HIS EXPLOITS HAVE been chronicled in more than 20 movies. He has been portrayed by six actors, has bedded umpteen of the world's most beautiful women and fought the bad guys everywhere from underwater to outer space. He has persisted as a pop-culture mainstay for more than half a century, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
How does James Bond do it?
"I think the reason for our longevity has been [that] we've kept with the times and reinvented ourselves time and again along the way," says Barbara Broccoli, co-producer of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, set to open Friday, the 21st in a series of films that dates back to 1962's Dr. No and the first to star Bond No. 6, Daniel Craig. "You have to change. If you don't, you die."
Fair enough; some credit for the survival of England's favorite secret agent as a box-office draw goes to the franchise's refusal to stand pat. Bonds and Bond girls and Bond villains have come and gone. The world has changed, and yet new generations of movie audiences keep delighting in the adventures of agent 007. The 20th film in the series, 2002's Die Another Day, was the biggest moneymaker yet, pulling in nearly $432 million worldwide.
But the answer goes deeper than that, and touches on the qualities that made Bond appealing in the first place -- his masculinity, ingenuity and unswerving, self-contained moral compass.
Plenty of other cinematic heroes have tried to remain viable, but none have succeeded so spectacularly. Inspector Clouseau couldn't survive the death of Peter Sellers, even though Roberto Benigni and Steve Martin both tried reviving the character. Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan and Tarzan are strictly yesterday's news. And fans aren't clamoring for revivals of Dean Martin's Matt Helm or James Coburn's Derek Flint.
Even on this, his 21st go-round -- or 23rd, if one counts the "unofficial" Bond films Casino Royale (a 1967 spoof with David Niven) and Never Say Never Again (released by a rival producer in 1983) -- 007 is dominating the cinematic headlines everywhere.
"Every time a movie comes out, everybody says Bond is a dinosaur, and he's past his best," says David Black, chairman of the 2,000-member James Bond International Fan Club, on the phone from his home in York, England. "But over here, every 10 minutes, there's something on television about Bond and the new film. They can't help talking about it."
Fact is, people have been talking about James Bond since 1953, when Ian Fleming, a retired British intelligence officer, published his first novel centering on the exploits of a suave, high-class secret agent with an affinity for getting the dirty jobs done and a propensity for associating with the most beautiful women while doing so. Casino Royale proved a major hit (much to the surprise of Fleming, who reportedly figured his success would never extend beyond a certain niche audience), and a literary franchise was born. Fleming, who died in 1964 at age 56, would write 12 novels and nine short stories featuring Bond.
From the start, audiences have identified with Bond. True, few are really like him -- witty, urbane, ingenious and athletic, a force for good, a babe magnet of the first order. But if men haven't seen themselves in Bond, they have certainly wished they could.
"It's hard to find a heterosexual male in the world who doesn't dream of emulating Bond and his lifestyle," says Lee Pfeiffer, editor of Cinema Retro magazine and co-author of The Essential Bond: The Authorized Guide to the World of 007. "Other heroes have been diminished over time by being either too unrealistic for people to identify with, or showing a vulgar side to them that diminished their original characters."
As for women, they've long dreamed of being swept off their feet by their very own James Bond, particularly as embodied on the screen by Scottish actor Sean Connery, who inaugurated the role with Dr. No and would go on to play 007 in six more films. Handsome and droll, rarely flustered and always ready with a quip, Connery's Bond was a crowd-pleaser from the start.
"I wanted to be a Bond girl from the time I was 11," says Deborah Lipp, the fortysomething author of The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book. "To this day, there aren't three or four things I enjoy more. I love James Bond."
Lipp's appreciation for Bond goes beyond the character's considerable sex appeal. "He is the perfect combination of fantasy and reality," she says. "He's not a superhero; James Bond is a person. He lives among us, and yet he lives a life of adventure and fantasy and excitement. It's exotic. He travels all over the world. He's stylish and classy, but he's also edgy."
Not to mention au courant.