What Timothy Dalton really felt about playing 007

BY Simon Button

6th Dec 2022 Celebrities

What Timothy Dalton really felt about playing 007

Timothy Dalton on what makes Peter Townsend (Princess Margaret's ex-beau) such an intriguing character in The Crown, plus why he hesitated to play James Bond

When he was asked to join the new series of The Crown, Timothy Dalton didn’t hesitate to say yes, not least because the invitation came from none other than Lesley Manville.

“I got a message from her saying she was playing Princess Margaret, would I come and play Peter Townsend?” Dalton relates.

“I thought that was such a wonderful thing for her to do so of course I said yes. I also think it’s terrific television, beautifully made the way we used to make TV 20 years ago.”

Townsend, played in the first series by Ben Miles, was the former RAF Group Captain and equerry to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. He had an affair with the latter’s younger sister until she ended it in 1955.

In the show, their paths cross again many years later but under tragic circumstances.

"I’m your man for a waltz and I’ve even danced the tango with Jennifer Connelly in The Rocketeer"

Did Dalton already know his co-star? The actor, who turns out to be much funnier than most of his screen roles suggest, laughs. “Well, I do now. I’ve danced the quickstep with her.”

Referencing a scene in the fourth episode of the fifth series of The Crown, Dalton adds: “Well, I think it was a quickstep, not a foxtrot. I’m your man for a waltz and I’ve even danced the tango with Jennifer Connelly in The Rocketeer, without music I have to say.”

He laughs again. “But this one was all changing beats and rhythms and the rest of it. It’s not something I was confident about and had Lesley known how unconfident I was, as she was hurtling through the air with her feet off the ground, she wouldn’t have done it.

"I struggled but it was wonderful and by the end of it you know these two people are in love.”

Does this mean we might be seeing Timothy on Strictly sometime in the future? His answer is an emphatic: “No. N-o.”

Timothy Dalton on playing Peter Townsend

Timothy Dalton and Lesley Manville play Peter Townsend and Princess Margaret dancing in The CrownLesley Manville reached out to Timothy Dalton personally to invite him to play Peter Townsend in The Crown

Since his film debut in 1968 in The Lion in Winter, the Welsh-born/Manchester-raised Dalton has never courted the limelight. He’s just got on with the job.

Despite high-profile relationships with Vanessa Redgrave, Whoopi Goldberg and musician Oksana Grigorieva (with whom he has a son, Alexander), he’s always been under the celebrity radar and splits his time between Los Angeles and Chiswick, his British accent still intact.

We’re talking via WhatsApp and the 76-year-old actor is on lively form.

He doesn’t mince his words; when I ask what he most liked about the character of Peter Townsend, he answers: “You don’t have to like a character to play them. I’m doing something at the moment [for Yellowstone creator Taylor Sheridan] where it looks like I’m going to play a rather nasty character.

"But Peter was an extraordinary man in many ways. He was a fighter pilot in the Second World War, when there was a chance they were going to die every time they took off. He didn’t have much choice but nevertheless he was very brave.”

Why Timothy Dalton quit the RAF

Dalton’s father served in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War and when he was 17, Timothy himself won an RAF flying scholarship.

“It was a dream of mine,” he recalls, “until I realised my job would be to kill people and that there would be a lot of people looking to kill me.”

Instead, he turned to acting. As a youngster he was hooked on Saturday morning kids’ shows at the local cinema in Cheadle, near Manchester, where he grew up.

“Then I was old enough to go see real films and I saw this world beyond suburban Manchester—a magical land of foreign places and different lives. I wanted to be part of that.

“Dad was pleased with my eventual choice of career because his father had been a theatrical impresario with a chain of theatres around Britain. Mum never said what she’d have preferred me to do, but like most mothers she wouldn’t have wanted her son to go into such an uncertain profession.”

"It was a dream of mine until I realised my job would be to kill people"

After studying at RADA and touring with the National Youth Theatre, Timothy worked for Birmingham Repertory Theatre, then starred as Philip II, the King of France, opposite Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter.

“O’Toole was in awe of her and I think quite scared,” he remembers, “but I wasn’t because when you’re young you’re not scared of anyone. You just get stuck in with enthusiasm.”

Ten years later he worked with another screen legend, a then 84-year-old Mae West in the box office bomb Sextette.

“She was great fun. We’d all go out to dinner and she’d regale us with stories about New York in the 1800s. It was a terrible film but a good experience.”

How Timothy Dalton's James Bond predicted a 007 revamp

The Living Daylights, Timothy Dalton with Maryam d’AboTimothy Dalton's James Bond signalled a new gritty direction for the secret agent

It didn’t hamper Dalton’s career. He did Flash Gordon on the big screen and lots of TV work before signing on to play 007 as Roger Moore’s successor in 1987’s The Living Daylights.

He’d said no previously, feeling himself too young and fearful of following in Sean Connery’s footsteps, but was lured by the promise of playing a meaner and moodier Bond.

He wasn’t altogether happy with the results. “Interestingly enough, we were trying to do what the Bond films have since become. They wanted it to be tougher, more real and move away from the silliness, but when it came down to actually doing it they didn’t want to take the risk of it not working.”

The Living Daylights and his second and final 007 film Licence to Kill were, he felt, “a bit of a mishmash, but I think what they did with the Daniel Craig ones was a terrific step.”

As for who he thinks should play Bond next, his answer is amused but evasive: “I’m staying out of that debate. It’s not my business and it would create far more trouble than it’s worth.”

There are jobs where he’s thought, I made a mistake saying yes to this­— not that he’ll name them, but that certainly wasn’t the case with The Crown. His and Manville’s paths had only briefly crossed before.

"We were trying to do what the Bond films have since become"

“At a party or a do or something, then I got that message asking me to come and work with her and I thought, Isn’t it lovely for a colleague to ask that?”

He’s met several members of The Royal Family during his career, including Charles and Diana when they visited The Living Daylights set and The Queen at a line-up for a Bond premiere. He was deeply moved by Her Majesty’s passing this year.

“In my mind I remembered the black and white footage of her coronation, of this terribly young woman having a crown put on her head. She didn’t expect it and was thrust into it, but she did the job marvellously well.”

As a hard worker himself, Dalton likes to spend his downtime walking. “Although I might have to stop because it hurts too much,” he chuckles.

“In the States I do love doing road trips. This country has some great qualities and some awful ones, but when you get out into the mountainous west the landscapes are magnificent. I like driving but walking is a double-edged sword.” He sighs. “I’m getting old but you’ve got to keep fit.”

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