What is it that has kept us fascinated with the James Bond movies over the years? Is it the cars? Is it the guns? The gadgets? The “Bond girls”? Is it the theme songs? Well, yes; all of the above! Ever since 1953, when creator Ian Fleming’s released his first novel, Casino Royale, the western world has been captivated by the exploits of the dashing British secret agent, James Bond.
Fleming released twelve novels and two anthologies of Bond stories until his death in 1964. Afterwards, seven other authors have picked up the torch and have kept on publishing canon-approved Bond stories. The secret agent has been adapted for television, radio, video games and film. The James Bond films are the longest continually running film series to date, which all began in 1962 with Dr. No. This November will see the 24th Bond film, Spectre, released in theaters (the 26th film if counting the two non-canon non-Eon films).
In celebration of all that is Bond, I have compiled a list of the ten best characters from the spectrum of films that have spanned the past fifty-three years! You might be asking, what are the criteria for inclusion in this soon-to-be legendary list? Well, I’m not just talking about the villains, or the so-called “Bond girls”; those are lists in themselves. No, I’m drawing from all manner of characters featured in the films throughout the years: friends, foes, ambiguous allies, and co-workers. They don’t have to be recurring characters, just have been dynamic enough to influence our view of either the film, the character of James Bond, or the entire genre of spy movies. Now, you might be saying every film had a character, or characters, that influenced how we viewed the film. True, but this isn’t a ranking of every film and its characters, so I’ll be just taking the top ones that I found to have had the most influence.
So, let’s get started:
The character known as “M” is the fictional head of the British Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, and has appeared in twenty-four films. In the Eon Production (canonical) series, “M” has been portrayed by four actors: Bernard Lee, Robert Brown, Judi Dench and Ralph Fiennes; in the two non-canon films, the character was portrayed by John Huston, David Niven and Edward Fox.
“M” was reportedly based on Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming’s wartime commander in Naval Intelligence. After Fleming’s death, Admiral Godfrey grumbled, “He turned me into that unsavoury character, M.” In the final novel of Fleming’s series, The Man with the Golden Gun, “M’s” full name was revealed as Vice Admiral Sir Miles Messervy, KCMG.
Each actor who portrayed the character brought a unique perspective. Bernard Lee in the classic incarnation of the character played “M” in eleven films, from Dr. No (1962), until Moonraker (1979). Many Bond scholars have gone on record as saying that Lee’s interpretation of the character was most in line with original literary representation.
Lee died of cancer in January 1981, partway through filming For Your Eyes Only (1981). Out of respect, no new actor was cast to replace him. A painting of him can be seen hanging in MI6’s headquarters in The World Is Not Enough (1999).
After Lee’s death, the studio hired Robert Brown to portray the character in Octopussy (1983), and ultimately portrayed the character in four films, the final being License to Kill (1989). It should be noted that Brown appeared in the 1977 film, The Spy Who Loved Me, not as “M”, but as Admiral Hargreaves. Bond scholars consider Hargreaves having been promoted into the position.
When the film series continued in 1995, with Goldeneye, the producers cast Dame Judi Dench as “M”. Her incarnation was based on the real head of MI5 in the 1990s, Stella Rimington. Dench’s portrayal was cold and blunt, showing a disdain for Bond, calling him a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” Dench was seen as casting maternal overtones in her relationship with Bond, overtones brought to the forefront in Skyfall (2012), when the bad guy, Silva, refers to her as “Mother” and “Mommy”.
Dench portrayed the character in a total of seven films, as well as six video games; the final film being Skyfall, where her character is shot and mortally wounded, making her the only “M” to be killed in the canonical films.
The current incarnation of “M” is portrayed by acclaimed actor Ralph Fiennes. His character succeeded Dench in Skyfall and will appear in 2015’s Spectre. His character of “M” is retired Lieutenant Colonel Gareth Mallory of the British Army, former Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee.
