Biography: November 1997

New Fashioned Family Man

Biography: November 1997
By Janet Cawley 

Actor Pierce Brosnan has a new baby and a new outlook. 

Click for larger version of photo "Blessed" is a word that comes easily to Pierce Brosnan these days. With a new James Bond movie about to open, a new love, and a new baby to dote on, he reflects, "I'm quite content. The balance of my life is perfect in every way."

But that kind of happiness didn't come easily—or without wrenching pain. Six years ago, Brosnan lost his wife, 39-year-old actress Cassandra Harris, to that "deadly and disgusting disease," cancer. The actor known for his suave, sophisticated onscreen persona became in real life a grieving single dad with three kids. And it wasn't even the first time he had lost the one he loved. Brosnan's father walked out while he was an infant, and when he was four, his mother left him with relatives in Ireland while she went to study nursing in London. That separation lasted seven lonely years.

But today, speaking with Biography from the London set of his new Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, Brosnan talks as if things couldn't be better. Even the fatigue in his voice from 15-hour shooting days can't diminish his enthusiasm for the acting role he once thought he'd lost forever—and for his second chance at love.

What happened? Two unconnected but life-altering events. The first was Timothy Dalton's failure to ignite as Bond after Brosnan had to decline the part in 1986. The second was a chance meeting with journalist Keely Shaye-Smith at actor Ted Danson's environmental fund-raiser in Mexico in l994—an event Shaye-Smith was covering for Entertainment Tonight. They began dating immediately and remain committed, in love, and decidedly unmarried. "No plans for marriage he says cheerfully. "We're quite happy." 

Shaye-Smith, 32, gave birth to their son and "absolute joy," Dylan Thomas, last January (Dylan because they both liked the name and Thomas after both their fathers). Brosnan is effervescent when he describes having an infant in his life again. "It's the most exhilarating feeling... As a man of 44, I've lived quite a bit of life and seen a lot, too, but to have a new infant is quite magical."

And he appreciates how fortunate he is to find such well-being a second time around. "Keely is great, she's beautiful, and now I have a partner I adore and love and enjoy sharing life with. To get that two times in life is beyond anyone's wishes."

Brosnan dotes on all his children: Charlotte, 25, and Christopher, 24, from Harris' first marriage, and Sean, 13, their son together. Of Charlotte and Christopher, whom he adopted, Brosnan says, "They're my children and my best friends and my confidants." Sean, he chuckles, "is no longer the baby in the family, and he's happy not to hold that position anymore. He adores his baby brother, as do Christopher and Charlotte."

Brosnan's all-out devotion to his children, and the pleasure he takes in them, are all the more remarkable given that he had no paternal role model of his own— or even much early experience with his mother. In the past, he's suggested, he gave his children "as much love as I possibly can to make up for my own lack of nurturing, the sense of belonging I didn't have."

The man who exults "I love being a father" was born in County Meath, Ireland, to Tom, a carpenter, and his wife, May. After his father walked out and his mother left to study in England, the solitary little boy was raised first by his grandparents, who died one after the other, then by an aunt and uncle, and then by a family friend. At 11, he boarded a plane, clutching a rosary in one hand and an aspirin bottle filled with holy water in the other, to rejoin his by-then-remarried mother in London. The date was August 12,1964, the day James Bond creator Ian Fleming died.

Brosnan saw his father only once more, when he was in his 30's and filming the TV series Remington Steele in Ireland. They met at Brosnan's hotel one afternoon, talked, drank some Guinness, and then Tom left again. When he died in 1988, his son didn't find out until after he was buried.

Brosnan's teen years were marked by dropping out of school and a series of unlikely jobs— among them fire eater in the circus and commercial artist— before he finally settled on acting. But he hasn't forsaken the skills learned in those early years. When the Muppets called and asked about his talents — could he sing or dance, maybe?— Brosnan said no, but he could eat fire. So he went on The Muppet Show to demonstrate this improbable skill and wound up burning his mouth when the prop master substituted another liquid for kerosene. "My fire-eating days are behind me," he laughs today. "I nearly burnt my bloody head off." 

But art is still very much with him.  Brosnan, whose permanent home is in California, reports that during the Tomorrow filming he worked at an easel at his London apartment and finished three paintings: "one of Christopher, a portrait; one of Dylan's little strawberry boots; and one of Rodin's garden."

Painting was also one of the outlets he turned to during Cassie's illness, setting up his paints in an area just off the master bedroom of their Mediterranean-style Malibu house. 

The couple first met in London, introduced by a mutual friend. She was 24, an Australian-born actress with two young children by her first husband, Dermot Harris, brother of actor Richard Harris. Brosnan was 23, an actor in local plays. "I met someone and fell in love and she happened to have children" is his take today on how he became an instant family man. "We had a wonderful life, a wonderful marriage." They wed in 1977.

The couple first met in London, introduced by a mutual friend. She was 24, an Australian-born actress with two young children by her first husband, Dermot Harris, brother of actor Richard Harris. Brosnan was 23, an actor in local plays. "I met someone and fell in love and she happened to have children" is his take today on how he became an instant family man. "We had a wonderful life, a wonderful marriage." They wed in 1977.

In 1981, in one of those life turns that later seems eerily prescient, Cassie played Countess Lisl in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. She also introduced her husband to Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli. Brosnan even has memories of returning from a dinner party at Broccoli's house, driving a lime-green rattletrap from Rent-a-Wreck, humming the Bond theme and jokingly intoning to Cassandra, "The name's Bond, James Bond."

