Wednesday, 28 December 2011

THE GREAT WOMAN BEHIND A GREAT BOND

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Twenty years ago today, Australian actress Cassandra Harris, aged thirty-nine, lost her battle against ovarian cancer. She was Pierce Brosnan’s first wife, and she died exactly on the day of her eleventh anniversary of their wedding day.

Cassandra Harris and Pierce Brosnan, circa the late 1980's


But, as many of us know, she was far more than just the first wife of the fifth James Bond actor and star of GOLDENEYE. She was, right before producers Michael G Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, the woman who made Pierce Brosnan the new James Bond.

The chance of getting the coveted role for the other Bond actors was fairly ordinary. But no other Bond actor has lived a chance of getting the role that has touched deep in the emotions as it happened to Pierce Brosnan. His case was, literally, the Bond girl that made him Bond.

Cassandra Harris (real name Sandra Coleen Walters) was born on December 15th, 1952 in Sydney. After studying at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, she starred in stage productions like BOEING BOEING, movies like ROUGH CUT and her own talk-show called THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. 

By the time she met Pierce Brosnan in the mid 70’s, she had two children from her second marriage with Dermot Harris, brother of actor Richard Harris (who starred in 1978’s THE WILD GEESE with Roger Moore): Charlotte and Christopher.

Cassandra Harris as Lisl with Roger Moore as 007 in 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY


“Cassie and I were rogue genes that just met in life”, recalled Pierce Brosnan to People magazine in 1992. He had a role in Franco Zefirelli’s theatre play FILUMENA. While he was riding his bike to the house of a friend, he met Cassandra. "I had no interest in him at all, (…) but we had much in common—acting, books, music—and once we started talking, we never stopped", she recalled talking about her first impression of Brosnan.

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Passions were so strong that Pierce Brosnan and Cassandra Harris finally married in 1977.
"I was very lucky to encounter Cassie and have a life with her. For the things that I lack she makes up. She's a lot brighter than me, a lot smarter. I'm much more passionate and instinctive and will maybe make wrong decisions.” said Brosnan to Hello magazine in 1988, "If she listened to me, we'd still be probably in Wimbledon, and still pushing the car."

1981: Roger Moore was playing James Bond for the fifth (and last, as it was then wrongly rumoured) time, in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. In that film, Cassandra played Countess Lisl Von Schalf, one of the many girls of the film who fell for Moore’s Bond.


Curiously enough, Cassandra auditioned had the chance to become a Bond girl in two opportunities before 1981: she claimed, in 1975, she had been in the castings for ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969, starring George Lazenby) and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1974, starring Roger Moore). However, THE AVENGERS’ Diana Rigg and Swedish actress Britt Ekland finally got the leading part for those two films.

But even when Cassandra had a romantic interlude with the onscreen James Bond, she would never know she was married with a future 007.

Cassandra and his honour guest, Pierce Brosnan, at the FOR YOUR EYES ONLY premiere in 1981


It was on a trip to Corfu, Greece, where producer Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli first thought in Brosnan as a suitable replacement for Roger Moore. He was a visitor on the set of FOR YOUR EYES ONLY where his wife was acting. According to some versions pointed out, the producer said: "If he can act...he's my guy". Cassandra was very enthusiastic with the idea. “One day, you’ll be Bond”, she used to jokingly tell her husband. Pierce also joked with the idea: after a dinner with the producer and his wife, he began singing the famous James Bond Theme and said, maybe for the first time in his life, the phrase that he would say for seven years: “The name’s Bond… James Bond.”

In 1984, Pierce and Cassie had their first son: Sean. And in 1986, the same year Dermot Harris died of a heart attack and Brosnan adopted Christopher and Charlotte, it seemed that Cassie’s joke would become the real deal: Roger Moore retired for the role and the Walther PPK needed a new owner. Along with actors Lambert Wilson and Timothy Dalton, previously touted for the role in 1971 but considered “too young”, Pierce Brosnan was also considered. He was by then a rising star in the fictional espionage world thanks to the popular TV series REMINGTON STEELE, where Cassandra Harris made guest appearances in some chapters, and John Mackenzie’s film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth novel, THE FOURTH PROTOCOL, where Brosnan starred opposite Michael Caine, playing Major Valeri Petrofsky, a ruthless KGB agent assigned to blow away a British naval base.

All the tabloids started claiming Pierce Brosnan was indeed Roger Moore’s replacement for THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS. The Irish actor was measured for Savile Row suits (Sean Connery’s choice) and screen-tested opposite Maryam d’Abo, who would play the leading lady of the film Kara Milovy.

