The suave casino craving, martini loving film world of super spy James Bond seemed an unlikely place for a working class boy like Lewis Gilbert to helm as a director. But that’s exactly what he did directing both Sean Connery in ‘You only live twice’ and Roger Moore in The Spy who loved me’ followed by ‘Moonraker’.
Lewis Gilbert was born in London in 1920 to a family of travelling musical performers but at seven Gilbert’s father died and he started working as a child actor mostly uncredited in long forgotten films. By 1944 declining the offer to study at RADA he turned instead to directing.
Like most men of his age at the time he had been involved in military service where he had worked in the Royal Air Force’s film unit and unsurprisingly his first films were documentary’s with wartime themes (prefabricated housing amongst others).
His first feature in 1947 was about a ballerina but after this he regularly made a film a year, sometimes making up to three, right through the Fifties and made films such as ‘The sea shall not have them’ and the classic ‘Reacch for the Sky’ in 1956 about war pilot hero Douglas Bader.
He quickly earned a reputations as a safe and reliable pair of hands but perhaps more importantly he was regarded as a true gentlemen on film sets that could become fraught through the natural pressure of budget restraints.
1966 would really put Lewis Gilbert on the map with the taboo busting and fourth wall breaking Michael Caine starrer ‘Alfie’. The story of a womanising yet charming misogynist was hugely successful and critically lauded earning Gilbert his first and only Oscar nomination but as a producer rather than director. The breaking of the fourth wall as Caine turned and spoke directly to the audience was an old theatre trick but was new to film and has continued to be popular to today most notably with the massive success of Deadpool.
The following year Lewis Gilbert would direct the first of his three Bond films. ‘You only live twice’ was the fifth film in the franchise and was to be Sean Connery’s penultimate film as the super spy. It would be ten years before he directed his next Bond film making largely forgettable films in the interim before ‘The spy who loved me’ this time with Roger Moore. The film was the biggest Bond film to date and in turn created Pinewood’s iconic Bond soundstage, then the world’s biggest studio to accommodate the film’s two submarines designed by the legendary Sir Ken Adam.
Moore got on well with the gentlemanly Lewis Gilbert and was keen to work with him again. It was a pairing that reset Bond less as a ruthless killer but played instead to Moore’s strength for comic quips and put down’s . It was something that was very much to the fore with his third and last Bond film ‘Moonraker’ , a space based spy epic influenced by the enormous success of Star Wars.
Gilbert’s Bond trilogy was equalled by his ‘working class’ trilogy started by Alfie and continued with the Oscar nominated ‘Educating Rita’ (again starring Caine) and followed in 1989 by ‘Shirley Valentine’ in 1989 which also earned Oscar nominations. It was to be his last notable success and after his last film ‘Before you Go’ in 2002 After which he retired to live in Monaco where he had lived since 1975.
In 1990 BAFTA awarded Lewis Gilbert the Michael Balcon award and in 1997 he had been made a CBE followed in 2001with the Fellowship of the British Film Institute, Despite working on some huge films he was a private man and was married for 53 years until his wife died in 2005.
He passed away in his sleep having suffered from dementia for many years. He was 97.