Movieline 1995: Pierce Brosnan

Unfinished Business

Nov 1995
By: Lawrence Grobel 

Nine years ago, Pierce Brosnan signed to play James Bond and then couldn't get out of his TV series to play him. Now the actor gets his shot at 007, and how GoldenEye fares will determine whether he'll finally be starring in his own "A" movies.

Not long ago, Pierce Brosnan sat in his Malibu home, missing his wife, Cassie- who died in 1991 after a four year battle with ovarian cancer -- and he wondered how he could continue to live here.  Although he'd recently done small parts in Mrs. Doubtfire and Love Affair, he wasn't making the kind of money that could support the house and grounds,  "I'll have to sell," he thought.  "I'll just have to go back to TV and forget about being a movie star."  And then James Bond came back into his life.  Brosnan was chosen to revive the character that Sean Connery made famous, and that Roger Moore managed to continue and that Timothy Dalton almost destroyed.  Nine years ago, Brosnan was set to play 007, but he lost the coveted role because he was contractually bound to a show "Remington Steele" which was about to expire. Now comes GoldeneEye, and with it a contract for two more Bonds.  Brosnan's wish for movie fame looks about to come true, and he won't have to sell his land at Malibu.  "I can see paying it off and owning the damn place," he says with considerable satisfaction. 

Brosnan is a man who knows that the worst is all behind him.  He grew up in Ireland with no memory of his parents: his father  left soon after he was born and, when he was only three, his mother went to London and left him behind with his grandparents. He didn't discover acting until he was in his late teens. Then, after drama school, roles in two plays led to bit parts in The Long Good Friday (1979) and The Mirror Crack'd (1980), then to TV work in England and the U.S., including a 1981 miniseries called The Manions of America and, for the BBC, Nancy Astor. After he met and married Cassandra Harris (who had two young children), they moved to California.

Soon after, he was cast as TV's suave detective "Remington Steele," which ran from 1982 to 1987. After "Steele" folded, Brosnan did two miniseries, Noble House and Around the World in 80 Days, cable movies like Murder 101 and Live Wire, and feature films few saw. His first commercial success on the big screen was 1992's The Lawnmower Man. That same year, after the death of his wife, Brosnan appeared on the cover of People to talk about the woman he loved and lost. He then tried another TV series, "Running Wilde," but it never aired.

Brosnan has a desire to be respected in the industry, so there's a lot riding on how GoldenEye does at the box office. Brosnan's hoping that becoming Bond will do for him what it did for Sean Connery... and not Timothy Dalton.

Click for larger image

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Do you know who said, "I've always hated that damn James Bond, I'd like to kill him"?

PIERCE  BROSNAN:  Sean Connery. 

Q: Fear of typecasting can do that to an actor. Do you worry about whether playing Bond will typecast you?

A: Of course there's a fear, but I knew that going in. The other fear is that if it falters, where do you go from there? But I think positively. I want this to be a big, fat success. I want to be kicking ass against Arnold [Schwarzenegger] and all the other guys out there.

Q: What about being compared to Sean Connery and Roger Moore?

A: It's inevitable. But they're ready to start the second one, and they were eager to get me to sign the papers for the option, so I guess I did all right. 

Q: You were dubbed by Us magazine the Cary Grant of the '80s. Will you become the Sean Connery of the '90s?

A: Yes. Then, as I go into my dotage, I'll become Mickey Rooney, as I get smaller.

Q: You've often been compared to Grant, yet you've said you don't always appreciate the comparisons. Talk about your similarities and differences to Grant. 

A: Cary Grant invented himself and I've done a bit of that. But I never saw myself as a debonair leading man-I always saw myself as this hesitant actor. I did look at old Cary Grant movies to prepare for "Remington Steele." If I have half the career that Cary Grant had, I'd be quite happy.

Q: He dropped acid, have you?

A: I never took psychedelics. There's still time, though.

