Best Life
Pierce Brosnan's Next Role

Why "style" is all about how you live your life

November 2004

By Maximillian Potter
Photos by Cliff Watts
 
 
Click for larger image Beginning with GoldenEye in 1995, the 51-year-old Pierce Brosnan helped resuscitate MGM's storied and then troubled franchise, burnishing it into a multibillion-dollar asset. Yet this fall, the actor's own Double O status was rescinded. With Brosnan's four-picture Bond contract fulfilled, the series producers chose to move on, without even the courtesy of a final phone call. As Brosnan's close friend and business partner, Beau St. Clair, puts it: "It's all been a blur. I wish the producers would talk about it. We have no way of knowing what happened."

Brosnan is sitting on the deck of his Malibu beachfront home, clad in a loose-fitting blue linen shirt, white linen pants, Tevas, and olive tinted shades. Gazing out at the Pacific and the sand where his wife and their two young children play, he could be any loyal corporate soldier cut loose in favor of some yet-to-be-determined kid who's, like, way stoked to have his job. This being Hollywood, though, it's not as if Brosnan can duck off to a golf course, for the trade papers replay the slight each time they speculate about which dandy—Jude Law; Orlando Bloom, Hugh Jackman—might be strapping on the Walther PPK when the next Bond starts filming.

"I wish I could give you a reason why I'm no longer that character," Brosnan says. To his credit, he knew the Bond annuity would end and is embracing the change as an opportunity to redefine himself. "I'm number five," Brosnan says, noting the fact that he was the fifth actor to play the charismatic ace of Her Majesty's Secret Service. 

Then, in the next breath, he shouts a line from The Prisoner, an old British TV favorite of his. "I am not a number! I am a free man!" He makes this proclamation with a mix of theatrical bravado and self-deprecating charm. But make no mistake, this guy, who survived a tragic childhood and found himself a 38-year-old widower with three kids, is ready for this next life passage.

"Come on," Brosnan says, getting up from his seat on the porch. "Let's go for a little spin." In his front driveway, among his 3-year-old's Big Wheel and 7-year-old's scooters, is one of the most beautiful toys a big boy could dream of owning: a bullet-gray 2002 Aston Martin Vanquish. It has a 6.0-liter, V-12 engine that gets to 60 mph in less than 4.8 seconds and 100 mph in under 10. It also comes with a price tag well north of $200,000. It's the car his James Bond drove in Die Another Day. The carmaker approached him to do some PR. In return, he asked for the car and got it.

Within minutes, on this bright, breezy Friday morning, Brosnan is driving us south on the Pacific Coast Highway. The engine growls, aching for the pedal to be pushed. A honking car struggles to pull even with us so that a passenger can lean from the window and shout, "Great car, man!" Glimpsing Brosnan, the admirer's eyes widen, and he gives the actor two thumbs up.

You probably first spotted Brosnan appearing equally stylish and smooth on Remington Steele, the 1980sTV series. He played a sharp pretty boy hired by a female detective to be her front man. Steele, not unlike the movie version of Bond, was a tall dark, dashing enigma. If you had to guess at Steele's biography, you'd probably go with a son of English privilege.

Brosnan's life couldn't be farther from such fiction.

He was born in working class County Meath, Ireland, and his father, Tom, abandoned him and his mom, May, just before his first birthday. "My mother was the prettiest woman in the town. He was a bit older than her. They made me, and he split," he recalls, Now seated at Geoffrey's—a sun-drenched restaurant overlooking the ocean in Malibu—and waiting for lunch to be served, Brosnan takes a long pull on a bottle of Corona as he casts his memory back.

His mother promptly took off to England where she pursued a nursing degree, leaving Brosnan's grandparents to look after him until they passed away. After that, 4-year-old Brosnan lived with relatives until he joined his mom in England at the age of 11. "I had to have some balls to be Irish Catholic in South London. Most of that time I spent fighting." 

In high school, Brosnan decided he'd had enough of the beatings—both taking and giving them—and he dropped out. Carrying ignorance, anger, and a portfolio filled with sketches he'd done, he landed a position as a trainee artist with a commercial-illustration studio. One winter's night, a coworker suggested Brosnan go with him to an acting workshop.

"I walked in through those doors," he recalls, "and I found a life for myself. The people were an outstanding mixture of society. They all seemed to have some kind of mangled life, which they had turned to their own benefit. There were street performers, teachers, poets, sculptors, and writers. I found my true kind of education. And I found a tribe I could identify with. Life changed in that moment."

Brosnan quit his job and pursued a life in the theater. Workshop performances led to starring roles on the London stage, and Hollywood took notice. After starring in an BBC miniseries about the Irish potato famine, The Manions of America, Brosnan felt the time was ripe to cross the pond. A few weeks after arriving in the U.S., he landed the Remington Steele role. It was a stroke of good luck that preceded unspeakable heartache.

