"I never do this," David Horowitz, a public relations executive for ABC, said as he picked up British actor Roger Moore at Kennedy Airport. "Can I have your autograph for my son?"
It was 1986, and Moore was in New York City to do some publicity for the network. A year earlier, he had starred, at age 58, in "A View to a Kill." It was his last James Bond film but also the first that Horowitz's son saw in the theaters. In that movie, Moore's 007 takes on Christopher Walken, an evil genius/rogue KGB operative/Nazi-experiment-gone-awry who flies around in a blimp, out of which he sometimes drops people. Moore, alternating between black and white tuxedos, Paris and San Francisco, does recon at a horse track, skis, and has a chiaroscuro sex scene with Grace Jones before saving Silicon Valley and ending up safely in a shower with yet another woman. All of this capped by a theme song performed by Duran Duran.
That combination made a profound impression on Horowitz's 8-year-old son, for whom the notion of a secret agent man who never overly exerted himself proved just as healthy a role model as an all-star first baseman who smoked in the dugout. So when Horowitz returned home to Queens after a day of shepherding Moore around the city, it caused a stir when he produced from his weather-beaten briefcase a signed promotional headshot of Moore, himself looking rather weather-beaten, with crow's feet around his eyes, a rogue's smile on his mouth, an unbuttoned white collar on his neck and rugged furrows in his Hollywood-tanned brow. The picture was quickly framed and hung above the light switch in young Horowitz's room. For years to come, a flicking on of the light revealed a scrawl on the glossy's upper right-hand corner that read, "To Jason, With my best wishes, Roger Moore."
Reader, we have bylines for a reason. I, Horowitz, Jason Horowitz, was that boy. And Moore was my Bond. What follows, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the franchise, is a defense of why Moore's Bond — slightly geriatric, addicted to eyebrow raising, caddish to a fault — was, despite all evidence to the contrary, the greatest 007.
Let's start with his strangest movie, 1973's "Live and Let Die," a James Bond blaxploitation flick starring Yaphet Kotto ("Names is for tombstones, baby"), but more memorably, a recurring redneck sheriff character and the baritone-voiced actor most famous for calling 7-Up the marvelous uncola. History's other Bonds, which at the time really meant Sean Connery, would have seemed out of place in this 1970s hallucination. Moore fit right in. He put the moves on Jane Seymour by raising his eyebrows as high as his co-stars' afros.
By then, Moore was already 45 years old and on the third of his four marriages. He had served in the Royal Army Service Corps. He had appeared in movies with names like "Trottie True" and "One Wild Oat." He had worked as a male model for knitwear ("The Big Knit" they called him) and played James Garner's Brit cousin in "Maverick." He had become famous in 1962, as the spy Simon Templar in "The Saint," reruns of which aired on Channel 11 during those acres of home-sick airtime between kung fu movies and "The Godfather." He had been a playboy detective opposite Tony Curtis in a show that apparently did better in Germany, where they dubbed the dialogue with a different script. He had already tasted, in other words, a healthy portion of life.
As a result, anyone watching could sense that Moore's Bond cared more about the gadgets and the girls than the mission. Roger Moore seemed to know that trying to control the mission was futile. You just had to go with it and smile. Look what happened to poor, serious-looking George Lazenby when he made Diana Rigg Mrs. Bond: She got shot by Blofeld, and Lazenby got banished to the bordello known as cable's "Emmanuelle" series.
In Moore's movies, there is none of the realistic grit or psychological tension bookended by Connery and Daniel Craig, or the trying-too-hard of Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton. Who else but Moore could accidentally inhale some treasure out of a belly dancer's belly button, make a funny face and then get into a fist/karate-chop fight. Sure, he sometimes missed the face of a guy who nevertheless went flying from the phantom punch. But once you bought in, that was a whole lot better than watching the expensive explosions that have destroyed many latter-day Bond movies.
In Moore's best film, "The Man With the Golden Gun," you got duels and Tattoo from "Fantasy Island." In "The Spy Who Loved Me," you got a sexy spy named Triple X and a villain with steel teeth named Jaws. "Moonraker" featured Epcot trains and the return of Jaws, but as a good guy. In "For Your Eyes Only," I don't remember, but that's okay! There's no guilt in Mooreland! In "Octopussy," my favorite, knife-throwing circus twins and Faberge eggs played pivotal roles. Take Roger Moore out of these, replace him with someone with more stable eyebrows and something shaking or stirring under the surface, and the amusement is sapped.
Moore saved his sense of purpose for real life. A veteran humanitarian, he is currently speaking out in London against foie gras. But I'm happier that he is out promoting his third book about being Bond and starring in something called "An Evening with Sir Roger Moore." On Oct. 14, his 85th birthday, he'll be appearing at the Rose Theater in Kingston, England. If you are in the neighborhood, you should go. Chances are it won't be brilliant, but it will be fun.