In the non-Eon produced films, John Huston was first to play “M” in the satire, Casino Royale (1967), where he is subsequently killed and replaced in the position by James Bond as portrayed by David Niven. Interestingly enough, Niven’s Bond/”M” orders that all MI6 agents, be renamed “James Bond 007” in order to confuse the enemy (a theory many fans hold true for all the Bond incarnations over the years).
In 1983’s Never Say Never Again, Edward Fox portrays “M” as a strict bureaucrat, devoid of any sort of relationship that previous or future “M’s” have held with Bond.
James Bond might be suave and debonair, but he’s also the kind of agent that’ll do anything to accomplish the mission, even when it is detrimental to his own well-being. “M” is the character that attempts to keep him grounded and on track, being the only real authority figure that can boast any kind of control on the independent Bond.
#9 Max Zorin
Maximillian “Max” Zorin is the main antagonist in A View to a Kill (1985). The character is portrayed by Christopher Walken. Zorin is the product of Nazi medical experimentation during World War II, where pregnant Jewish women were injected with steroids in an attempt to breed “super children.” The few surviving children were unusually intelligent, but as a side-effect were also psychopathic.
Zorin, as head of Zorin Industries, has grand plans to use explosives to trigger an earthquake to destroy Silicon Valley in California. He’s wealthy, ambitious, cool and utterly nuts! With Walken playing the role, you can expect the craziness to be subtle at times, and then unleashed maniacal madness at others!
I remember seeing this movie when I was younger and it did not rank very high on my list. The soundtrack, Roger Moore’s aged final performance, Tanya Roberts – all not very good. However, it is Zorin that makes this movie memorable! Could anyone else have pulled it off? Probably not. Walken brought his own brand of charisma to the role and the character will be forever etched in Bond moviegoers memories for eternity!
#8 Emilio Largo
Emilio Largo is the main antagonist from 1965’s Thunderball. He originally appeared in the novel of the same name, and later in the unofficial Bond film, 1983’s Never Say Never Again (a remake of Thunderball). In Thunderball, Largo is portrayed by Italian actor Adolfo Celi.
In the original novel, Largo is described as a ruthless black marketeer who rose to the international crime scene, eventually becoming second-in-command of the terrorist organization SPECTRE. In the film, Largo is “Number 2” and successor to Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Largo’s plan is to steal two nuclear warheads and then hold the world hostage until his ransom demands are met.
The actor Adolfo Celi strongly resembles his literary counterpart in appearance, and for some unknown reason also wears a black eye patch over his left eye (never mentioned in the novel and they don’t talk about it the film). Celi’s voice was dubbed by Robert Rietty (who had previously dubbed the voice of Strangways in Dr. No, as later Ernst Stavro Blofeld in For Your Eyes Only).
Largo attempts to kill James Bond for meddling in his scheme and gains the upper hand. With victory in his grasp, Largo is shot in the back with a spear gun by his former mistress, Domino.
The character and scheme of Largo has been adopted many times since Thunderball, possibly most memorably in the Austin Powers films. Robert Wagner’s character, Number Two, is directly inspired by Largo in name as well as in appearance.
We can’t discuss Emilio Largo, without mentioning his boss, Blofeld. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is the quintessential evil genius! In the fictional world of James Bond, he is the head of the global criminal organization SPECTRE, with dreams of world domination. Commonly referred to as “Number 1,” the character was written by Fleming to be a physically immense man, standing over 6-foot 3-inches, weighing 300 pounds, with a very powerful build.
Mentioned in three novels, the character has appeared directly or indirectly in six films (seven if you count the non-canonical Never Say Never Again), from 1963’s From Russia with Love, to 1981’s For Your Eyes Only. He has been portrayed by a total of six actors: Anthony Dawson (face never seen), Donald Pleasence, Telly Savalas, Charles Gray, and Max von Sydow. Initially, in his first two film appearances, his face was never shown, only a close-up of him stroking his white blue-eyed Turkish Angora cat.
The character has gained influence way outside of the Bond universe. Many of Blofeld's characteristics have become clichés of villainy in popular culture, signifying the stock character of the evil genius. In the Austin Powers films, the character of Dr. Evil and his cat are both direct parodies of Blofeld and the stroking of his white cat. This is seen again in the animated television show, “Inspector Gadget” with his arch-enemy Dr. Claw and his pet, Mad Cat.