It was Cassie who encouraged him to come to the United States and to take the breakthrough part of suave sleuth Remington Steele in the 1982-87 series. "I had no idea how to play that character," he remembers. "I was so heavy-handed in rehearsals. Then my late wife said, 'Be yourself. Have fun.' And once I did, that was it. I became Remington Steele, and that was very enjoyable."

After Cassie's diagnosis in 1987, he continued working, with her encouragement (less than a year before her death, she urged him to make The Lawnmower Man, a sci-fi thriller, and Live Wire, an action film). But illness ruled their lives. As she lay dying in the hospital, her last words to him were "Always an actor." He has said he took comfort in believing this also meant, "Always a man, always a father."

Looking back, he says, "It was a happy marriage, a happy partnership of 17 years and it doesn'tjust disappear. She's definitely forever there. I'm reminded of her constantly when I see Charlotte and Christopher and Sean. The person is remembered and reflected on."

And as arduous as that time was, "I knew I'd come out the other side. You have to. You have to get on with life as painful as it may be. You have to know you will come through it." Brosnan doesn't shy away from talking about Cassie but neither does he want to dwell on her death. "Enough spoken about death and dying," he says at one point. "This is a new beginning in life."

Still, he's never distanced himself from the disease that claimed his wife. Brosnan has become an advocate for women's health issues, and both the Hollywood and New York Tomorrow Never Dies premieres will be fund-raisers for women's cancer care. "I lend my name when I can," he explains. "Charlotte is 25 and I want to see her have a full, rich life and children and not think that because her mother died, she could develop such a dreadful disease."

Well, speaking of his children and their potential offspring, does he picture himself a grandfather in another ten years or so? "Probably," he laughs. "And that'll be hard to handle. I'm still a young, vital man"—and there's a twinkle in his voice—"I still have my hair. My own hair. But a grandpa? I'd welcome it, yes. I will rise to that."

For now, though, it's James Bond that calls for all his concentration. Agent 007, the role for which he seems tailor-made —and which is one of Hollywood's most successful franchises—had woven in and out of his life for years, like thread through a tapestry. But the first time it finally came Brosnan's way, in 1986, he had to turn it down: He couldn't get out of his Remington Steele contract.

"As far as I was concerned, that was it, the part was gone, never to come back," he says today. But after Dalton's disappointing turn, the brass ring came round once more— and this time, the now-free Brosnan slipped flawlessly into James' dinner jacket.

GoldenEye, released in 1995, went on to gross more than $350 million worldwide and become the most successful Bond film ever. (Since then, the busy actor appeared in Mars Attacks!, The Mirror Has Two Faces, and Dante's Peak before starting work on Tomorrow Never Dies).

Now he's putting in long days on the set, where Christopher is a third assistant director. Although he once worked out two hours a day to keep his 6'1" physique at a slim 170 pounds, Brosnan says there's no need to now. "You get your workout on the set," he says. "There's four flights of stairs to get up and you go up and down 10 to 20 times a day." But he's not complaining. "This is a romp. I'm having a bloody great time." (The plot involves Bond's efforts to keep a media mogul from starting World War III. He's assisted, as usual, by beautiful women and high-tech toys, reportedly including a rocket-launching BMW.) "I want this movie to be a monster hit," Brosnan says. "To kick butt. A lot of hard work has gone into it. We have a wonderful film here in look and style."

He's under contract for a third Bond movie, and has an option for a fourth. But he doesn't actually think of himself as Bond even if others do. "I put the suit on, put the gun on, do it, hang them up and go with the character of Bond is not bad, it just can prove tiring because people confuse where the character [begins] and you end."

Of course, there's at least one thing they have in common: 'Yes, I've been known to imbibe a martini. It's a wonderful drink at the end of the day. Not all the time. Just occasionally. Why not?"

He's noncommittal as to whether he plans to pick up the option for a fourth outing as 007. Right now, with exhaustion edging his voice, he says, "I'm going to take time off, spend some time with my family... I never really belonged to groups or to a clique. But I belong to my family in every fiber of my being."

With Christopher launched on a directing career and Charlotte involved in photography in London, Brosnan now has just Sean and Dylan at home. Sean, he says, has shown no signs of wanting to become an actor, "and I wouldn't recommend it. It's too hard, too brutal, too cruel. That's enough said." As for Dylan, his only connection with show business so far has been sleeping through a screening of his father's film Dante's Peak.

"That's not a good review, but I don't think it's criticism," Brosnan said at the time. "I had to tell him, 'Son, it's okay this time, but in the future there will be no sleeping through Daddy's films.'"

Given the brutishness of acting, could he envision himself doing something else eventually? "I could see myself being a painter. I could see myself quietly in some part of America, painting. I enjoy acting, but I've been doing it for a long time and it's bloody hard work."

But in the next breath, he says, "I'd love to play more romantic comedies, more drama, more character work. You know, I never saw myself as a leading man. I saw myself as a character actor. Remington Steele put a different spin on things." Brosnan also has set up his own production company, Irish Dream Time, and plans to star in and produce a remake of  The Thomas Crown Affair (no female lead cast yet). "And I'd like to direct at some point."

An Irish citizen, he also thinks about becoming an American at some point in the future. "It would be nice. I love being in America. America's been great to me and given me much happiness."

For now, he and Keely share two homes in California (the Malibu home and a beach house), and he also owns an apartment in London, where Keely and Dylan joined him during Tomorrow filming (she returned to the States in late summer to resume her television work). There's also a house in London that Brosnan gave to his mother and her husband. "I'm on very good terms with my mother," he says of their relationship today.

For someone whose life has encountered such steep ups and downs, now is a time to savor each day. "I always wanted to be older," he reflects. "But now I'm happy just being 44."

Janet Cawley is staff writer for this magazine.

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