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A history of one of the most popular and widely recognized characters in cinema: James Bond

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 1:49 p.m. MDT

Daniel Craig portrays James Bond in a scene from Daniel Craig portrays James Bond in a scene from "Skyfall." (Mgm)

Since his first appearance in 1962's "Dr. No," James Bond has become one of the most popular and widely recognized characters in cinema.

It's estimated that half the world's population has seen at least one Bond film, and this weekend's release of "Skyfall" will mark the 23rd entry in what is the longest continually running — and, after "Harry Potter," the second-most-lucrative — franchise in film history.

Almost as fascinating as any Bond film, however, is the complex history of a cultural icon that has grown bigger than any of the six actors who have portrayed him over the past 50 years.

The world is not enough

Ten years before Sean Connery put on Bond's ad hoc uniform, a perfectly tailored Anthony Sinclair tuxedo and bow tie, Ian Fleming's roguish MI6 agent took shape on a typewriter at the British author's Jamaican bungalow, a place nicknamed "Goldeneye."

Pierce Brosnan was the fifth of sixth actors to play Bond. (Mgm) Pierce Brosnan was the fifth of sixth actors to play Bond. (Mgm)

As Fleming would later describe him, Bond was a "compound of secret agents and commando types" that the author himself had known or heard about during his time as an intelligence officer during World War II.

"Everything I write has a precedent in truth," Fleming once said.

For some of the most unbelievable elements of his novels, he looked to the exploits of real-world superspies like Wilfred "Biffy" Dunderdale, Conrad O'Brien-ffrench, William Stephenson and even his own brother, Peter Fleming.

The British author also drew on historical sources. Bond's iconic code name, 007, is thought to have originated with the 16th-century secret agent, occultist and polymath John Dee, who used the three-digit cipher to sign all his correspondences with Queen Elizabeth I.

But nobody resembles James Bond more than the author himself. As Ben Macintyre writes in his book "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond," "The exploits of 007 grow directly out of Fleming's knowledge of wartime intelligence and espionage; they shared similar tastes and even attitudes towards women; they even look similar. … But Bond was also … the fantasy of what Fleming would like to have been … a grownup romantic fairy tale."

After the publication of his first Bond story, "Casino Royale," in 1953, which sold nearly 5,000 copies in a single month, Fleming went on to write 11 more novels. From early in his new career as a novelist, however, Fleming set his sights on bringing his "oafish opus," as he called Bond's globe-trotting adventures, to a larger audience.

Bond … James Bond

Even for the world's most famous secret agent, the path to Hollywood turned out to be a bumpy one.

After multiple failed attempts to get his character onto the big screen, including a 1954 CBS version of "Casino Royale" starring Barry Nelson as an Americanized "Jimmy" Bond, Fleming finally sold an option to a relatively inexperienced producer named Harry Saltzman.

Teaming with another Bond fan, Albert "Cubby" Broccoli (whose family's previous claim to fame was bringing a certain green vegetable to the U.S.), the two producers began a search for the perfect actor who could capture Bond's unique mix of class and callousness — the type of man who looked equally at home sipping vodka martinis, driving sports cars, seducing women and breaking people's necks.

A number of actors were considered for the role, including Cary Grant, Patrick McGoohan and Fleming's first pick, David Niven. Ultimately, the choice came down to two young actors: Roger Moore and Sean Connery.

In an interview with film historian Patrick McGilligan, Richard Maibaum, who co-wrote the script for Bond's first onscreen adventure, "Dr. No," said of the choice, "Cubby saw something in Sean which he thought was what they wanted. They took a gamble with Sean; they would have been much safer with Roger."

Rather famously, Fleming's initial reaction to the casting of Connery, a former milkman and bodybuilder with an inescapably thick Scottish accent, was less than positive. Likewise, "Dr. No" director Terence Young called the casting news a "disaster."

Studio expectations for the film were also extremely low. One of the screenwriters, Wolf Mankowitz, even had his name removed from the credits in order to avoid damaging his career.

(As an ironic side note, Mankowitz's most famous screen credit after "Dr. No" was a 1967 version of "Casino Royale" done as a spoof of the Bond films and starring Niven.)

Upon its release, however, "Dr. No" became a massive hit.

Made for only $1 million, the first Bond film went on to generate nearly $60 million at the box office. Slightly less than two years later, Saltzman and Broccoli returned with "Goldfinger," the third Bond film, which helped cement Bond's status as an international icon, bringing in another $124 million and setting up the franchise for five decades of exotic locales and thrilling action.

Nobody does it better

From Connery to George Laszenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, the role of James Bond has undergone some drastic changes over its 50-year history in film.

With 2006's "Casino Royale," the first blond Bond was introduced in the form of British character actor Daniel Craig.

In his three-film tenure, Craig has become hugely popular among diehard Bond fans and casual moviegoers alike. Even Bond No. 3, Roger Moore, recently called Craig "the best Bond ever."

But even though Craig is under contract for at least two more films, rumors have already begun to swirl about who the next actor could be to call himself "Bond … James Bond." After his breakout turn as Magneto in last year's "X-Men: First Class," fans have flocked to Irish actor Michael Fassbender as a possible candidate.

More recently, Idris Elba, the towering star of the BBC's fantastic psychological police drama "Luther," has been linked to the role. Elba would be the first black actor to portray Bond on film.

No matter who takes on the role, however, Bond will always be bigger than any single actor, thanks to his 50-plus-year legacy to popular culture — a legacy that began back in 1952 at Ian Fleming's typewriter.

Sources: "The Birth of Bond," by David Kamp; "For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming + James Bond," by Ben Macintyre

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