#6 General Gogol
General Anatol Alexis Gogol appeared in six films. He was the head of the KGB in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), and A View to a Kill (1985). He then appeared in The Living Daylights (1987) as a Foreign Service envoy having left the KGB.
Gogol was portrayed in all his appearances by Walter Gotell.
General Gogol is no ally to Bond, but he is no villain either. You can always trust him to act in the best interest of his nation; usually that means assisting James Bond in heading of the possibility of nuclear war. His views are not always shared by his colleagues but he has been there for Bond in tight moments. Even when his actions run counter to Bond’s, such as in For Your Eyes Only and A View to a Kill, Gogol acts not as an enemy, but as more of a respectful rival.
When he appears in the films, the viewer can only hope that his objectives are in line with that of James Bond.
#5 Honey Rider
Originally named Honeychile Rider in the novel, Dr. No, her name was shortened in the 1962 film version. She is portrayed by the beautiful Ursula Andress, whose heavy Swiss accent had to be dubbed over by Nikki van der Zyl. She was the first “Bond girl,” though she wasn’t actually the first woman in the film to have been a mission-related “conquest.”
Her entrance in the film, emerging from the surf in a white bikini with two seashells is a classic Bond moment. In homage, Halle Berry’s entrance in Die Another Day (2002) was very similar.
In the novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Fleming mentions Ursula Andress by name, describing her as a “beautiful movie star.” She is one of only two entertainers to have starred in a Bond film who was also mentioned previously in a Bond novel (the other being David Niven). Andress refers to her bikini in Dr. No as the “secret of her success.”
The character Rider is a Jamaican shell diver, very independent and very beautiful. She has a minor facial imperfection in that her nose is broken, a lasting remnant of being sexually assaulted when she was younger. She becomes a shell diver in Crab Key, Dr. No’s island, in order to make enough money so that she can have plastic surgery to correct her nose.
She set the standard for “Bond girls” for years to come.
#4 Baron Samedi
Baron Samedi is a fictional voodoo figure from the novel and film, Live and Let Die (1973). Portrayed by Geoffrey Holder, Baron Samedi is somewhat of a henchman to the antagonist, Mr. Big.
The character’s origins are unclear and the audience is left wondering if he is the actual Voodoo God Baron Samedi or simply a flesh-and-blood human who has assumed his identity. What adds to the mystery is that he appears to help Mr. Big, aka Dr. Kananga, yet is not under his control. Also, he apparently is not too easy to kill. In the film, he meets his end by being killed seemingly twice by James Bond (the first time appeared to have been a mechanical duplicate). However, just before the end credits, we see Baron Samedi riding atop a speeding train laughing demonically, promoting the premise that he is indeed a supernatural being.
The character was inspired from the Loa Baron Samedi, the Voodoo spirit of death.
Jaws was my favorite henchman when I was younger. He is one of only a few bad guys to appear in more than one Bond film. Jaws was portrayed by actor Richard Kiel in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. Jaws was an assassin, a highly-skilled killer relying on brute strength and his stainless steel teeth. He was very imposing, standing over 7 feet tall and weighing 315 pounds.
Jaws wasn’t actually a character from the novels. He was inspired by another villain named Sol Horror who appeared in the novel, The Spy Who Loved Me. Horror had steel-capped teeth.
The large steel prosthetic teeth worn by Kiel were thought up by Albert R. Broccoli, designed by Katharina Kubrick Hobbs and created by Peter Thomas, a British dental technician who worked near Pinewood Studios. Kiel has stated that the teeth were very uncomfortable to wear and that he would have to immediately remove them after a scene.
