Step Aside, Sean Connery: The Indiana Origins of James Bond
Legend or not, Sean Connery was NOT what author Ian Fleming had in mind when he created the iconic super spy, James Bond.
As production of the first Bond film began in 1960, Fleming’s opinion of the bodybuilding Scotsman could hardly have been lower. Upon seeing Connery for the first time, Ian Fleming brushed off the burly actor with disgust. “I am looking for Commander Bond and not an over-grown stuntman.”
An intelligence officer during World War II, Fleming had a concrete image of Bond, and believed only one man had the looks and demeanor of the fictional super spy. It took the support of millions of fans AFTER Dr. No conquered the box office to convince him Connery could play the part.
But whom did Fleming believe was the one man with the looks and style of the coolest secret agent in movie history?
Hoosier singer, songwriter and actor Hoagy Carmichael.
Born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1899, Hoagy Carmichael developed his musical talents under the tutelage of his mother, who had earned a side income by playing piano at silent movie houses and private parties. She immersed Hoagy in piano playing, and he showed great aptitude for it. His musical talents quickly flourished.
Although he primarily played ragtime jazz in his early days, Carmichael was attracted to the hot jazz in New York City and played with some of the style’s most legendary performers, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington and Gene Krupa among them.
During his lengthy music career, he composed hundreds of songs for jazz musicians, with 1927’s “Star Dust” remaining his most well-known song. Unlike some hardline jazz musicians, Hoagy welcomed the new technology of the 30s and 40s, taking advantage of advances in electronic amplification and recording (he believed his singing was far weaker than his piano playing, and took help where he could get it).
He also branched out in entertainment. Using his connections in the music industry, he began nabbing small parts in motion pictures. Hoagy Carmichael’s talents and good looks transformed him into a much sought-after character actor in the 1940s, culminating in a role in The Best Years of Our Lives, in 1946. The film would win seven (!) Academy Awards.
Hoagy Carmichael enjoyed his success, and the financial freedom and fame it provided, and his taste in fine clothes, fine food, and exotic locales was well-known among the Hollywood elite. Hoagy was seen everywhere and anywhere, and always in fine dress.
In 1951 he shared an Academy Award for Best Song with “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” featured in the motion picture Here Comes the Groom. Years later, he would also compose the music for the state song of Georgia, “Georgia On My Mind.”
It is likely this era of Carmichael’s life, and his frequent appearance in motion pictures of the day, that inspired Ian Fleming’s image of James Bond. Fleming described Carmichael and Bond in the same terms, a good-looking man, …”But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
This comparison to Carmichael extended so far as to have a character in Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, to remark the secret agent looked a lot like the singer. The comparison is made again by another character in the third Bond novel, Moonraker.
Fleming huffed and puffed during the first film’s production, but the box office receipts of Dr. No caused Ian Fleming to readily accept Sean Connery in the iconic role…especially since Connery’s films would make Fleming a very wealthy man.
Hoagy Carmichael passed away in 1981 and was buried in Bloomington, Indiana, at Rose Hill Cemetery, leaving behind a rich legacy of popular music, and a firm place as a legendary songwriter of the early 20th century. His honors include a place on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a bronze outside the IU Auditorium, and a collection of his memorabilia in the Hoagie Carmichael Room at IU’s Morrison Hall.