It was a meeting of the two most famous British people on the planet: Queen Elizabeth II turned to her tuxedo-wearing guest and said, "Good evening, Mr. Bond."
The pairing of these icons, the English monarch and the king of spies in a film for the opening ceremony of the London Olympics was a thrilling moment. It scarcely mattered that one of them was fictional. Agent 007 is real to millions of moviegoers, and once again they will flock to see Bond battle for queen and country when his 23rd official screen adventure, "Skyfall," opens this fall.
He's come a long way in the 50 years since the release on Oct. 5, 1962 of a modestly budgeted spy movie called "Dr. No." It introduced a dapper but deadly secret agent who wore Savile Row suits, drove an Aston Martin, liked his martinis shaken, not stirred, and announced himself as "Bond, James Bond."
What's the secret of his survival? Familiarity, says Roger Moore, who played Bond in seven films, more than any other actor.
"It's sort of like a bedtime story: As long as you don't go too far away from the original, the child is happy," Moore said. "The audience gets what it's expecting: beautiful girls, actions, gadgets there's a formula."
That fiendishly successful formula had modest beginnings. Two upstart producers, Canadian Harry Saltzman and American Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, acquired the rights to a series of novels by Ian Fleming, a former World War II intelligence officer who had created 007 as sort of a fantasy alter-ego.
Saltzman and Broccoli had a budget of just $1 million, but through a blend of luck and design assembled an amazing team of on- and off-screen talent.
Sean Connery, a relatively unknown Scottish actor and former bodybuilder, was cast as Bond against the wishes of studio United Artists, which wanted an established star such as Cary Grant for the role.
"Everything or Nothing," a new documentary about the Bond films, says the final seal of approval came from Cubby Broccoli's wife. "Is he sexy?" Broccoli asked her.
Connery got the part.
Behind the scenes were artists like John Barry, composer of Bond's pulse-quickening theme music; Maurice Binder, who created the famous gun-barrel title sequence; and designer Ken Adam, a German-born former RAF fighter pilot whose futuristic sets gave the films their look of modernist cool.
In the documentary, which airs Friday on EPIX, Adam recalls feeling "crazy with courage" in those early days. Others remember the same devil-may-care atmosphere.
"It was barnstorming days," said David M. Kay, whose company provided aircraft for filming and stunts on the early Bond films, including the helicopter-volcano sequence in "You Only Live Twice."
"We didn't have health and safety as we have now. Broccoli was an absolute cavalier and demanded things that were well-nigh impossible," Kay recalled.
It was also enormous fun, he said "Men playing with boys' toys."
That sense of playfulness spilled over to the screen. "Dr. No" arrived in movie theaters with perfect timing, as Britain swapped postwar austerity for growing prosperity.
Bond's world of cars, casinos and caviar was sexy, luxurious and colorful. Instead of a gray, shadowy figure, here was spy as glamorous jet-setter. The films turned Cold War anxiety into a thrill-ride from which the good guy always emerged triumphant.
"There had been nothing like it before," said Graham Rye, editor of 007 magazine, who remembers being blown away by the film as an 11-year-old. "A lot of British films at the time were austere, black-and-white, kitchen-sink dramas. When 'Dr. No' exploded onto the screen, it had a pretty visceral effect on everybody."
Since then, Bond has survived showdowns with enemies from uber-villain Ernst Blofeld to steel-toothed assassin Jaws. Even more impressively, he has weathered the social revolution of the 1960s, financial woes and lawsuits, multiple changes of lead actor, the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the War on Terror.
His survival is the result of chemistry, tenacity and luck.
"Dr. No" received mixed reviews some positive, others dismissive. "Pure, escapist bunk," sniffed Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. But audiences responded, and "From Russia With Love," released the next year, was also a hit. By 1964's "Goldfinger," Bond was a phenomenon.
From the start, success was enhanced by clever marketing. We may think of product placement and merchandising as recent strategies Daniel Craig's Bond diverges from his martini habit to drink Heineken but it was part of the package starting with the books, in which Bond's watch is a Rolex, his shampoo Pinaud Elixir.
