In my review for the latest James Bond spectacle, Skyfall, I celebrate the fact that after a couple of dark, moody outings, the Bond Franchise is finally rediscovering its fun side. After all, it was Commander Bond’s casual combination of flippant humor and deadly force that made him irresistable—a quality that all too many would-be imitators discovered all too late.
Over the past five decades, lots of dashing actors have aspired to follow in James Bond’s dapper Church slip-on shoes — starring in films that their producers dearly hoped would become series as successful as the 007 franchise. Of course, they had no such luck. Among the Bond-ish boys:
Dean Martin as Matt Helm: Like Bond, Helm was a spy from literature. He appeared in 27 books, beginning in 1960, written by Donald Hamilton. Dean Martin starred as the ladykiller Helm in four films: The Silencers (1966), Murderers’ Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967) and The Wrecking Crew (1968). The series’ popularity roughly paralleled the success of Dino’s weekly variety show on NBC.
Michael Caine as Harry Palmer: In his thick hair and thicker black glasses, an impossibly young Caine resembles Buddy Holly with a handgun in three mid-’60s Len Deighton spy movies: The Ipcress File (1965), Funeral in Berlin (1966), and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). He returned to the role, older but somehow more dashing, in Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996).
James Coburn as Derek Flint: “He’s at much at home in the Casbah as he is in the boudoir!” teases the trailer for 1967’s In Like Flint, the second of two action/parodies starring the lean, handsome young star. Coburn and company knew they couldn’t out-Bond Bond, so they lampooned him, beginning with Our Man Flint (1966). The over-the-top action and comical set pieces had more influence than you might expect on the wacky Roger Moore Bond films of the 1970s. The legendary Lee J. Cobb slums as Flint’s boss at Z.O.W.I.E. (the Zonal Organization for World Intelligence and Espionage).
Fred Ward as Remo Williams: Executive producer Dick Clark (!) had good reason to give this 1985 spy thriller the hopeful title Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. It was based on “The Destroyer,” a fabulously successful pulp series. Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton was behind the camera. The Spy Who Loved Me screenwriter Christopher Wood wrote the script. The cinematographer was Andrew Laszlo, who created the gritty look of TV’s Naked City. And actor Fred Ward, an up-and-coming hunk who’d impressed as Gus Grissom in The Right Stuff, was positioned to become Hollywood’s first big Native American leading man. But aside from one nicely done scene on the scaffolding that then surrounded the Statue of Liberty, Remo Williams is as lifeless as a compromised spy in an East Berlin alley.
And for jaw-dropping ethnic insensitivity, Broadway song-and-dance-man Joel Grey’s turn as a Korean martial arts instructor rivals Mickey Rooney’s what-the …? role as a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Remo never got a redo.