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Brosnan never would have come to America if it hadn't been for the encouragement of his first wife, Cassandra. They met in London in 1977, while he was starring in a year-and-a-half run in Franco Zeffirelli's Filumena. Cassandra, an actress, was the mother of two small children and recently divorced from the brother of actor Richard Harris. During a party she hosted for the Filumena cast, Brosnan wandered into her kitchen and was caught eating the chicken that the single mom had made for her kids. Shortly thereafter, they married, and Brosnan's first son was born. 

Just as Remington Steele was canceled in 1987, Cassandra was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. A 4-year battle, including rounds of chemotherapy and eight surgeries, ensued. In late 1991, at the age of 50, she died in her husband's arms. They'd been together for over a decade.

"The pain of watching someone's life dwindle away is like no other pain," Brosnan says. "But because she was such a fighter and had such strength and great optimism and passion for life, it always made it seem okay. And when you're dealing with dying, you appreciate life in a really sweet way. During those mornings or afternoons or days when she wasn't feeling pain, we realized how beautiful it all is."

He tried "the therapy route" to allay his grief, but it didn't work. "I just kind of did it alone. It's up to you at the end of the day; you're your own psychologist." Prayer was often a comfort. "I had the traditional {Catholic} prayers," Brosnan says, "but there was also my own personal dialogue with the man up there." And he had his work. It was therapeutic but also necessary. He had bills. Suddenly, he was a single father. There were his two stepchildren and the son he had with Cassandra to care for. "That was the toughest part," he says.

"You're making decisions for these lives, and you have no one to bounce the ideas off of."

In 1994, Brosnan found that person to share ideas with. At a fund-raiser in Mexico, he met Keely Shaye Smith, who was covering the event for NBC's Today. They went on their first date a few nights later and began a romance that produced two sons and culminated with a grand marriage celebration at an Irish castle in 2001.

The change in his personal life marked the beginning of a professional rebirth. The same year Smith and he met, MGM asked him to play Bond. The sly humor in GoldenEye resonated with audiences, and the film was a hit. So it went with Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day.

He leveraged his box-office clout in a deal with MGM that got him his own production company, Irish DreamTime. In 1999, the company produced the successful remake of the 1968 Steve McQueen classic, The Thomas Crown Affair, with Brosnan in the lead. A year later, it made Evelyn, a drama about a down-on-his-luck bloke who tries to win back the family he has lost.

The film was a disappointment. Therein lies the challenge for Brosnan going forward: Will people pay to see him portray anything other than a man of mystery like the jewel thief he plays in his most recent release, After the Sunset? Will he have the after-Bond life of Sean Connery—or Timothy Dalton?

I've been very blessed," Brosnan says while driving home. "Some people have a tendency to get knocked down in this business and sulk and whine, and they just create a rod for their back, really. You have to have broad shoulders and get through it. When people don't believe in you, you have to believe in yourself. I suppose that comes from my childhood. That makes you very resilient. Very resourceful."

In truth, Brosnan had come to regard the spy movies as creative bondage. He yearned for 007 to be more like the character in Ian Fleming's novels. "In the books, the guy cracks," Brosnan notes with admiration. "He knows he's out on Benzedrine and cocktails, and he's got fucking blood on his hands. You see his fallibility."

For that reason, Brosnan's favorite of his 007 performances is the one in Die Another Day. The film starts with Bond being captured and then doubted and fired by his own agency. Brosnan loves that the hero had fallen upon hard times and the future looked uncertain. "There were just moments where you had this exciting scenario where you don't know who he is, you don't know how he's going to get out of this situation," he says. "It was much more about the man, the character."
 
The enthusiasm drains from his face. "And then the film drops back into the old formula, and it's, like, by the numbers, because it leaves you nowhere to go except crass one-liners."

Brosnan has always exuded style, but now more than ever he craves substance. On the set of After the Sunset, in the Bahamas, he found himself in the midst of a telling moment with Brett Ratner, the film's 35-year-old director, who not long ago was cranking out hip-hop music videos. "I'd be sitting in my trailer, listening to classical music," Brosnan recalls. "And I'd hear hip-hop music going boom-boom-boom. I'd open up the door, and there are about 12 models and Brett in the middle of them, just beaming. Living his own music video. Certainly in a moment like that, you realize you've been in the game for some time."

On the way home, Brosnan shares another story: Recently, on a sleepy morning much like today, he was driving along in the Aston Martin and spotted a Ferrari to his left with a teenager behind the wheel. The punk revved up the engine and stared Brosnan's way. The kid wanted to race. Brosnan let his foot drop a bit, and suddenly they were both doing 95. Brosnan knew that if he were to unleash the V-12's full power, the boy and his Ferrari would be a rearview-mirror memory.

"I said to myself, 'What the fuck am I doing? I'm a 51-year-old man with a wife and children.' So I hit the brakes."

Brosnan is in no hurry to be anyone's character. Now it's about being his own man. 

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