What began as Fleming's way of demonstrating his character's expensive tastes quickly became a commercial arrangement, now worth millions to the films' producers.
In the '60s, Bond fans could wear 007 deodorant and aftershave or sport James Bond swimming trunks, complete with logo. Connery's Bond drank Smirnoff vodka, while the villain in "Goldfinger" played golf with Slazenger balls.
More than movies, these were experiences in which key elements were established, expected and anticipated. The locations that spanned the globe and headed into outer space; the gravity-defying stunt sequences; the rocket belts, car-submarines and other gadgets; the megalomaniacal villains and their sadistic henchmen all quickly became part of the Bond brand.
So did the theme songs, many of them performed by the biggest artists of the day, from Paul McCartney ("Live and Let Die") to Madonna ("Die Another Day").
And, of course, there were the "Bond girls," characters who are victims or villains but always fatefully and often fatally attracted to 007.
Bond's scantily clad female companions have long provided ammunition for critics, who accuse the films of sexism, though others argue that the films offer eye-candy for everyone: Ursula Andress in a bikini, but also Daniel Craig in his tight blue swim trunks.
Anticipating new tweaks on the familiar elements became part of the films' appeal, rendering them both instantly recognizable and eminently spoofable, as Mike Myers' pitch-perfect Austin Powers movies proved.
The films' producers at EON Productions today run by Cubby Broccoli's daughter and stepson, Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson have become expert at honing the formula. They are masters of suspense, drip-feeding details about each new film title, locations, guest stars to eager fans.
Like its hero, the series has had many near-death experiences. Connery quit acrimoniously after six films. There was a long-running legal battle with screenwriter Kevin McClory over rights to the "Thunderball" script. The result was the unofficial Bond film "Never Say Never Again," which saw 52-year-old Connery return after a decade away from the role.
Former model George Lazenby lasted just a single film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" from 1969, a dark-hued tale that ranks among many fans' favorites. Moore took Bond in a lighter direction during the 1970s.
Audiences didn't warm to Timothy Dalton's tougher, meaner 1980s Bond, but Pierce Brosnan's suave superagent circling the globe in ever more futuristic vehicles, including an invisible car fit with the optimistic post-Cold War era.
Just as 007's clothes have evolved with changing fashions from Connery's lean '60s suits to Moore's flares to Craig's Tom Ford formalwear producers have tried to find Bonds to mirror the mood of the times.
The aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks brought a change of tone. Craig's Bond, who made his debut in "Casino Royale" in 2006, is a darker, tougher spy who harkens back to Fleming's original, restoring sadism and self-loathing to Bond's emotional arsenal.
Although the Broccoli family won't comment, media reports say Craig has committed to two more films after "Skyfall," with Bond 24 due for release in 2014 or 2015 that is, if 007 continues to cheat death.
The most recent threat to Bond was a production delay on "Skyfall" when studio MGM filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
But Agent 007 is in pretty good shape for 50. Will he last another half century?
Rye, the magazine editor, thinks so.
"Bond, like diamonds, is forever," he said.
AP Fashion Writer Samantha Critchell contributed to this report from New York.
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless
The Best of Bond
From the way he introduces himself to his preferred drink order to the kind of car he drives, everything about James Bond is deeply entrenched in pop culture. In honor of Agent 007's 50th anniversary, here's a seven-best list of all things Bond:
Best Bond girl
This is tough. Adorably sexy Honor Blackman played the Bond girl with the best name of all Pussy Galore in "Goldfinger" (1964) and action veteran Michelle Yeoh was fierce in "Tomorrow Never Dies" (1997). Eva Green as the smart and sultry Vesper Lynd in 2006's "Casino Royale" was the rare Bond girl who was truly his equal. (It's easy to pick the worst one: That would be Denise Richards as the allegedly brilliant nuclear physicist Dr. Christmas Jones in 1999's "The World Is Not Enough.") But just the vision of Ursula Andress striding from the ocean in "Dr. No" is so famous and so stirring, it's hard to top: that bikini with a dagger strapped to her hip, the long blonde hair and those curves. The very image personifies the gorgeous, mysterious cool of the Bond girl. And she just happened to appear in the first film in the franchise back in 1962.