“Cassie and I were rogue genes that just met in life” - Pierce Brosnan


REMINGTON STEELE was apparently coming to an end, leaving Pierce’s chance to become the new Bond wide open. But MTM Productions finally tried to resell the show catching the wave of Brosnan’s rumours as the new Bond. Much to his chagrin and forced by contract, Brosnan, at thirty-three, had to turn down the chance to become the new James Bond.

While Timothy Dalton got the role, Cassandra and Pierce were both shocked that he lost the chance of his life, mainly because the press did a lot of fuzz with Pierce losing the role. “There was absolutely nothing I could do. It was out of my control”, he said. “(Cassandra) took it more on the chin than I did. She was heartbroken.”

But not getting the role of James Bond was the least of the problems for Brosnan. In 1987 the Brosnan family travelled to India to film THE DECIEVERS, where Pierce starred. Cassandra Harris started to feel unusually tired, with a strong stomach-ache. Back to London in November, she was diagnossed a malignant tumour on her ovaries.

“From day one, we really had a fight on our hands”, recalled Pierce. During those tragic years, still, Cassie encouraged his husband to go on with his career. He had important roles in THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, THE MIRROR CRACK’D, TAFFIN and MR. JOHNSON. But he was also taking care of Cassie, who had about eight operations and chemotherapies. “Sean would sometimes play the doctor”, told Brosnan, when her mother was ill. That made her feel good and carry on with her life. But the illness was hitting her hard: she started losing her hair.

In 1989, two years after the cancer was diagnosed, Pierce bought her a residence in Malibu, where the family moved. That gave her a lot of joy and helped her overcome her illnesses.

In December 1991, she checked in Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital. She went into renal failure. Pierce brought a local priest who left pamphlets with the Book of Revelation on it. He started praying aloud, but stress made him stammer the words.

“Here I am an actor, and I can't even get these words in the right order.” he told her that fateful day of December 28th, exactly on their eleventh wedding anniversary. She whispered in his ear: “Always an actor.”

Those were her last words.

Cassandra Harris memorial plaque at the whale observatory in Malibu

 In one of his “longest nights of his life”, as he would describe later, Brosnan phoned Christopher to tell him the bad news. He came there while Charlotte was on the phone. “We were all together. And that's how she went to God.” he said.

In an exclusive talk with THE GOLDENEYE DOSSIER, Sean Brosnan, now aged 27 and following his father career, said: “My mother Cassandra was an incredible woman (…) and one of the soul reasons my father is where he is today. I miss her deeply. Although I know she’s not far away, her light, her presence and indelible smile I can see in my brother Chris, my sister Charlotte and inside my heart (…) [She was] a true force of nature.”

To honour his wife, Brosnan built a whale-observatory with a view to the ocean in their Malibu residence, exactly in the place she was buried.

Cassandra Harris was a key element of Pierce Brosnan’s career, Bond and beyond. She left an incredible legacy to him in her children. A true example of a strong family union and love. Togetherness, until death makes us part. A true example of loyalty and trust, so missing in today’s relationship standards. Any true believer could blindly assure she was up there, watching as his wife said the immortal lines she once heard jokingly in the back of a luxury car, this time in a black Brioni tuxedo in a Monte Carlo casino. Behind every great man, there was a great woman. Behind the greatest Bond of all, there was Cassandra Harris.

“One day, you will be Bond.”

On June 1st 1994, Cassie’s joke, as a larger than life spirit, came back with a vengeance.  At exactly 12.35 pm, Pierce Brosnan, now dating journalist Keely Shayle-Smith, the telephone rang on his Malibu home. It was his agent, Fred Spector, who said: “Hello, Mr. Bond – you’ve got the part.”

Thank you Cassandra.

Nicolas Suszczyk,
Editor, THE GOLDENEYE DOSSIER.

Source: “The Making of GoldenEye”, by Garth Pierce; Hello Magazine: “Pierce Brosnan, Man of Steele Moves On” (July 23, 1988); People: “Remington Steele:  Unbuttoning TV's Hot New Mystery Man, Dashing, Debonair Pierce Brosnan” (October 31st, 1983); People: “The Wife He Loved And Lost” (April 27, 1992); Goldeneye Magazine: “Pierce Brosnan’s Long And Winding Road To Bond” (Spring 1996); Redbook: “How A Man Mends His Broken Heart” (December 1, 1995). Special thanks to Athena Stamos for the pics of the Malibu whale observatory and to Sean Brosnan for his words about his beloved mother.

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