I’ve been a lifelong fan of James Bond, and one or another of the Bond films are often in the rotation of movies that my husband and I watch pretty regularly. Last night we did another one–GoldenEye, the first outing of Irish actor Pierce Brosnan as Bond. But his performance, which is pretty good, got me thinking about the guy he replaced, and how he just doesn’t get enough respect. License to Kill is easily one of my all-time favorite James Bond films, and people are sometimes surprised to hear that; they’re even more surprised to hear that one of the reasons I think it’s a stand-out in the series is because of Timothy Dalton’s performance as Bond. Whenever I get thinking about a movie these days it usually becomes a blog post, but this time I’m going to focus on a star, that being the fourth man to portray the British super-spy in the official movie series: Timothy Peter Dalton.

Before we turn to Mr. Dalton, however, let’s get one issue off the table. Defending one or another aspect of a particular actor’s portrayal of James Bond does not mean that I’m asserting he’s the best overall portrayal of Bond. While I often have contrarian opinions, especially on movies, my view is firmly in the majority that Sean Connery, who played the role first, was the most overall well-suited for it, and he remains my favorite. Nevertheless, all of the others who’ve played the part–Roger Moore (1973-85), Dalton (1987-89), Brosnan (1995-2002) and Craig (2006-15)–have their strong points, and all are worth talking about. So let’s focus on Dalton.

Timothy Dalton was something of an unusual choice to play the role of Bond after the retirement of Roger Moore in 1985. It was said that Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the producer of the series, originally wanted Pierce Brosnan, who was then famous for playing the suave private eye Remington Steele on TV, but Brosnan couldn’t get out of his contract in time to make the next movie. Dalton didn’t really have an action movie background. He was known primarily for stage productions in England, especially Shakespeare. Born in Wales, Dalton caught the acting bug at age 16 and quit school to join a Shakespeare company. His first screen role wasn’t Shakespeare but wasn’t too far off, playing the young Philip II of France in the 1968 screen version of The Lion in Winter, which won Katharine Hepburn an Oscar for her portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine. He then played mostly villainous characters on the screen, such as a cowardly Royalist in Cromwell (1970, opposite Richard Harris as Oliver Cromwell) and the insufferable Lord Darnley in the 1971 movie Mary, Queen of Scots. American audiences didn’t really know him until he appeared in the campy disco sci-fi epic Flash Gordon in 1980. Impressive as this work was, it’s not really the ideal pedigree for Bond. Then again, what is?

Dalton’s record in the role, however, is undeniably impressive. Though he only made two films, The Living Daylights (1987) and License to Kill (1989), both of them are excellent films; Connery, Moore and Brosnan all had clinkers, like The Man With The Golden Gun or the ludicrous Die Another Day. Dalton took the role in a completely different direction than Roger Moore had done. Moore emphasized light comedy and played Bond as something of a dandy. Dalton, by contrast, showed us a burned-out, tough-as-nails, bitter and cynical Cold Warrior who seemed to hate his job but was utterly unsuited to do anything else. Witness, for example, the grim determination with which he prepares to terminate a KGB sniper at the beginning of The Living Daylights, or his open contempt for M and the secret service in License to Kill. Roger Moore was incapable of this kind of gravitas, and Sean Connery always looked like he was having too much fun.

Dalton’s portrayal is, in fact, perhaps the closest in any of the films to the character as Ian Fleming wrote him in the novels. I read all the James Bond novels very early on, and let me tell you, Bond is a pretty unlikable guy in them. He comes across as a bitter misogynistic drunk, a Mafia hit man who happens to work for a slightly more respectable organization. That he scores often with beautiful women comes across as more pathetic than glamorous. Dalton understood this aspect of the character perfectly, and he wasn’t afraid to put it on the screen. The fact that many fans don’t like his portrayal is probably a testament to the quality of his acting. Another testament is that Daniel Craig, the modern Bond, has adopted much the same approach. He’s managed to be much more suave and likable, but in his films, especially Skyfall, you definitely see the gritty unpleasantness of Bond. In this Craig is channeling Dalton.

Dalton also had a lot of great material to work with. It’s mystifying to me why The Living Daylights often gets treated as one of the “middling” Bond films, when it’s exceptionally well-written, tense, interesting and competently put-together. License to Kill is even more so, constructed like a Swiss watch, as lean and sleek as Bond films get. In License to Kill Dalton got to work against a fantastic villain performance, that being Robert Davi. Director John Glen, who helmed both films, clearly knew how to handle Dalton and it’s clear they worked well together. Not all the other actors have had so many advantages.

So why does Dalton get so little respect? Perhaps he was simply ahead of his time. The popularity of Daniel Craig in the role shows that there is appeal to a tough-as-nails approach to Bond, but audiences weren’t ready for it in 1987 when Dalton came along. And there’s the issue of comparisons. In the 1980s Sean Connery was still nearly everyone’s yardstick for Bond. Dalton is a great actor, but his approach to acting is totally different. Expectations are so high for anyone who steps into the role that chances are at least 50-50 they won’t hit with the public. Dalton was probably the right guy, but the timing was wrong. Yet this is also one of the great things about the two movies he made as Bond: unlike many of the films in the series that seem incredibly dated, they get better with age.

The image of Timothy Dalton in the header illustration is a frame from the film The Living Daylights and is copyright (C) 1987 by Danjaq, Ltd., the owners of the film and character. I believe my use of it here constitutes fair use as no free alternative is available.