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Pierce Brosnan Was Meant to Be James Bond. But Then He Was Meant for More

Long positioned to assume the mantle of 007, the Irish actor played the iconic character during a period of transition for the franchise. Turns out, both he and Bond were better off without each other

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

He just looked like James Bond

In order to play 007, you need a few things — a little panache, a cocksure attitude — but something that’s a little harder to pin down, but is nonetheless absolutely essential, is that you have to exude a certain Bond-ness. And that’s what Pierce Brosnan always did. Before him, Bond had looked like everybody from Sean Connery to George Lazenby, but when Brosnan stepped onto the scene, you just sensed he had the right hair, the right eyes, the right demeanor. It was merely a question of when the role would be his.

Currently, we don’t have a James Bond. With Daniel Craig walking away from the role after No Time to Die, the world is greeted by a familiar ritual of endless speculation about who the next 007 will be. Betting lines have been set up, with everyone from Tom Hardy to Rege-Jean Page to Jamie Dornan to Idris Elba being touted as possible contenders. Every once in a while, an actor comes along that everybody just assumes will be James Bond, although it doesn’t always work out. (Just ask Clive Owen.) It’s now been 20 years since Brosnan last did a Bond movie, and as great as Daniel Craig was in the role, nobody has been more James Bond than him. Turns out, though, that’s not necessarily a compliment to 007 — or to Brosnan. After so many false starts and breathless anticipation, both the franchise and the actor ended up better off without each other.

Born in 1953 in Ireland, Brosnan didn’t know his father growing up. (“Dad ran to the hills; never saw him ‘til I was 31,” he’d later tell GQ.) His mom had to go off to London to support her son, forcing Brosnan to be raised by different family members, including grandparents, an aunt and an uncle. What did the experience of moving around teach him? “That I’m a survivor,” he said in the GQ profile. “That I can dream well. That I can work hard. That I have some kind of faith that keeps me in check, keeps me grounded in life. And just really good fortune to have traveled through the fair and still be at the table, so to speak.”

After deciding not to be a professional artist — although he still paints — he took up acting, working in theater and on the big screen. He first came to Americans’ attention thanks to 1981’s The Manions of America, a miniseries about Irish immigrants coming to the U.S. during the Irish Potato Famine. In a Baltimore Sun profile from the time, writer Antoinette W. Header declared, “Whatever else The Manions of America may be, it will be the making of a new star, Pierce Brosnan, the Irish-born, London-based actor who plays Rory O’Manion in the miniseries.” Brosnan, then in his late 20s, was muted about the possibility of burgeoning stardom. “We shall see,” he said. “I’ve heard so much rubbish talked about other actors. You know, they become the face of the year, for a year, then you don’t see them again. I take it all with a pinch of salt, really I hope it will lead to other work. If it’s better work, then fantastic.”

His next big job was Remington Steele, a very silly 1980s comedy/drama/thriller/spy series that debuted on NBC the following year. The conceit: Stephanie Zimbalist played a private eye who has to hire Brosnan’s former thief to be the face of her new detective agency since nobody believes a woman can be good at the job. They solved mysteries and fell in love — and along the way, fans started thinking this Brosnan guy would make a great 007. In a 1985 profile in The Washington Post, writer Lois Romano described Brosnan as “the hunk with brains. Some call him the Cary Grant of the ‘80s and he’s being mentioned as a natural to succeed Roger Moore as James Bond.” Brosnan deflected, somewhat, telling Romano, “It would be another typecast. I think I’d put the man in the coffin then … just doing a harder-edged Remington Steele. But yes, yes, I would do it.”

With Moore leaving the role after that year’s A View to a Kill, though, it was time to start guessing who would be the next 007. And for a good long while, it seemed certain to be Brosnan, until it wasn’t. It’s a story that’s been told multiple times: how the producers tapped Brosnan to star in The Living Daylights — he’d even done publicity photos to prepare for the casting announcement — only to have the Remington Steele brain trust decide to bring back their canceled show, in part, to capitalize on Brosnan’s raised profile. Contractually obligated to return to Remington Steele, Brosnan had to let 007 go. 

“Yes, I was disappointed at the time, pissed off in fact,” he’d say later. “I also felt a bit of a Charlie because every day there was some story about Bond and Brosnan in the press. But it was just business and I was caught in the middle.”