Q: The last time we talked, you were playing "Steele" - you'd replaced Tom Selleck as a TV heartthrob, and were about to be replaced in turn by Don Johnson. Not much is heard about Selleck and Johnson these days. How much of your career is luck, how much is timing and how much is talent? 

A: All three come into play. It does help if you have talent, if you have a tiny piece of gold that you can polish. You also have to have the courage to go through all the negativity of the business. Timing? Yes. I've known better actors than me, men who can turn their hand at any character with great deftness and clarity, but they haven't had any breaks. Luck? I've been very lucky, though if I told you my life story, you would say, "Well, you've had bad luck here and there." It's just bloody hard work being an actor and keeping the dream alive. 

Q: What about fate? Did you ever feel you were fated to play Bond? Goldfinger was the first Technicolor film you saw as a boy, and your late wife, Cassie, played a Bond woman in For Your Eyes Only... 

A: That seems to be the case. Bond was unfinished business in my life, because wherever I've gone since 1986 people have always asked: "Weren't you the guy who was going to be, could have been, should have been, might have been..." It's quite scary that something like this should come around a second time. 

Q: Do you worry that Bond may be a dated character? That heroes like Indiana Jones or Batman will make 007 seem like a relic? 

A: My gut feeling is no. There's a big audience out there waiting. 

Q:How often did you practice those famous five words before your mirror?

A: "My name's Bond, James Bond"? I've actually said those words, yes. in front of the mirror, and in the car. If someone catches you doing it, it can be very embarrassing. 

Q:You felt you were selling out doing TV. Why were movies so important to you? 

A: There's a great magic to them. Simple as that. And I wanted to be part of that magic.

Q: You told me that "Steele" was the most stressful job you'd ever had. Did some of that stem from the jealousy that existed between Stephanie Zimbalist and yourself?

A: Yeah. There was never an open animosity between us, though-it was never a set like "Moonlighting," where Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd were at each other's throats, if you believe everything you read. 

Q: The stories from the '80s call you a hunk, but you didn't see yourself that way. 

A: It pissed me off being called a hunk. I just took it as a joke, really. 

Q: In People you said, "I don't think anyone is going to ask me to take off my shirt." And yet for years afterwards, there were pictures of you with your shirt unbuttoned to the navel.

A: I was being a flirt. 

Q: You put out a poster of yourself, then wondered in print whether Robert De Niro would ever do that. Why would you do it and then have such anxiety about it?

Click for larger image

A:  I wanted to be somebody else. I wanted to have another career. Then I thought to myself, "Shut the fuck up and just be yourself, be happy with what you've got." I got that out of my system. I don't mind taking my shirt off - if it serves the goddamn movie, I'll show the pecs. 

Q: Two years ago you lamented that you hadn't made it fully yet. Still feel that way?

A:  I haven't made it. When I first became an  actor,   I felt I wasn't good enough, and there is that stigma still. I still have that desire to be up there in a film which is big and successful and will have a life many years on.

Q: Have you reflected at all on why it took The Lawnmower Man, a sci-fi thriller, for you to have your first movie hit?

A:  The Lawnmower Man came at a time when people were just beginning to hear about virtual reality. It came out at the right time. They've made a sequel, but I was involved with the Bond film. 

Q: Are you sorry about that?

A:  One was enough. 

Q: Until Bond, really, you seemed to have the bad luck of working with good people on projects that didn't quite make it: John McTiernan [Nomads], Nicholas Meyer and Ismail Merchant [The Deceivers], Bruce Beresford [Mister Johnson], Warren Beatty and Glenn Gordon Caron [Love Affair], Michael Caine [The Fourth Protocol]. Can you talk about those projects? 

A:  I don't see them as failures. I mean, The Fourth Protocol and Mister Johnson weren't box-office hits, but they were successes for me. Mister Johnson is very close to my heart. Bruce Beresford gave me confidence and direction.  Nomads didn't do anything for me, but it did for John McTiernan. Why didn't it work for me? My beard. I should have gone for a sleeker, more cosmetic image. 

