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Best Bond actors: From Sean Connery to Daniel Craig

No Time to Die Daniel Craig James Bond
(Image credit: MGM)

Few film franchises are as thoroughly iconic as the James Bond saga. Having kicked off in 1962, the ongoing adventures of Ian Fleming's 007, licensed to kill, has helped define pop culture for close to 60 years. With the release of the 25th movie in the cycle, No Time to Die, we see the long-awaited climax of Bond as depicted by Daniel Craig. Before his departure kicks off yet another conversation about who should next play Bond, it’s worth looking back at the past and considering which actor did this part the best.

The Bond saga is a curious one in that it is at its best when it’s reflective of the changing era it embodies, yet it all too often failed to do so. The producers had to tread a fine line between keeping the franchise fresh and adhering to tradition, and that tension created mixed results. Do you stick to Ian Fleming's work, even as you run out of source material to directly adapt? Or do you go your own way and risk deviating from what made the character so alluring in the first place? It's a conundrum that has weighed down heavily on the shoulders of the six men who have played the role over the course of the franchise (and that doesn't even count actors who have played him in other mediums, like radio plays, audiobooks and so on). The shifting expectations of critics and fans alike make the job a veritable minefield, yet one that, if you do it well, can pay off handsomely.

Thus, ranking our Bonds from worst to best is an evidently subjective topic, one we've tried to structure with some caveats. Did the actor succeed on the terms set for them by their films, the era in which they played the role and the changes made to the character? We’re focusing on the six actors in the official series and not including the likes of David Niven from the comedic version of Casino Royale, or Barry Nelson, who played Bond on the television anthology series Climax!

6. George Lazenby

George Lazenby as James Bond.

(Image credit: MGM)

The Australian actor George Lazenby had only acted in commercials when he was cast to replace Sean Connery. He was young, dapper, physically right for the role, but could he act? He infamously only appeared in one Bond film, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, before deciding he didn't want to continue, something that did not go over well with his producers or co-stars. While some critics have slated his performance as a total write-off, that doesn't seem especially fair. He's not half bad, it's just that he never did anything more than that one movie. 

In fairness, that one movie is a real peak in the franchise, an often-cynical tale with one hell of an emotional punch. It's not hard to see why Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh love it. Lazenby could have been great, but his one movie means his status as the worst Bond is kind of a default at this point in time.

Best appearance as Bond: Well, we only have On Her Majesty's Secret Service to choose from, alas.

5. Pierce Brosnan

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond

(Image credit: MGM)

Let’s be clear: Brosnan is low on this list, but that doesn’t make him a bad Bond. He was dapper, he could crack a one-liner like nobody else and you never doubted his prowess with the ladies. In terms of sheer aesthetics, Brosnan was on the money. The issue is more with the material he was given and how it ended up crushing all of his charisma in favor of a trite kind of slickness that ultimately killed the franchise for several years. 

Remember, this is the part in the Bond series where he gets an invisible car. By the end of his tenure, Brosnan’s Bond had become a parody, not through any fault of him, although he does seem to have checked out by Die Another Day. We can’t exactly blame him. The writing had begun to lean too hard on the quips, the gadgets and product placement. Even his seductions felt kind of gross, with some of his one-liners verging into the kind of territory we would expect from a Carry On movie. He became, we shudder to say it out loud, too Hollywood.

Best appearance as Bond: Brosnan was at his peak in GoldenEye, with the material to match.

4. Roger Moore

Roger Moore as James Bond.

(Image credit: MGM)

Over the course of seven films, Roger Moore was certainly put through the wringer as Bond. He went into space, he defused nuclear bombs, he fought on top of the Golden Gate Bridge and he even fought off some crocodiles. Moore’s era was definitely one of retro cheese, the kind of giddy silliness that thrived on big stunts, high concepts and not much plot. 

His willingness to be kind of daft brought some much-needed levity to proceedings, but it soon overwhelmed the original point of the character. By the end of his run, Moore was a bit too old and it was weird to see him fighting so slowly and charming women young enough to be his daughter. Still, as an exemplification of the '70s and the Bond that decade demanded, you couldn't beat Moore.

Best appearance as Bond: The Man with the Golden Gun gave Moore his greatest adversary in the form of Christopher Lee’s Scaramanga, but for sheer fun, we have to go with Live and Let Die.

3. Timothy Dalton

Timothy Dalton as James Bond.

(Image credit: MGM)

If ever there was an actor who was severely short-changed by his experiences as Bond, it’s Timothy Dalton. Given only two films to show his stuff — The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill — Dalton helped to ground Bond in reality once more after many years of over-the-top showboating. 

In a 2008 interview, Dalton explained his approach to the character: "He's not a superman; you can't identify with a superman. You can identify with the James Bond of the books. He's a tarnished man, really. I wanted to capture that occasional sense of vulnerability." 

He certainly did that. Many Bond fans consider Dalton's brief tenure to be the most accurate take on Fleming's novels, thanks to that mixture of charm, sleaze and a bubbling darkness underneath the dapper exterior. Some critics had issues with the lack of humor, especially in The Living Daylights, but that works to Dalton’s strength. This is a man whose weariness with the job is evident. Sadly, his run was cut short due to legal issues, and his contract soon expired.

Best appearance as Bond: Easily The Living Daylights, which remains an underrated peak in Bond lore.

2. Sean Connery

Sean Connery as James Bond.

(Image credit: MGM)

What is there to say about Sean Connery as James Bond that hasn't been rhapsodized from the rooftops for the past several decades? He pioneered the character, created what many consider to be the quintessential Bond. His sense of humor was as dry as his martinis and his unabashed macho sensibilities, at the time, a breath of fresh air. Most importantly, he was just so dang cool as Bond too. 

You never doubted that this guy could save the day, play a royal flush at poker then get the girl in the same day. Even with all of the elements of the franchise that have not aged well — and there are lots — Connery's charisma has remained wholly undiluted by time. How do you beat Connery in Goldfinger, the perfect meeting of actor, character and story? It took decades for anyone to even come close.

Best appearance as Bond: There’s a reason Dr. No was such a big deal when it premiered, but we also love Connery in Thunderball.

1. Daniel Craig

No Time to Die James Bond

(Image credit: EPK (Nicola Dove))

It's easy to forget just how invigorating Craig's presence was when the Bond films returned to our screens following Brosnan's departure. He just seemed so left-field a choice, one that had many fans creating protest websites and petitions. He quickly proved the cynics wrong. 

Craig is the best Bond. He was the right blend of dry humor, physicality, stoicism and genuine ego, all topped off with a hefty dose of trauma. There's real grit to his performance that hints at the character's genuine unsuitability for a role like this. It helped that, over the course of his five films, Craig was allowed to evolve from that cocky upstart to the broken-down shadow of his former self and right back to the powerhouse of MI6.

Following the death of Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale, you can see the pain of that loss etched onto his face in Quantum of Solace. Craig was notoriously uninterested in romanticizing Bond, calling out his misogyny in interviews, and that helped to make his performance so sharp and thoroughly believable. The films didn't always give him the arc he deserved — sorry, Spectre — but you always buy what Craig is selling. 

Best appearance as Bond: Casino Royale and Skyfall are his peaks as Bond, showing both sides of the coin that made him so fascinating. He's going to be a tough act to follow.

Kayleigh Donaldson

Kayleigh is a pop culture writer and critic based in Dundee, Scotland. Her work can be found on Pajiba, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, SlashFilm, and WhatToWatch, among other places. She's also the creator of the newsletter The Gossip Reading Club.