I actually don’t mind the Timothy Dalton movies that came after Roger Moore’s 007 period. In 1987’s The Living Daylights and 1989’s License to Kill, Dalton played James Bond with a little more grit than Moore had brought to the part, but there was a collective cultural disappointment in these films, which were largely viewed as tide-me-overs until Brosnan was able to be 007. Meanwhile, Brosnan, now finally freed of Remington Steele, continued working. (Sadly, he also was mourning the loss of his first wife, Cassandra Harris, who died in 1991 of ovarian cancer.) Brosnan was part of the hit comedy Mrs. Doubtfire — he’s the stuffy new boyfriend of Robin Williams’ ex-wife — and the star of the NBC miniseries Noble House, playing the head of a powerful (but troubled) trading house in Hong Kong. The role required him to wear a tux, which of course he looked great in. People’s Jeff Jarvis raved about Brosnan’s performance in Noble House, saying, “This is his coming-out party as an official debonair sex symbol. It is absolute proof that he should have been James Bond.” A lot of people felt like Jarvis, angry on Brosnan’s behalf that he’d been denied his destiny to play MI6’s most famous spy.

When Dalton and the Bond producers parted ways after License to Kill, the speculation started up again. In April of 1994, Entertainment Tonight ran a poll asking fans who should play Bond. Brosnan was the clear winner, followed by Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson and Hugh Grant. Two months later, Brosnan was announced as the next 007, an obvious choice but also, perhaps, an uninspired choice. Yes, Brosnan looked like James Bond, but after the so-so critical and commercial performance of the Dalton movies, maybe the character was a relic. 

Deep down, maybe Brosnan understood this as well. “The skeptics were out in full: The world felt there was no need for another James Bond,” Brosnan recalled in 2019 about the build-up for his first Bond film, 1995’s GoldenEye. “So the challenge was enormous. I didn’t want to get caught between what Sean and Roger had done. Yet, at the end of the day, my take was a little bit of what both had brought to the role. I leant towards Sean’s style, but I couldn’t deny Roger because GoldenEye was in the tongue-in-cheek style people had become used to.”

Partly because there hadn’t been a Bond picture in six years — and partly because audiences clamored for Brosnan in the role — GoldenEye was a massive hit, resurrecting the franchise. He’d go on to make three more films — Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day — and although they all did well at the box office, there was something lacking about them. Brosnan was perfectly fine as 007, but also a bit anticlimactic. So long assumed to be an ideal Bond, he couldn’t surprise us, just as the movies themselves struggled to embrace a more spectacle-driven era of blockbuster cinema. Sorta jokey but also sorta serious, the Brosnan films epitomized an ancient franchise that was battling with younger franchises at a moment when sequels were starting to become more fashionable. James Bond didn’t quite fit, with many citing the Brosnan years’ main contribution to the culture being the introduction of the beloved GoldenEye video game.

When Brosnan spoke to GQ for that 2014 piece, he sounded like he had his own reservations about his 007 films. “When I played Bond, it’d been dormant for six years; it was a huge undertaking on the part of everyone involved to get it right,” he said. “And so I was kind of caught somewhere in between the Roger Moore and the Sean Connery of it all. And both men, I adored as James Bond. But it never felt — I don’t know — real. I felt like I was in a period-piece sometimes.”

Still, he was disappointed when he found out that he wouldn’t be returning after 2002’s Die Another Day. “I was in the Bahamas, working on a movie called After the Sunset, and my agents called me up and said, ‘Negotiations have stopped,’” Brosnan recalled. “‘[Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson] are not quite sure what they want to do. They’ll call you next Thursday.’ I sat in Richard Harris’ house in the Bahamas, and Barbara and Michael were on the line — ‘We’re so sorry.’ She was crying, Michael was stoic and he said, ‘You were a great James Bond. Thank you very much,’ and I said, ‘Thank you very much. Goodbye.’ That was it. I was utterly shocked and just kicked to the curb with the way it went down.”

Many years later, Brosnan was able to be more philosophical about his dismissal. “Bond is the gift that keeps giving and has allowed me to have a wonderful career,” he said in 2020. “Once you’re branded as a Bond, it’s with you forever, so you better make peace with it and you’d better understand that when you walk through those doors and pick up the mantle of playing James Bond.”

The afterlife of a Bond actor is often interesting to chart. Sean Connery had an impressive career away from 007, while Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton didn’t manage to land anything as memorable or popular once they left the role. Daniel Craig’s post-Bond future isn’t yet known, although with the Knives Out franchise he seems to be in good shape. We’ll have to see where Craig ends up, but for now, Brosnan is a special case: He alone became a movie star thanks to 007 and then managed to parlay it into a film career that’s been more rewarding since Bond — some might even say during his time as James Bond. 