Most fearsome Bond villain
Blofeld is the easy answer because he's appeared in so many Bond films, and because he's the inspiration for the Dr. Evil character in the "Austin Powers" movies. And that ever-present cat on his lap ... that has to make him a truly, deeply bad guy. A dog person would never be hell-bent on global domination. Francisco Scaramanga, the inspiration for "The Man With the Golden Gun" (1974), is also a tempting choice. He has a third nipple, people! What more do you need? But I'm picking Jaws from "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977) and "Moonraker" (1979), played by 7-foot-2 Richard Kiel. Those teeth they could do some serious damage.
Best theme song
"Nobody Does It Better" from "The Spy Who Loved Me." Many of you would choose Shirley Bassey's big, jazzy "Goldfinger," or even "Live and Let Die" (the rockingest song Paul McCartney and Wings ever recorded) and you'd be totally justified. But this one just stands out after all these years. It still takes such a hold of you when you're listening to it, with the touches of melancholy in Carly Simon's haunting vocals mixing with the mystery required of any great Bond tune. It's also one of several that would be nominated for an original-song Oscar, the writing credits going to Carole Bayer Sager and the late, great Marvin Hamlisch. I had this stuck in my head the whole day when Hamlisch died recently, and didn't mind one bit.
The jet pack that allowed Sean Connery to zoom skyward to his escape in 1965's "Thunderball" was cool and very forward-thinking. And it just happened to be sitting right there, waiting for him what are the odds? But it's the car, of course, that's so readily identifiable as James Bond's most reliable and versatile weapon. Famously, he drives a silver Aston Martin but it's come in various models, with an assortment of handy tricks and toys and been driven by several of the actors playing the part. Revolving license plates, bulletproof shields, tires that shoot spikes, headlights that hide machine guns, ejector seats we all need these extras to keep us busy while sitting in stop-and-go traffic on the 405. They're probably safer than texting behind the wheel.
Skiing and shooting in 1981's "For Your Eyes Only": It's the world's deadliest biathlon. Landing all those jumps would be hard enough, but Bond also has to avoid dudes on motorcycles trying to kill him, as well as bobsledders, tourists enjoying apres-ski beverages and the occasional cow. But he does it all AND makes funny faces, because this is Roger Moore, the jokey James Bond. "The Spy Who Loved Me" also features an Austrian ski chase with some truly terrible green-screen effects and a disco-tastic version of the Bond theme.
Best Bond parody
It is very easy to make fun of James Bond movies. Their tenets are instantly recognizable and the worlds in which they exist are so lavish, they're probably a lot of fun to mimic. Before they made their names in the United States with the Oscar-winning "The Artist," director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin continued the tradition of the French version of 007 with the slapsticky "OSS 117" movies. Similarly, British comic Rowan Atkinson has stumbled and bumbled his way through a series of dangerous assignments as the tuxedoed "Johnny English" in films that are huge hits overseas. Still, the "Austin Powers" movies have done it best, especially the first one, 1997's "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." They're giddy, cheeky and goofy, they provide a great opportunity for Mike Myers' chameleon-like style of physical humor and they revel in taking shots albeit affectionate ones at this iconic character. Yeah, baby.
Supposedly the Bond you grew up watching first is the one you like best. Sorry, but I can't bring myself to pick Roger Moore. This is actually as tough as choosing the best Bond girl because each actor has interpreted the character in such vastly different ways while still attempting to remain true to his essence. Sean Connery is the classic and he set the standard, and he'd probably be the No. 1 pick for the vast majority of Bond fans. At this point, though, when I think of Connery, I think of Darrell Hammond's hilarious impersonation of him in the "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches on "Saturday Night Live" "I'll take 'The Rapists' for $200." ''That's 'Therapists.'" So I'm going to do something kind of blasphemous here and say Daniel Craig has become my favorite Bond. People scoffed when he was chosen to star in "Casino Royale." ''We can't have a blond Bond!" came the outcry. But Craig can seriously act, bringing a welcome darkness to the character as well as being sexy, masculine and formidable in all the necessary ways.