Jaws first appeared in the 1977 film, The Spy Who Loved Me as a henchman to antagonist, Karl Stromberg. He next appeared in Moonraker (1979), working for an unknown evil-doer in the pre-credits scene, and then later coming under the employ of Hugo Drax. He has the incredible ability to survive unscathed and come back from any supposedly fatal event. He has had an Egyptian structure collapse on top of him, been hit by a van, been thrown from a fast-moving train, been in a car which goes off a cliff, fought a killer shark (and won), the explosion of Stromberg’s lair, falling several thousand feet with a disabled parachute, and crashing through a building in a runaway cable car (where he meets his true love, Dolly). Each time he simply gets up, dusts himself off and walks away. At the end of Moonraker, after having switched sides and helping Bond defeat Drax, he and Dolly amazingly escape the collapsing space station in an emergency pod, where he opens a bottle of champagne and speaks his only lines in either film, “Well, here’s to us.”
There were plans to have Jaws return for a third appearance in 1981’s For Your Eyes Only, where we would see him marry Dolly. However, due to production changes, that idea was scrapped; too bad. Jaws has always been a fan-favorite.
In 2002, Jaw’s steel teeth were displayed as part of an exhibition at The Science Museum in London, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the release of Dr. No.
#2 Miss Moneypenny
The perennial Miss Moneypenny! She is a constant in most of the Bond films, as the secretary to “M”, head of the British Secret Service (MI6). Her interactions with James Bond are always full of sexual tension, yet their relationship has always remained professional.
Though officially having no first name given in neither the novels nor most of the films, her character finally received a first name, Eve, in Skyfall (2012). It has also been revealed that she was formerly a field agent and holds the Royal Navy rank of lieutenant. In Ian Fleming’s first draft of Casino Royale, Miss Moneypenny was originally named “Miss Petty Pettaval,” adapted from Kathleen Pettigrew, personal assistant to MI6 Director Stewart Menzies. This was changed in the final draft to simply “Miss Moneypenny.”
As the private secretary and assistant to “M”, she is privy to sensitive intelligence reports, holding Top-Secret, Eyes-Only and Cabinet-Level clearances. She is dedicated to her work often at the sacrifice of a social life and it is believed that no one understands James Bond as personally as she does.
Miss Moneypenny was portrayed by Lois Maxwell in the first fourteen Bond films, followed by Caroline Bliss during the Timothy Dalton years, and then by Samantha Bond during the Pierce Brosnan years. Since Daniel Craig has assumed the role of James Bond, the character of Miss Moneypenny did not appear in his first two films. However, Naomie Harris was cast and subsequently appeared in Skyfall and is to appear in this November’s Spectre.
Was there every any doubt about my number one choice for the best character from the films? Loveable “Q” has appeared in twenty-two of the Bond films (including the non-Eon ones). “Q” is the abbreviation for Quartermaster, like “M”, it is a job title rather than a name. This fictional character is the head of Q Branch, or Q Division, of the British Secret Service.
The character never actually appears in any of the Ian Fleming novels, though the Q Branch is mentioned. The inspiration for the character is believed to have been Charles Fraser-Smith, who created a number of spy gadgets for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during World War II. These gadgets were called Q-devices.
The first actor to portray the character was Peter Burton in Dr. No; although he is referred to as Major Boothroyd, the armorer, and not “Q”. Scheduling conflicts prevented Burton from returning in the next film and he was subsequently replaced with the “Q” we are most familiar with: Desmond Llewelyn. Starting with 1963’s From Russia with Love, Llewelyn portrayed the character in every Eon film except Live and Let Die until his final appearance in The World Is Not Enough in 1999. Llewelyn was loveable as “Q” due to his exasperation and impatience he has with Bond’s short-attention span and lack of respect for his equipment. An ever-present line in most films involves “Q” telling Bond, “pay attention, 007!”
In The World Is Not Enough an assistant to “Q” was introduced, portrayed by John Cleese. He was credited as “R”, stemming from a joke in the film where Bond asks “Q”, “If you’re ‘Q,’ does that make him ‘R’?” Following Llewelyn’s death in 1999, he was then officially credited as “Q” in the next film, Die Another Day.
“Q” did not appear in 2006’s Casino Royale nor its sequel, Quantum of Solace (2008). The character did return for Skyfall, when actor Ben Whishaw was cast in the role. At 31 years of age, the British actor was the youngest to play the role and is expected to return in 2015’s Spectre.
