English actor Robert Brown was best known for playing the character of M, fictional head of the British Secret Service, in four James Bond movies beginning in 1983 after the death of the role's originator, Bernard Lee. A classically trained stage actor, Brown began his screen career with small, often uncredited work in films like the acclaimed adaptation of the Graham Greene thriller "The Third Man" (1949) and the Grecian epic "Helen of Troy" (1956). Brown was also a staple on British television, where he developed a fortuitous friendship with dashing leading man Roger Moore on the series "Ivanhoe" (ITV, 1958-59) and "The Saint" (ITV, 1962-69). He later appeared opposite Moore's 007 for the first time as a stuffy navy admiral in "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977) and after the passing of Lee in 1981, it was Moore who recommended Brown for the vacated role. He began his tour of duty as the taciturn M with "Octopussy" (1983), continued for "A View to a Kill" (1985) and stuck around for the Timothy Dalton years in the later entries "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "License to Kill" (1989). Having gone into retirement after this last effort, Brown remained a beloved addition to the cinematic mythology of Bond with appreciative fans of the indomitable franchise.
Born in Swanage, Dorset, England on July 23, 1921, Robert James Brown was the son of Robert Charles Brown, the coxswain of the small coastal town's lifeboat. With the outbreak of hostilities between England and the Axis Powers in 1939, the barely 18-year-old Brown enlisted with the Royal Navy. Stationed at Gibraltar, he spent his off-duty hours participating in various theatrical productions and soon discovered a love of acting that would remain with him well after his military service was complete. Brown's original plans for a career in the Navy were quickly abandoned after World War II. Upon his discharge he had the good fortune to hone his acting skills at the Oxford Playhouse and with the Birmingham Repertory Company for several years before making the jump to work on the screen. Beginning with a small, uncredited role in the Orson Welles thriller "The Third Man" (1949) - which also featured a turn by Bernard Lee, the man he would later replace as 007's boss - Brown undertook his lengthy career in film and television, becoming an oft-utilized member of the BBC's de facto repertory company.
More often than not, Brown was cast in period pieces, such as an early turn as a castle guard in the historical epic "Ivanhoe" (1952), starring Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor. Similar work came in the Robert Wise-directed "Helen of Troy" (1956) and the Academy Award-winning "Ben-Hur" (1959), starring Charlton Heston. In another instance of cinematic six degrees of separation, Brown later played his future subordinate, Roger Moore's sidekick on the popular 1950s British television adaptation of "Ivanhoe" (ITV, 1958-59) and later took part in "The 300 Spartans" (1962), an early portrayal of the legendary Battle of Thermopylae. Once again, the working actor appeared opposite Moore for two installments of his popular adventure series "The Saint" (ITV, 1962-69) then took a step down the evolutionary ladder to play a caveman in "One Million Years B.C." (1966), the prehistoric adventure that made a pin-up star of Raquel Welch.
Somewhat more regular work was provided for Brown with his recurring role as Brett Harker on the soapy drama "The Newcomers" (BBC, 1965-69), in addition to periodic returns to the stage in such projects as a year-long run in the hit production of Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" in 1973. It was four years later that the hardworking British actor made his first appearance in a film based on Ian Fleming's literary creation when he turned up as the rigid Admiral Hargreaves in "The Spy Who Loved Me" (1977), opposite Lee as M and old friend Moore in his third outing as 007. Sadly, after completing his work on the next Bond film, "Moonraker" (1979) and just days before beginning work on the next entry, Lee was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1980 and died a year later. Out of respect for the departed Lee, the character of M was left out of the script for "For Your Eyes Only" (1981).
However, for the 13th installment of the venerable spy franchise, a decision was made to bring the head of MI6 back, and as luck would have it, Moore suggested his old acquaintance Brown for the role. Whether or not he was intended to be a promoted Admiral Hargreaves from "The Spy Who Loved Me," or simply step into Lee's formidable shoes as the same character was never addressed. Regardless, the actor made his debut as M with "Octopussy" (1983), an adventure that found Moore's Bond teaming with femme fatale Maud Adams against Louis Jordan's super villain in India. Although Lee's presence was surely missed, Brown served the position admirably throughout the remainder of the decade. He returned for Moore's final outing as the super spy in "A View to a Kill" (1985) then held down the office for actor Timothy Dalton's brief tenure as Bond in "The Living Daylights" (1987) and "License to Kill" (1989) before ultimately handing the role over to Dame Judi Dench who took over with the start of the Pierce Brosnan run. Brown's last professional appearance was in the Arthurian fantasy-drama "Merlin of the Crystal Cave" (BBC, 1991). Having retired more than a decade earlier, Brown died at his home in Swanage on Nov. 11, 2003 at the age of 82.
By Bryce Coleman