Q: How about Love Affair?

A:  Too long. Warren [Beatty] got involved too much. He's an incredibly talented man; when he gets it right, it's brilliant. But his new life with Annette [Bening] and fatherhood and his own obsessiveness about moviemaking tripped him up on Love Affair. It's a shame because if he just had entrusted the director and the people he brought on board, it might have had more of a leanness to it. 

Q: What was it like on that set? 

A:  After the first day I thought I was going to get the pink slip. It was a very simple scene at a playhouse with Annette and myself listening to Ray Charles. Glenn [Gordon Caron] directed it one way, and then Warren came and said do it another way, and then [cinematographer] Conrad Hall had his interpretation. We went for take after take after take, and I started  to feel a little insecure and paranoid. It's hard working like that, it's hard getting it up all those times.

Q: You were in a very big hit, Mrs. Doubtfire, but your role was considered by some as window dressing for Robin Williams's antics. Was it at all frustrating for you? 

A:  No, I never see myself as window dressing. I really liked my character, a smart businessman who had let this woman get away, and this was his second chance. That's what the movie was about: me. It happened to be starring Robin Williams and Sally Field, but that was my mind set. 

Q: Who are the actors you most admire?

A:  There's Brando, De Niro. Pacino. Gene Hackman, Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant.

Q: Ten years ago you said you thought De Niro had become the Brando of his generation. Still feel that way about him? 

A:  De Niro's changed. He's still got a brilliant light, but he hasn't found vehicles which let him shine in a big way, in a star way. 

Q: Let's go back to the beginning of your own career. Your big break came  When you appeared in a Tennessee Williams play. Red Devil Battery Sign. Did you get to know Williams?

A:  I met him. He was quiet, but he had a glint in his eye. He sent me a letter on the first night saying, "Thank God for you. my dear boy. Love, Tennessee."

Q: Knowing of Williams's fondness for handsome men, how did you take that? 

A:  I took it in every way, including that I was just such a brilliant actor. I knew about Tennessee Williams and his love affairs. I know a lot of gay people and they're wonderful people. I have no fear about somebody coming on to me. I just say, "Look, sorry buddy. I'm not into that."'

Click for larger image

Q: Franco Zeffirelli saw you in the Williams play and cast you in Filumena. Laurence Olivier's wife, Joan Plowright. was cast as your mother in that play. She invited you home to dinner, didn't she? 

A:  Yes, we had dinner with Sir Laurence at their house in Brighton. He had orange Day-Glo socks on and Hush Puppies. He talked about Hollywood, and about Noel Coward.  We walked around his garden, where he'd spent six months trying to lower his voice an octave for Othello.  I have a tendency  to get extremely shy, which can be misconstrued for arrogance, but  I just didn't know what to say. I was in awe of the man.

Q: If you could have lunch with Olivier again, what would you ask now?

A:  I'd ask, "Why didn't you make it in movies? Why were you so powerful onstage and [such an acquired taste] on the screen?" This great stage actor didn't really shine on-screen.

Q: So much for Wuthering Heights, The Entertainer and Marathon Man.

A:  True. The Entertainer was brilliant. Marathon Man came later in his life.

[The phone rings. Pierce waits for someone in the house to answer, but it keeps ringing. He picks it up. says he's doing this interview and promises to call back]

I hate phones ringing. I always have to answer. What does that mean about me? It's like. Oh, this could be another job - you know, the one that's going to turn my life around. Old habits die hard.

Q: You still have considerable anxiety before this Bond movie comes out, don't you? 

A:  There's a lot at stake. Either it will be a big fucking hit and I'll get a million scripts that look like Bond or it will be ... well, I'll carry on working regardless, in some shape or form. 

Q: Aren't you already getting scripts that aren't like Bond?

