The definitive ranking of James Bond actors

Six actors have officially held the licence to kill, but which of these shaken, stirred thesps wore the Walther PPK best?

In the enduring, if somewhat condescending words of Q, pay attention. For, when we say the definitive ranking of James Bond actors, we don’t mean James Bond films. Nor do we mean James Bond storylines. We don’t even mean James Bond cars. We mean the actors. Find out who took Ian Fleming’s superspy and embodied him best — that’s the mission. So don’t be getting your tuxedo in a twist if you don’t agree with us.

Because we know you will. But, if the delay of No Time To Die has got you ticked off and looking for a fight, let’s lay down both our Walther PPKs and some ground rules. Firstly, we’re not going to get too hung up on looks. True, Bond must be male, preferably British and of a certain build — but Daniel Craig showed that even producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli don’t really care about Bond’s height anymore. So why should we?

Secondly, our deep dive will take us only through the canon of the 25 official Eon-produced films. That means we’ve only got six true Bond actors to rank. There’ll be no Barry Nelsons or David Nivens here. And, finally, we’re not going to totally ignore context. If Bond makes a quip that wouldn’t get past HR today, we’ll take it as a product of the time. Understood? Okay then, well follow us down the gun barrel…

In at number six, George Lazenby

George Lazenby

Lazy, lazy Lazenby. The burly Australian barged into the franchise for film No. 6, made a real meal of it and then exited again. True, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has gained something of a cult following over time, and showed us a vulnerable, more emotional and Daniel Craig-like Bond well before its time, but was George Lazenby the right man to bring that vision to life? He was not.

Lazenby may have looked the part, but he was more of a brawler than a refined gentleman spy. Albert Broccoli famously had to ‘My Fair Lady’ him before they stuffed him into his dinner jacket, and he strangely only snagged the part because producers spotted him in an advert for Fry’s Chocolate Creams. And we can never, never forgive the moment Lazenby turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall by saying, “This never happened to the other fellow”. Sacrilege.

His best film: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

His defining moment: Just before that unforgivable fourth-wall break, actually. A bare-knuckle beach fight that drew on Lazenby’s martial arts background and would stand up in even the grittiest modern day Bond film.

His suavest line: Well you know what it’s not, don’t you? Instead, we’d probably go for a line later in the film, where Bond heads off on some bloody business, but not before telling his associates: “Just keep my martini cool”.

In at number five, Timothy Dalton

Timothy Dalton

Now we wanted to put Dalton higher up this list. We really did. But then you go back and you watch his films and they leave you a little deflated. Because if Lazenby was a bad Bond in a good film, then Dalton was the opposite. He had the coarseness and the cool of Bond, and he certainly looked the part. But we never got to see the Welshman’s full potential; and that’s  because both of his two films were aggressively mediocre.

It didn’t help that he was a back-up choice. Again, like Lazenby (who was chosen when Roger Moore’s television commitments got in the way) Dalton was picked purely because Pierce Brosnan’s show Remington Steele was renewed for another season. And, sadly, Dalton’s two turns do both have a whiff of consolation prize about them.

His best film: Out of the two, it has to be The Living Daylights over Licence to Kill. At least Dalton feels fresh-ish in his first outing as the superspy.

His defining moment: When he kills Robert Davi’s drug lord Sanchez at the end of Licence to Kill. Bloodied and bruised, Dalton sets him on fire — and we suddenly feel worlds away from the pulpy camp of Roger Moore just two films ago.

His suavest line: After he’s been shown to his hotel room in Licence to Kill, the hotel manager asks Bond if the suite is to his liking. Bond replies: “It’s adequate,” before adding, “I’d like a case of champagne, Bollinger R.D”. Because why not?

In at number four, Sir Roger Moore

Sir Roger Moore

Here he is, the fun Bond — which sounds a little strange, given how much bloodshed and misogyny followed Roger Moore’s 007 around. He’s the longest-serving superspy on this roster, with seven films under the belt of his safari jacket. And not all of them are good (here’s looking at you, Octopussy). But we’ll say one thing about Roger Moore’s take on 007; he was consistent. Kudos to the Englishman, he chose a way to play it, and stuck to his guns.

But Roger Moore is the type of Bond who is only your favourite when you’re young. If you’re tucked up on a Bank Holiday as a child watching Bond, he’s the face you want to see. His endless quips temper the violence, his hammy charm makes for almost cartoon romance and he even sells some of the silliest gadgets the franchise has so far seen. Or does a fake nipple not count as a gadget? Whatever, this is a Bond who also dressed as a clown, so our point is that he can’t be taken top-three seriously.

His best film: Surely The Spy Who Loved Me. Moore’s third has Russians, a secret lair, a Lotus Esprit, Jaws and Nobody Does it Better. Peak Moore.

His defining moment: Oh-so many to choose from. If we had to pick one? When Bond confronts a gunmaker in Macau in The Man with the Golden Gun. Balancing his sophisticated accent with true malice and slipping in a groin pun? Maybe this is actually peak Moore?

His suavest line: From The Spy Who Loved Me’s opening sequence. Bond, about to ski circles around a squad of Soviet agents, is leaving a log cabin. From bed, a woman shouts out to him: “But James, I need you!” Cool as you like, he turns back. “So does England,” he purrs. Now that’s peak Moore.

In at number three, Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig

You probably expected our Bond incumbent to be higher up the list. And, we’ll be honest, so did we. But, if you watch Daniel Craig’s four films, and scour the internet for every clip or image of his fifth, you’ll enjoy some spectacular stunt work, some great stories and some heritage characters — but not much of the essence of 007. Sam Mendes arguably tried to force it with Skyfall, bringing back Moneypenny, Q, a male M and the DB5. But Craig’s Bond, while the best and most consummate action hero on this list, doesn’t top our roster of 007s.

We’re past the blonde thing, and the fact that he’s a good five or six inches shorter than every other Bond before him — but Craig’s take on the superspy is almost too real. True, his inaugural film was a relatively straight adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, but there needs to be a little more escapism in Bond than what we get with Craig. Remember that bit in Skyfall where he jumps on the back of a Komodo dragon to escape its enclosure, flirts with Moneypenny and quips “Put it all on red!” in the space of 20 seconds? That’s the tone we want. More of that would make Craig our perfect Bond.

His best film: Many would say Casino Royale; a cracking entry and a sterling way to relaunch the franchise. We’d say Skyfall. Tongues were in cheeks, Union Jacks were up flagpoles and Craig had found his stride.

His defining moment: The cuff check! The Skyfall Istanbul train chase digger fight cuff check!

His suavest line: Not suave as such, but then neither is Craig. In Spectre, when Bond barks “Stay!” at a security guard. It shows he’s a rougher, more rugged Bond — but that his funny bone remains unbroken.

In at number two, Sir Sean Connery

Sir Sean Connery

When we rounded up the best Bond cars, there was no way we couldn’t put the Aston Martin DB5 at the top of the list. It may have been bettered by several cars throughout the series, but the outcry would have been audible across the internet. The same can probably be said for us putting Connery in second place. But, you know what? We don’t care. We know we’re right — and here’s why. For everything Connery got right, from his handsome, menacing look to the panther-esque body language, he always made a ridiculous, nonsensical quip to let him down.

And we know the Scotsman wasn’t a scriptwriter. He wasn’t penning some of these horrors. But nevertheless, he delivered certain lines with such tonal confusion that they shift from mildly funny to downright confusing. Take Diamonds Are Forever, for example. Bond emerges from a pipe, fully-tuxxed, and says: “Sorry, I was just out walking my rat and seem to have lost my way”. What?!

Then there’s the lines he smirks after killing people. “Positively shocking!” he says, after an electrocution. “I think he got the point!” comes the quip after he shoots a speargun at a man’s chest. “Bon appétit!” he smiles, after feeding a man to crocodiles. It’s just too much, Sir Sean.

His best film: Despite the fact that Connery remade it, outside of the Eon canon, as the disastrous Never Say Never Again (another reason he doesn’t clinch our top spot), we’d say Thunderball.

His defining moment: His introduction. Drenched in glamour and gambling, Connery gives us the first classic ‘Bond. James Bond’ while lighting a cigarette. Insouciance personified.

His suavest line: Let’s tread lightly here. Steering clear of his kill lines, and instead going for class and cool, we’d go with Goldfinger: “My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done; such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit.”

And in at number one, Pierce Brosnan

Pierce Brosnan

We’ll just press pause while the Brosnan naysayers have a little fume. Okay, all done? Then let’s press on. For us, the Irishman swings the top spot, purely because he marks the perfect mid-point between everything that makes Bond great. His films see a blend of Timothy Dalton’s grittiness and Roger Moore’s campiness. His gadgets, too, are sometimes as silly as Connery’s gyrocopter, but always more welcome than no gadgets at all, like early-Craig Bond. And, on top of that, the man doesn’t half look the part.

There’s not a more chiselled Bond on here. He’s easily the man who best matches Fleming’s on-page physical description. His physique sits between no-muscle Moore and superhero-bodied Craig. And his delivery of even the worst kill lines (“They’ll print anything these days,” after throwing a man into a newspaper press springs to mind) makes them somehow work. Just don’t dwell on that invisible Aston Martin.

His best film: Goldeneye. Directed by the same man who helmed Casino Royale, Martin Campbell, it was a similarly brave, brazen vision for the established character. And it all hinged on Brosnan’s confident star turn.

His defining moment: Any of his tuxedo scenes. Brosnan was also the best-looking Bond in black tie. So much so, in fact, that his contract forbade him to wear a tuxedo in any other film while he held the mantle of the superspy. Seriously — check out his odd take on eveningwear in The Thomas Crown Affair for proof.

His suavest line: After villainess Elektra tells Bond he could have had the world, he responds: “The World is Not Enough”. “Foolish sentiment,” she replies, before he quips back: “Family motto”.

Want more Bond trivia? Here are 20 facts you never knew about the superspy…

Join the Gentleman’s Journal Clubhouse here

Further Reading