After all, look at the 1999 remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, where Brosnan got to play a thief with a Bond-ian flair who was far sexier and more compelling than 007. Likewise, 2001’s The Tailor of Panama was a classier, more sophisticated spy thriller than the Bond movies. In later years, he’s sometimes returned to the action-thriller genre, portraying aging hitmen or CIA agents, and whether the results are successful (The Matador) or not (The November Man), you always see Brosnan clearly ecstatic that he gets to play around in that world and not be Bond. Talking to GQ about The November Man, where he’s a retired American operative embroiled in international intrigue, he compared the film to his 007 pictures, saying, “[T]here was this kind of void that was left [after I stopped playing Bond]: this itch of unfinished business. And so that’s where November Man came from. I wanted to create an action hero character. I could do all the things that I didn’t get to do in Bond.”

What always made Brosnan seem like a perfect Bond were his good looks, his stylish air, that impeccable accent, his refined manner. Remington Steele and 007 had allowed him to show off his comedic chops, but as he’s gotten older he’s grown more comfortable being funny, whether it’s in the Mamma Mia! movies or Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga. As Bond, Brosnan always seemed a bit restricted by the smirking superspy that Moore had crafted, trying to find his own variation on handsome deadpan irreverence. By comparison, the more mature Brosnan, while still impossibly good-looking, feels unburdened, happy to portray goofballs or devious authority figures, as in 2021’s False Positive, where he’s a seemingly august fertility specialist who will secretly terrorize Ilana Glazer’s hopeful mother-to-be.

Sinister has been an especially good look for post-Bond Brosnan. In 2010’s excellent The Ghost Writer, he plays Adam, an eminently pompous former British Prime Minister who’s hired lowly writer Ewan McGregor to help him complete his memoir. It may be Brosnan’s most complete performance, a study of a man insulated by power who has acted monstrously and barely cares, lording his status and his untouchability over this writer who naively believes that he can expose the politician for his past sins. The steeliness that Brosnan never could achieve as 007 — those movies were designed to be too pleasingly disposable to permit such dark tones — comes to the fore in The Ghost Writer. To watch the film is to suddenly realize you’ve never seen Pierce Brosnan quite like this. It’s startling. 

Ironically, though, just as Brosnan was liberated from Bond, so too did Bond seem liberated from him. When the 007 producers cast Daniel Craig, the idea was to take the character in a grittier direction. Gone would be the quips and the smarmy sexism — instead, Bond would be a more somber individual who never got over the loss of his true love Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. Brosnan had longed to play a Bond like that, but Craig got the chance, showing how antiquated Brosnan’s 007 films had become. One can’t help but wonder what Brosnan would have brought to this starker portrayal, but he was gracious with his replacement. During the press tour for No Time to Die, Craig said, “[When I was starting out as Bond] I got a nice piece of advice from Pierce Brosnan, who just said, ‘Enjoy it, it’s a ride.’ And he was right, it’s all you can do.”

Although hardly campy, those late-1990s/early-2000s Bond pictures that Brosnan made feel weirdly dated, a byproduct of a glibber blockbuster age as special effects started to run rampant and the stories started getting sillier. (Let us not forget that, in the midst of his Bond run, Brosnan was also doing multiplex junk like 1997’s Dante’s Peak.) Mostly, the Brosnan Bonds feel like a franchise trying to figure out how to pivot back to relevance, casting a seemingly perfect Bond who, unfortunately, symbolized a bygone idea of the secret agent. Craig was given the latitude to shock us with his 007, whereas Brosnan was largely there to maintain a status quo — to uphold a musty vision of who the character used to be. For four films, Brosnan did his best to make Bond seem cool — it took his successor to break the mold.

For Brosnan’s entire career, he’s been handsome, suave, the walking embodiment of the man of mystery. But even before Bond, he had to combat the impression that he was just a hunky dude in sharp threads — an impression started by Remington Steele. “It needles a bit that some people really think I’m just like the character I played,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989 as the NBC show was in his rearview mirror, the possibility of Bond seemingly gone forever. “It’s really interesting how this dapper image, this model image, has come about. I’ve been party to it — and got into it. Jeez, I like wearing clothes. But you know, it’s pretty vacuous that kind of thing. After all, I trained and studied as an actor.”

In that same interview, though, he also correctly predicted his future. “Maybe I’m going through my ingenue period and I need to live in my face a bit more,” he offered. It’s true of many leading men: They start off gorgeous, only to age like fine wine, their older, weathered visage proving to be far more distinctive and intriguing. It’s certainly true of Brosnan, whose acting has gained dimensionality as he’s moved further away from Bond. He’ll be back in the world of franchises soon, part of the ensemble for this summer’s Black Adam. I’m sure some will always think of him as just Bond, but I consider it a compliment that I struggle to remember him in the role. 

For so long, he seemed like the ideal 007. It’s a testament to Brosnan that he showed the world he was far more interesting than the iconic character he lost out on, then claimed, then learned to transcend.