Quicksilver, or trying to figure out the science (if any) behind warp speed and photon torpedoes.

If there was an icon for us in those days, it was undeniably Mr. Spock, the ultimate outsider, the only one of his kind on a crowded ship where everyone else fit in.  Like us, he was defined by his otherness. His brain worked differently from his peers, which gave him satisfaction and a sense of identity but also loneliness and pain.   Where we stuck out as different with our thick glasses or braces or bad skin or never-quite stylish clothes, for him it was those pointed ears; at once cool and unsettling, weird and mesmerizing, they set him apart from everyone else, which could be a good and bad thing, often at once.  And that’s why we “grokked” Spock.  We may not have come from the planet Vulcan, but we knew what it was to be alien.  In the end we were vindicated as Spock’s logical mind often saved the ship, or whole worlds, and intelligence was revealed not as a liability but in fact a superpower.  (And just for good measure, he was the strongest guy on the ship, even if his pacifism kept all that power in check.)

Under the makeup and ears was Leonard Nimoy, an actor of considerable intellect and ability who worked hard to preserve his character’s dignity and saw it pay off as he and Spock grew into cultural icons.  Fifty years later, with Star Trek such an integral part of popular culture, it’s easy to forget what a hugely courageous act it was to put on those ears for the first time.  Like any actor, Mr. Nimoy must have wanted to be respected for his work, and to get more work, but both respect and future employment were on the line if the gamble failed, if no one would see beyond that odd makeup to the soul of the character.  Today even Academy Award winners line up to shave their heads, paint their faces and apply fake noses, brows, ears and hair for superhero and science fiction films, but Nimoy took up the challenge in an age where most celluloid science fiction involved zippered, rubber monster suits, giant insects and wobbly flying saucers. There were no guarantees he’d come out on the other end of Star Trek with any kind of career at all.  It was to his great credit that he saw the potential in the character and was willing to put so much on the line to bring it to life.  Everyone making millions today off of nerd-friendly movies and TV owes him a Vulcan salute.

Of course, there was a lot more to Nimoy than Spock. He was a talented poet and photographer and directed non-Trek films like Three Men and A Baby and The Good Mother, for starters.  But it’s a testament to the talent and sincerity he poured into Star Trek that, for once, it doesn’t seem disrespectful to link a real person to a fictional character.  For many, thanks to Nimoy, Spock was as real as anyone they knew.  Which, on the downside, kind of makes this a double loss.

The last reel of Wrath of Khan, still and probably always the best of the Trek films, is filled with three-hanky moments as  Spock sacrifices himself for the ship, says goodbye to his best friend and is given a “burial in space,” but the moment that always hits me hardest is when McCoy calls up to Kirk, still on the bridge, and tells him he’d better come running.  Until now, Kirk has been so wrapped up in his battle with Khan that he hasn’t even noticed Spock’s left the bridge, but as soon as he hears that cryptic plea from McCoy, he knows what’s happened.  He looks over to the science station to see Spock’s empty chair and the truth hits him like a punch to the gut. That image of the empty chair is more powerful in its understatement than all the gory makeup or teary dialog that follows.  Today the chair is empty again, but unlike in the movies, and with due respect to Mr. Nimoy’s nominal successor in the role, that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Rest in peace, Mr Nimoy, and godspeed on your new voyage.

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