Whishaw’s “Q” is highly knowledgeable in computer security protocols and micro-electronics. He has shown a healthy disdain for field agents but acknowledges their usefulness in certain situations.
Though he might not show it enough, James Bond has “Q” to thank for providing just the right gadget to get him out of many a tight spot. If not for “Q”, Bond would have met his end long ago. It is for this reason that I chose “Q” as the best character of the James Bond films.
Okay, so there you have it. These are my choices for the top ten best characters from the James Bond films. If you’ve read any of my previous lists you should know I wouldn’t end it just like that. I have to add my choice for honorable mention!
I know some of you might be thinking Felix deserved a place in the actual list and it was a quandary. Eventually, I made the choices I did but always kept coming back to Felix. That is why I’m including him here.
The fictional character is an operative of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and a friend to James Bond. He has appeared in ten Eon films, a video game, and the non-Eon film, Never Say Never Again.
The novels describe Leiter as being tall, thin build, about thirty-five years old, a former U.S. Marine who remains cool under pressure and is well-aware of Bond’s strengths and weaknesses. He is basically an American version of Bond.
He was first portrayed on film in 1962’s Dr. No, by Jack Lord. Lord played the character with a certain swagger making him visually Bond’s equal. The character was to be brought back for 1964’s Goldfinger, and Lord was approached to reprise his role. According to screenwriter Richard Maibaum, Lord demanded co-star billing, a greater role and more money to return. The studio chose instead to recast. Cec Linder was cast but ended up looking too old to be a contemporary of Bonds.
In 1965’s Thunderball, the role was again recast when Rik Van Nutter was hired. Scholars call Van Nutter’s portrayal “inspired” and believe his “relaxed and charming performance works well.”
Leiter does not appear again until 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. For this film, producers selected Norman Burton for the role. His portrayal is said to be more amusing and more frustrating than previous incarnations. Like Linder, many believed Burton was miscast as he appeared too old and too overweight for the role.
In 1973, when the Bond films introduced a new leading man, Roger Moore, they chose an old friend of Moore’s to portray Leiter, David Hedison. He was by far my favorite actor in the role. Scholars agree that with his portrayal in 1973’s Live and Let Die, the “genuine chemistry” between the two characters is felt. Hedison played the role wonderfully, with an unassuming charisma that complements, but doesn’t take away from, James Bond. Not everyone liked Hedison’s performance but most agree that he was the best portrayal next to Rik Van Nutter.
I consider it a testament to this when sixteen years later, Hedison returned to the role for 1989’s License to Kill. In that film, Leiter has been assigned to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and is involved in a shark attack, losing a leg, but he survives.
In between Hedison’s two portrayals, John Terry was cast to play Leiter in 1987’s The Living Daylights. Though many agree that Terry’s performance showed warmth in his interaction with Bond, it was too brief to have had any impact and that there was no long-term chemistry.
The character did not appear again until Daniel Craig took up the mantle of James Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale. In that film, Jeffrey Wright was cast as Leiter and allowed him to meet Bond for the first time as this was considered a reboot of the franchise. Wright reprised the role in 2008’s Quantum of Solace. Wright remains the only other actor, besides David Hedison, to have reprised the role of Felix Leiter.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Bernie Casey. Casey played the role in the non-canonical film, Never Say Never Again (1983), which starred Sean Connery as Bond in this remake of the 1965 film, Thunderball. I like Bernie Casey and many Bond scholars believe Casey to have been the most compelling Leiter since Jack Lord; however, if you’ve seen the film, there was very little in the story for his character to do. It was a waste of talent and a waste of a good character.
So there you have it, my complete accounting of the ten (plus one) best characters in the James Bond films. Throughout the years, I’ve enjoyed the Bond franchise immensely and though some of it is a little far-fetched – it’s fun. That’s why I go to see films like this; to have fun and lose myself in the action and intrigue. I can’t wait for this November and the new Bond film, Spectre. I hope to see you there!