A:  I am. In the last few weeks I've read scripts of a caliber I've never read before. I would have to beg for them, but now they just come across the desk. One hopes to work with people who are better than you and there's a script of Streisand's sitting up there, and a script of Costner's. It's wonderful. Fuck, finally! 

Q: What's the script with Streisand? 

A:  The Mirror Has Two Faces.

Q: And with Costner? 

A:  It's a golfing script. Tin Cup. It's good. 

Q: Do you have a next picture planned, besides the second Bond? 

A:  There's a Richard Attenborough project, Grey Owl, based on a true story about an Indian in Canada in 1932. That would be for next year.

Q: Don't you also have another picture in the can, Robinson Crusoe?

A:  Yes. I play Crusoe as a Calvinist seeking his God, and into his life comes this savage who he tries to cultivate, manipulate, shame. I did it as a CBS special but after Bond, it became a [theatrical] movie for Miramax. They should have left it alone and let it be a TV movie. 

Q: You must have seen a lot of changes in the industry since you began.

A:  The 14 years I've lived here, I've watched it change. Money is always involved, but more so I now. It's just gotten way out of proportion. The pyrotechnics and special effects are far too much. Simple, human stories seem to be few and far between. I'd like to be able to make one.

Q: Didn't you do that with Mister Johnson?

A:  Yes. And if that came into my life a second time, more people would see it. 

Q: Wasn't it your late wife. Cassie, who found Mister Johnson for you? 

A:  She was the one who insisted that I do it. It was in her third year of her illness, where she was going through chemotherapy every couple of weeks, but she said to me. "You must do this film." So I went off to Nigeria for three months. And when I got back she was thinner, paler, but her spirit was there, the light was still in her eyes. She said, "I don't think you should go away again." So I tried to find work here. 

Q: How hard was it for you to work as Cassie's condition deteriorated? 

A:  It was very difficult. Cassie had ovarian cancer for four years.

Q: When did you first discover that she had cancer?

A:  Ovarian cancer is very hard to detect. Six months prior to her diagnosis her gynecologist said, "One of your ovaries has slipped, don't worry about it. That's what the pain's about." Six months later it was full-blown ovarian cancer.

Q: I'm married to a woman I'm very close with, and I just can't imagine being without her. How have you not only gone on, but have somehow managed to thrive?

A:  I just feel very alive. In losing her, watching a life dwindle down, you could taste life, you could really sense it. Because everything slows down, everything revolved around the house and small accomplishments. And then with her passing and as the pain gets lesser, you realize what you've come through, that you're still breathing, feeling, thinking, making decisions. It's quite euphoric, the feeling. It gives you a great strength. 

Q: Is it true you couldn't bring yourself to ever ask her if she was scared? 

A:  I never did, no. 

Q: How scared were you?

A:  You're very scared at the beginning, you're terrified, shocked, numb. Then as you go through it and you realize the person is not going to die that night, tomorrow, next week, you pace yourself. It was just a really long good-bye. 

Q: You told TV Guide in 1984, "This is a pretty fast town. Some actresses proposition me. I cannot believe the gall of these people." And Cassie said, "These women are horrible." What's it like now for you? 

A:  Oh, it's good now, I like it. Let's be honest here, I am a single guy. 

Q: Still getting propositioned? 

A:  Every now and then. Not on Sunset Boulevard, though.

Q: Hugh Grant's run-in with the prostitute will be old news when this comes out, but since you brought it up, what did you think of what Grant did? 

A:  I felt very sorry for him. 

Q: Did you understand it? 

A:  No, I didn't actually. I didn't get what Hugh Grant did. I've had a few sakes in me, driven down Sunset, had wild fantasies - but I didn't pull over and say, "Give me a blow job." If Sean Penn had done it, it would be gone and forgotten, because Sean is out there, on the edge. Hugh Grant had presented himself as a really lovely guy, and people trusted him. Then he pulled over and did it, and there are people out there who made business of him. 

Q: There are scribes out there who make business of you, too. You've been linked with Barbara Orbison, model Tatjana Patitz, and Julianne Phillips for a while. Were you serious with any of them? 

