AUTUMN OF 2002 MARKED THE official return of Bondmania. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, the documentary Bond Girls Are Forever premiered in America at the Chicago International Film Festival on October 15. Just over a month later, an entourage of Bond vets including George Lazenby, who played 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; Richard Kiel, Bond’s brace-faced archnemesis Jaws; and a host of former Bond Girls traveled through England, Germany, and France to help promote the national premieres of the latest Bond incarnation, Die Another Day, starring Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry. Between those events, 007 buffs could bide their time digesting a new retrospective book, James Bond: The Legacy; witness the unveiling of a new Bondmobile, an Aston Martin Vanquish; or snatch up commemorative special-editionspecial-edition Dr. No trading-card sets.
For everyone excluding the series’ most die-hard fans, the fortieth birthday hullabaloo is just a thinly veiled marketing confection designed to create some fresh buzz for a series that lost its relevance sometime between the end of the Cold War and the arrival of a certain British-spy-movie parody franchise that racked up nearly half a billion dollars at the box office. But for Texas native Lois Chiles, the festivities couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Making worldwide appearances as a former Bond Girl might not be the ideal gig for the 55-year-old actress, but it provides a welcome—and lucrative—distraction while she ponders her next move in a film career that now spans more than a quarter century.
You may have only a vague idea of who Lois Chiles is. She possesses the kind of fame that you can’t quite put your finger on and the unique beauty that makes you certain you’ve seen her before. Born in Houston and raised in Alice, by the time Lois was 22, she was posing for the cover of Bazaar magazine and enjoying a thriving modeling career in New York and Paris. In the early seventies she was Hollywood’s hot new ingenue, starring with Robert Redford in The Way We Were and The Great Gatsby before dutifully matching wits with 007 Roger Moore as Dr. Holly Goodhead in 1978’s Moonraker. In the years that followed, she became a respected actress of stage and screen, and a pal, confidant, or lover to some of the most famous and interesting people of the twentieth century, including playwright Tennessee Williams, television mogul William Paley, rock star Don Henley, and actress Anjelica Huston. At one point, she even got in bed with Larry Hagman’s J.R.—and drove Sue Ellen back to the bottle—during a season-and-a-half-long stint on Dallas.
But that was a long time ago, and for a woman who once graced the cover of magazines, Lois Chiles is now—save for the occasional Bond event—conspicuously out of the spotlight. One reason is that in 2001, after nearly thirty years living full-time in Hollywood, the actress moved to Houston. It wasn’t entirely by choice. The death of her father, Clay, in 1999, after a heart attack and her own recent struggle with breast cancer created a desire to be closer to her remaining family, her mother, Barbara, and her younger brother, Bill. But the transition was also a somewhat inevitable career move. In a town that has an insatiable appetite for the latest young, beautiful thing, Lois was on the wrong side of fifty, and her fifteen minutes as Hollywood’s It Girl were long gone, along with the A-list acting parts she coveted. Back in her hometown, she’s taken a job teaching acting at the University of Houston’s School of Theatre, a move that allows her to search for new avenues for her considerable skills. As her longtime friend screenwriter Bill Broyles explained to me, “If you’re a beautiful woman in Hollywood, you have to invent your own second act.”
I FIRST MET LOIS CHILES a year ago at the wedding reception for a mutual friend in Austin. When I saw her across the room, I didn’t know who she was, but I was struck immediately by her beauty: her hair the color of polished redwood, emerald eyes, cheekbones and smile from Neiman Marcus. You can’t imagine her as anything other than a movie star. When we were finally introduced, she held my hand for a moment, and just like that, I was hooked. When you talk with her, she drinks you in with her eyes and makes you believe you’re the most important person in the world.
A year later, when I visited with her in Houston, I found her no less engaging. During our many conversations, Lois slipped comfortably from role to role—smart and funny, independent and stubborn, sexy and vulnerable—sometimes all in the same scene. At one lunch, over a plate of oysters, she recounted her favorite role, a turn in Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as the passionate, sexually frustrated Maggie, whose advances are consistently thwarted by her alcoholic and apathetic husband, Brick. “Maggie and Big Daddy had a mutual appreciation,” she explained, setting up one of her favorite lines. “As a ploy to attract Brick’s attention and rekindle their love life, she lets loose with this line.” Lois pulled her auburn hair back from her face, closed her eyes, and slid into Maggie’s sensuous Southern drawl: “Sometimes he just drops his eyes down on my body and licks his ol’ chops. I think it’s mighty fine, that ol’ fellow on the doorstep of death still takes in my shape with what I think is deserved appreciation.” She threw her head back and laughed. She was Maggie all over again.
Lois still has it, but beauty and acting chops have never guaranteed a long, fulfilling career in front of the camera. Male stars like Clint Eastwood or Paul Newman somehow remain sex symbols and land choice roles well into their seventies. If you’re a leading lady, your bankability isn’t so enduring. With the rare exception, your career takes an all-too-predictable arc: