The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Timothy Dalton
By Mother Brain
The first time I heard the name James Bond was in the summer of 1989 when Licence to Kill was released in theaters. Being a Ghostbusters and Batman fan at the time, I did not know anything about Bond as a character and the fact that there were 15 other films that came before it. Timothy Dalton was my first exposure to the role before I even knew that Sean Connery started it and I did catch up on the films until after the release of Goldeneye in 1995. By then, I was quick to judge Dalton as my least favorite actor as 007 due to his darker interpretation of the role. Little did I know then he was attempting to recapture a real world aspect of Ian Fleming’s novels that was lost in Connery as well as George Lazenby and Roger Moore’s performances.
The classically trained Welsh actor and future James Bond actor was born in North Wales in 1944 near the end of World War II. His father served as a captain in the Special Operations Executive before changing his profession to advertising executive. Dalton’s mother was an American who raised five children with Dalton as the oldest. After the war, Dalton’s family moved to upper-class Derbyshire where he studied at the Herbert Strutt Grammar School. He was initially engaged in sports and science and as a teen he would briefly serve for the Air Training Corps.
The desire for Dalton to become an actor started with his grandfathers who worked in vaudeville acts; however, it was at age 16 when Dalton saw a production of Macbeth that he decided to make it into a career. After grammar school, Dalton enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and tour with the National Youth Theatre. He quit the Royal Academy after 2 years to join the Birmingham Repertory Theatre where he appeared in productions of The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, and As You Like It just to name a few.
1968 saw Dalton make his film debut as Philip II of France in The Lion in the Winter starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn. The Oscar-nominated period drama immediately got the attention of James Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman who were seeking a new actor to replace Sean Connery for the upcoming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton who was in his mid-20s at the time of the offer felt too young for Bond and even more unseasoned to fill Connery’s shoes. He would spend the majority of the 1970s in theatre productions while appearing in cinematic supporting roles in Mary, Queen of Scotts and Permission to Kill.
Dalton’s profile in film was raised in 1978 when he was cast opposite an 85 year old Mae West in her final film, Sextte. The film brought Dalton to the attention of American audiences and eventually led to supporting roles in Agatha opposite Dustin Hoffman and Vanessa Redgrave and later 1980’s Flash Gordon where he played the title character’s best friend, Prince Barin, but it was a guest spot on Charlie’s Angels where he played a playboy jewel thief romancing Farrah Fawcett that got people talking about the possibility of Dalton becoming the next James Bond due to the countless number of 007 references in the episode. Ironically, the Bond producers approached him again after the release of Moonraker in 1979 to replace Roger Moore, but due to the comic book-style direction of the franchise, Dalton resisted the offer again.
The early 80s saw more productivity for Dalton in film and television. Among the highlights of the time included the BBC miniseries adaptation of Jane Eyre, Sins with Joan Collins, and The Doctor and the Devils opposite Stephen Rea, Jonathan Pryce, and Patrick Stewart. In 1986, Dalton had thought to have found his breakthrough role as Basil St. John in the adaptation of Brenda Starr, based on the Dale Messick comic strip. Playing the eye patch-wearing love interest of the title character played by Brooke Shields, Dalton now in his 40s had the suave and mature looks down to be a credible leading man in Hollywood. Unfortunately, Brenda Starr was shelved for 3 years due to legal issues and eventually tanked on release.
As Dalton worked on Brenda Starr, the aging Roger Moore officially retired from James Bond and a new actor search was on. Pierce Brosnan was expected to take on 007 due to the cancelation of his Bond-esque television series, Remington Steele. When the show was renewed for another season, the Bond producers decided they did not want their star playing two iconic roles at once. Instead, they made another pass at Dalton who finally decided to say yes after nearly 20 years. His debut film, 1987’s The Living Daylights, was a hit with critics and audiences, grossing more money than Roger Moore’s last outing as 007. The public responded favorably the return of Bond in a Cold War spy thriller scenario and to Dalton who was marketed as “the dangerous Bond.”
Dalton had broken away from the cartoonish depiction of the role to the cigarette-smoking, cold-blooded assassin that Ian Fleming had conceived. He made a push for the producers to increase the dramatic aspects of Bond, making him more of a man on a mission than a charming superspy, and completely tone down the humor. That decision would ultimately backfire on his next entry, 1989’s Licence to Kill. Although Kill did well overseas, it sunk like a rock in America when competing in a brutal summer of sequels that included Lethal Weapon 2, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, and the original blockbuster, Batman. The audiences turned their back against this edgy new Bond and they were not in support of its Miami Vice-style premise; however, the Bond producers still felt Dalton was their guy and all he needed was a third film to be accepted by the public.
While contracted for a third outing as Bond, Dalton chose to find roles that played against type. He earned positive notices for his role as a dying lawyer seeking to enjoy what’s left of his life in the British comedy, Hawks. Dalton’s more high profile role outside of Bond was the villainous Neville Sinclair in Disney’s The Rocketeer. Even as a Nazi spy posing as an Errol Flynn-type movie star, Dalton still comes across as sexy and charming in his scenes with Jennifer Connelly. The same would be true for his performance as Rhett Butler in the Gone with the Wind sequel miniseries, Scarlett.
By 1993, Dalton grew tired of the legal issues that prevented a new Bond film from hitting the screen. Initial plans had his third Bond entry involve a chemical factory bombing in Scotland, hi-tech weaponry, and a complete overhaul of the key production staff. Eventually, the treatment was scrapped and matters were not helped by the flops Dalton suffered at the box office. In 1994, Dalton and the Bond producers mutually agreed to part ways, paving the way for Pierce Brosnan to finally become the new 007.
Dalton reverted to supporting roles, mostly in television and box office busts such as The Beautician and the Beast, American Outlaws, and Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The latter had him playing a Bond-like superspy father to Brendan Fraser. He returned to the stage in 2003 to play Lord Asriel in His Dark Materials. Then the late 2000s saw a nice resurgence for Dalton when he took a dark comedic turn as the neighborhood watch leader committing murders in a small English village in the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost hit, Hot Fuzz. He then lent his voice talents to Toy Story 3 as Mr. Pricklepants and would reprise the role in the semi-sequel short films made after its release. On television, Dalton had two memorable roles as the Lord President of the Time Lords on Doctor Who and the MI6 scientist gone rogue on Chuck.
Dalton’s most recent comeback role has arrived with Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. Produced by the team that made the most recent Bond film Skyfall, Dreadful has Dalton playing African explorer, Sir Malcolm Murray, who is out to find his missing daughter while teaming with some unique characters to take on the supernatural in Victorian London. Since its series premiere, Dalton has received a warm reception from critics and a new generation of fans.
In recent years, Bond fans have become more warmer in retrospect to Dalton’s two performances as 007. Many believe he deserved another chance at the role and that he helped pave the way for the reality-based work of Daniel Craig in the current reboot direction of the series. We can only wonder how different the Bond franchise and Dalton’s career could have been had that third film been made; however, the freedom to play a variety of characters on screen and stage is the true joy of Dalton’s work as an actor. As I learned in writing this piece, Dalton had considered playing Bond in Goldeneye under the condition that it would be his last film. When the Bond producers expressed their desire to lock him into four more entries afterwords, Dalton did not want to be locked into an iconic role for another decade. It was a decision not made by an egotistical movie star. It was made by a true artist of the craft.