A:  Barbara is a very good friend. Julianne Phillips is lovely, we went out a couple of times.

Q: Who is Keely Shaye-Smith, who you are seeing now?

A:  Keely is someone who I've been with for about a year now. We met in Mexico and we've been dating, traveling, seeing the world. She's an environmental journalist. She has won awards for her reporting. She's just produced a show for PBS, and she's got a book publishing deal.

Q: What do the kids think of your dating? 

A:  Sean is wary of any of them-he's very protective of dad. Charlotte and Christopher are older, wiser. But Sean is the one who says, "Who is this woman in your life? Get rid of her. Don't like her." It becomes a real challenge, because as a man you have desires-and you just can't do it alone. You need comfort. 

Q: As Ambassador for Women's Health Issues for The Permanent Charities Committee of the Entertainment Industry, what do you do?

A:  I've lent my name to the fight against ovarian and breast cancer as a man, as a celebrity, as an actor, and as someone who has lost his wife. I went to Washington and spoke, using my story juxtaposed beside statistics and the shameful neglect to women's health care.

Q: You've gone through some personal problems yourself. Last year you underwent minor back surgery at Cedars-Sinai. What was wrong? 

A:  I screwed my back up and had a disc which had to be taken care of before the Bond movie. I was out of the hospital in a day and slipped in the bathroom and sliced the tendon in my finger open. I had to have another operation that night.

Q: You suffered from Bell's palsy 11 years ago. just before going on the "Tonight Show" with Joan Rivers hosting - how scary was that? 

A:  I thought I was having a stroke. I remember being in the fucking dressing room beforehand doing my tie up. Suddenly my face was half-numb and I couldn't close one eye. Then I felt my arm going numb. Oh jeez, I thought, I'm having a stroke, and just then came, "knock, knock... ready for you now, Mr. Brosnan." It was not a good evening.

Q: Before you began Nomads you broke out in hives. Are you high-strung?

A:  [Laughs]  Warning: before you employ this man. make sure he doesn't have Bell's palsy, hives, any back complaint, ingrown toenails, or pinkeye. 

Q: We've come all this way, Pierce, without talking about your childhood, which might make you break out in hives again. Your father walked out when you were an infant, and your mother left you with her parents when you were three, and didn't take you back until she was remarried and you were eleven.  Have you come to grips with the anger you felt toward them?

A:  Oh, I had to. It just goes nowhere The old man Tom Brosnan, I never knew him.  My mother and I now have a good relationship, she's a great friend.  There was a lot of pain [but] we've resolved a lot of thngs. 

Q: What do you re member of those early years in Ireland? 

A:   I remember being very much a loner.  Very solitary childhood. I didn't have the guidance of a mother and father. I remember missing my mother. I used to think she was in the Congo working in this war zone. In reality she was a nurse in London, but I lived in my  imagination. 

Q: When you finally met your father.  You were a TV star, and he came to visit you. Can you describe that meeting?

A:  I was in Ireland doing one of the last epiodes of "Remington Steele" in '86. He came to the hotel on a Sunday afternoon. I had tea and biscuits ready, and when I opened the door, there he was. Tom.  He was a stranger.  I expected him to be this very tall man. He was very lively, a wiry bantam cock  of  a man with great energy. We talked, had a couple of pints of Guinness, he took some photographs, and then he drove off.  It was our only contact.  The ultimate question was. "Why did you abandon me?" - but I never asked.

Q: A producer said that you have a wonderful black Irish side that doesn't get displayed much. Why not?

A:  Do I have a black Irish side? Yes. there's a broodiness. I haven't explored it, maybe because I'm scared of it. Maybe because I don't know how to express it.

Q: Maybe James Bond will do it for you.

A:  Maybe. People have wanted me in this, let's hope I don't dissapoint them.

By Lawrence Grobel 

[ Pierce Brosnan Files ] [ Interviews]