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Pray Your Favorite Actor Doesn’t Become James Bond

In the BBC miniseries “The Night Manager,” a John le Carré adaptation that premieres in the U.S. tonight, Tom Hiddleston stars as Jonathan Pine, an undercover British intelligence agent. While tasked with toppling the organization of an arms dealer described as “the worst man in the world,” Pine effortlessly seduces a string of women, deals out death and destruction, and infiltrates an island fortress filled with henchmen whose names sound recycled from old “Jeeves and Wooster” scripts. As a legion of writers and interviewers has observed since the series aired in England, Hiddleston’s portrayal could double as an audition for another character with a license to kill and a four-letter last name: Bond. (You know the next line.) But the career arcs of Bond actors from the past 40 years suggest that Hiddleston-heads would get more Hiddleston, and better Hiddleston, if he never inherited that long-running role.

Handsome, suave and successful English actors of a certain age — the men who’ve played Bond1 have all been between 30 and 452 at the time of their first film’s release — can count on being anointed by rumormongers as the next 007. Thanks to Hiddleston’s performance as Pine (and the accompanying positive press), it’s his turn.

The 35-year-old actor’s moment in the spotlight comes at the perfect time to jump-start speculation. The tenures of the five former Bonds lasted four films, on average,3 and incumbent Bond Daniel Craig completed his fourth film in the series, “Spectre,” in 2015. Although Craig hasn’t officially abdicated, he hasn’t committed to reprising the role. The apparent finality of his last scene in “Spectre,” coupled with the weariness in his comments after finishing the film, makes the face of the next sequel uncertain.

Hiddleston seems well-suited (and besuited) to take up the mantle, and there are obvious benefits to becoming the seventh actor to wear the Walther PPK: international notoriety, lucrative endorsement deals and product placements, and progressively bigger paydays with each return to the role.

Even so, being Bond has its downsides. Previous actors who’ve accepted M’s assignments have claimed to be ambivalent about their decisions to play Bond, citing a sense of artistic stagnation. Hiddleston doesn’t need Bond to break out: He’s already earning Marvel money, and after Jonathan Pine, Bond might be a step back both creatively and in terms of audience satisfaction. (Thus far, “The Night Manager” has a higher average IMDb user rating than any Bond film in the franchise.) Another frequently rumored Bond-to-be, Idris Elba, is also already rolling in critically acclaimed characters and highprofile film franchises. Neither actor has publicly voiced opposition to playing Bond — Hiddleston, as Pine, even improvised an order for a vodka martini — but saddling either star with the weight of fan-servicing the legacy of 25 films, complete with sclerotic tropes and required catchphrases, might not be the best use of his talents.

While ur-Bond Sean Connery made the character an icon and, in the process, became iconic himself, the returns for the actors who’ve succeeded him — even excluding George Lazenby, who hadn’t acted in films before becoming Bond and who went one and done with “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” — have been more mixed. To determine the potential impact of playing Bond on an actor’s output, I analyzed the IMDb user ratings for each post-Lazenby Bond’s acting work from the five years before his first Bond film, the years during his reign, and the five years after he retired his tux, excluding uncredited roles, one-episode spots on TV shows, voice work and video games.

The good news is that although many Bond films are far from beloved, the franchise rarely produces utterly unredeemable entries; only one Eon-produced Bond movie (2002’s “Die Another Day”) places below IMDb’s overall average movie rating, circa 2014. Because even “bad” Bond is watchable, the four4 actors’ Bond films have an average rating of 6.80, compared with an average of 6.29 for their non-Bond work from five years before, during, and five years after their stints as 007.5

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Even though the actors were buoyed by their Bond films, their projects from the five years before they became Bond have higher ratings on average than those from their Bond years or the five years after their final Bond films.

This might be a kind of casting-call regression toward the mean: Maybe only actors who’ve been lucky in landing plum pre-Bond roles (such as Hiddleston’s) generate enough buzz to be blips on the Broccoli radar. But it also could be because Bond actors can coast on their blockbuster cred or because being known for Bond gets actors typecast as action stars, whom audiences, like critics, might respect a little less.

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Not only do actors appear in lower-rated productions post-Bond, but their post-Bond parts are served in small portions. Acting credits tend to dwindle after Bond, perhaps because financial security frees actors to take fewer roles; Bond-related fame and advancing age limit their other options; or celebrity, protracted productions and the need to recover from the beatings they take sidetrack their careers. (Or your alternative theory!)

Being Bond has kept Craig so busy since “Skyfall” (2012) that aside from his tour as a stormtrooper, he’s had time for only one non-007 acting project (a limited run in “Betrayal” on Broadway). In both quality and quantity, actors’ output tends to decline after their first freeze-frame in a bloody gun barrel.

Hiddleston and Elba would be worthy Bonds, but admirers of their earlier work should think twice before ’shipping them with a prolific (and often formulaic) franchise. If the wishcasting culminates in real roles for either actor, his bank account (and Bond fans whose first loyalty is to the franchise) might be the main beneficiary. Take it from someone who’s been in Bond’s shoes; as Craig put it last year, “If I did another Bond movie, it would only be for the money.”

Footnotes

  1. Not counting David Niven, who appeared in the 1967 spoof “Casino Royale.”

  2. 38.5, on average.

  3. Again, not counting Niven. I also omitted Sean Connery’s 1983 comeback in the non-Eon-produced “Never Say Never Again.”

  4. Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Craig.

  5. Of course, Craig’s post-Bond work has yet to begin.

Ben Lindbergh is a former staff writer at FiveThirtyEight.

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