Meeting Desmond Llewelyn was a little like meeting Santa Claus.
As a child, I first saw him in films like “Goldfinger” and “From
Russia with Love,” outfitting James Bond with a slew of fantastic
gadgets and weapons — the Aston Martin with the ejector seat, the
lethal briefcase with the hidden knife.
Back then, as an 8-year-old boy in suburban New Jersey, I
believed that surely, somehow, somewhere in London, Q existed. He
must be real, I told myself. Q and Bond. We needed guys like that
to fight the Cold War, didn’t we?
Thirty years later, in September 1994, I found myself sitting in an
abandoned Rolls Royce jet engine factory, 30 miles north of
London, writing the last draft of the James Bond film “Goldeneye.”
I’d held the legendary Bond gun, the Walther PPK. I’d taken the Aston
Martin for a spin. I’d learned — to my great amusement — that Q
stood for quartermaster, and that in the scripts, the gadgets and
weapons were referred to as Q-toys. But I still hadn’t met him.
Then, one October afternoon, Desmond Llewelyn came to our makeshift
movie studio for lunch. And, all of a sudden, I was an 8-year-old boy again.
“Yes, I know Q is beloved,” Desmond said, with a faint roll of the
eyes. “But for God’s sake, don’t make him some kind of sentimental
grandfather — that’s what I am in real life.”
“The key to Q is his conflict with Bond,” Desmond explained that
day at lunch. “When I was cast, the director said, ‘Everyone
loves Bond, except for you. You hate him. You don’t think he
appreciates you. Or your equipment. He doesn’t respect you. You’re
always saving his life, and he never says thank you.’”
To illustrate this, Desmond proceeded to replay the famous scene from
“Goldfinger,” where Q tells Bond about the ejector seat in the Aston
Martin. Bond’s reaction: “You must be joking,” to which Q replies, “I
never joke about my work, 007.”
Over the years, I would see Desmond in London or L.A.,
whenever we were in the same city. He became something like the
great uncle I always wanted, the one with the fantastic war stories.
He’d wrap his giant hands around a tumbler of Jack Daniels and joke
about the burdens of being typecast. He could talk with equal
enthusiasm about “Larry” Olivier, with whom he worked in the ’30s;
about Lara Croft vs. James Bond (“I don’t know about you, but the
way I see it, Lara Croft is no James Bond”) and about the battle of
Hastings, which took place near his home in Sussex in 1066.
“Of course I’m fascinated by it,” he’d explain, “I was there when it
Contrary to the usual actorly behavior on a movie set (disappearing
into your trailer for the 50 minutes between shots), Desmond was a
delight on set. He’d remain on the stage the whole day, signing
autographs and telling stories.
In fact, shooting Q’s scenes was always the highlight of any Bond
film. On the days that Desmond worked, the studio became a carnival.
What seemed like hundreds of guests would arrive hoping for a glimpse
of the two idols, Bond and Q. Ringed with onlookers, the soundstage
was all but transformed into theater as even the most blasi grip and
technician had made sure to get his son, nephew and uncle a pass
onto the set.
During the making of “Goldeneye” and “Tomorrow Never Dies,” there
were a handful of conversations between producers Michael Wilson and
Barbara Broccoli and Desmond and me about coming up with a strategy for
the character’s dignified exit from the series.
It became sort of a running joke: Whenever we left a restaurant,
he’d stuff a 10- or 12-page handwritten sequence into my
pocket, each one detailing a new, ever more elaborate exit for his
“Desmond,” I would reply, “these are 45-minute sequences. I
know you’re beloved, but –”
“You’ve got to figure out a way to write me out,” he’d laugh. “You
know, I’m not going to last forever.”
“Don’t be silly,” Barbara and Michael would respond. “You’ve got a
contract through 2015. We intend to hold you to it.”
But as we began this most recent film, “The World Is Not Enough,” a
decision was made that Q, as well as Desmond, should have the option
of retiring gracefully.
When I went back to my hotel room in London to write the scene, I
spent a fair amount of time thinking about who Q was. Why did he
touch a nerve with so many people? What archetype did Desmond
correspond to that resonated with so many different people all over
This is what appears in the script, dated June 16, 1999:
Q and Bond look at the balloon, rolling away. Then, as the noise
fades, Q and Bond share a moment. Both men know that after all these
years, all these missions, this might — possibly — be time for
goodbye. They look upon each other: Q’s Merlin to Bond’s Arthur.
Bond fights the sentimentality:
You’re not planning to retire anytime
soon, are you?
Q (ignoring this)
Pay attention, 007.
There are two things I’ve always tried to teach you. First: Never
let them see you bleed.
Always have an escape plan.
POOF!!! There’s a flash of powder, and Q disappears behind a secret
door. Bond nods, a fond salute farewell.
When Desmond Llewelyn died in a car accident on Sunday, Dec. 19, the world
lost an icon, and I lost a friend. Yet, as I sit here, writing this
24 hours later, I am left with two visions of Desmond.
The first was six months ago, as we shot that last scene on Stage
3 at Pinewood studios. Looking around the room, I saw dozens of
young English schoolboys staring — eyes wide open, mouths agape,
barely breathing — as Q and Bond ran their lines. I realized that
for those boys, as for me at that age, Santa may not have existed
anymore, but Q still did.
My second and last vision of Desmond took place barely a month ago,
at the party following the premiere of “The World Is Not Enough” in
Santa Monica, Calif.
At 1 o’clock in the morning, in a room filled with movie stars,
beautiful women and handsome men, Desmond Llewelyn, 85 years
old, sat at a long banquet table, alone under a blue light, besieged
by young fans, merrily signing autographs into the night.