Birthday: September 12, 1914
Died At Age: 85
Sun Sign: Virgo
Also Known As: Desmond Wilkinson Llewelyn
Born Country: Wales
Born in: Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, United Kingdom
Famous as: Actor
Height: 1.88 m
Spouse/Ex-: Pamela Mary Llewelyn (m. 1938–1999)
father: Ivor Llewelyn
mother: Mia (née Wilkinson), Mia Wilkinson
children: Ivor Llewelyn, Justin Llewelyn
Died on: December 19, 1999
Who was Desmond Llewelyn?
Desmond Llewelyn was a Welsh actor, best known for playing ‘James Bond's exasperated gadgets and weapons master, ‘Major Boothroyd,’ better known as ‘Q,’ in 17 ‘Bond’ films, between 1963 and 1999, beginning with ‘From Russia with Love.’ He tragically succumbed to a vehicular accident just 3 weeks after the premiere of ‘The World Is Not Enough,’ his last ‘Bond’ film. This lifetime role propelled him to a cult-favorite status among diehard fans of the ‘007’ franchise and made him immensely popular with cinephiles and average moviegoers alike, despite his rather short overall screen time. He was the only member of ‘EON’s official cast to have worked with all five actors who had played ‘James Bond’ until then, namely, Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan, and three ‘M’s, namely, Bernard Lee, Robert Brown, and Dame Judi Dench. No other actor has appeared in more ‘007’ films than Llewelyn. Before his stint in ‘Bond’ films, he was a World War II veteran. He was also a successful character actor, a career which lasted 50 years and saw him appear in films such as the ‘Academy Award’-winning classic ‘Cleopatra’ and the ‘Academy Award’--nominated adventure–fantasy ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’
Childhood & Early Life
Desmond Wilkinson Llewelyn was born on September 12, 1914, in Newport, Monmouthshire, Wales, UK, to Mia Wilkinson and Ivor Llewelyn. His father was a coal mining engineer.
Young Desmond was interested in acting since an early age. He attended high school at ‘Radley College,’ where he worked as a stagehand for the school’s theater group, occasionally picking up small roles in their productions.
His family did not approve of acting as a career choice and made every possible effort to push him into other directions. One of his uncles, a high-ranking police officer, once arranged for him to take his department's physical exam. Llewelyn, however, failed to make the cut.
He studied accounting, and at one point, he even considered becoming a church minister. However, he eventually persevered with his acting dream. At age 20, he enrolled at the ‘Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts.’
Before World War II, Llewelyn performed with repertory companies such as the ‘Oxford Playhouse’ and others along the south coast. He was actually one of the first actors from ‘Alexandra Palace’ to have appeared on pre-war TV.
Once war broke out in September 1939, he joined the ‘Artists Rifles.’ However, his public-school education, stature, and appearance made him a natural choice for officer-tier duties in the ‘British Army.’ After Sandhurst, he was assigned as a second lieutenant in the ‘Royal Welch Fusiliers,’ and shortly afterward, in 1940, his regiment began fighting German forces in France.
While holding off a German tank division, Llewelyn was captured along with his company men. He spent the rest of the war at various POW camps, including the infamous ‘Colditz Castle’ in Germany.
While at the Eichstatt camp, he participated in a production of Noël Coward's play ‘Post Mortem,’ which the German authorities allowed, with whatever costumes and props the prisoners could devise.
At another camp, however, he was among those that led tunnel-digging for an escape plot. However, he was caught while doing some last-minute maintenance the night before. He received 10 days of solitary confinement for his troubles.
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Llewelyn made his screen debut with ‘Campbell of Kilmhor,’ also appearing in an uncredited role in ‘Ask a Policeman’ in 1939. After spending the next 5 years as a German prisoner of war, he returned to London and tried reviving his acting career with a slew of small and uncredited roles in teleplays and TV movies.
He acted on stage alongside Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, appearing as an “extra” in ‘Hamlet’ (1948), but drew real attention for the first time with ‘They Were Not Divided,’ a film about tank warfare. He played ‘Mr. Hyde’ in an adaptation of ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ in 1950. He also appeared in the Ealing comedy ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’ (1951).
The next decade was spent doing small, uncredited, and occasionally substantial roles on TV, until he earned an appearance in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s magnum opus ‘Cleopatra’ (1963), starring Elizabeth Taylor.
Later, in 1963, Llewelyn was picked for the role of ‘Major Boothroyd,’ later known simply as ‘Q,’ for ‘From Russia With Love,’ by director Terence Young, on the basis of their previous work together in ‘They Were Not Divided.’ Peter Burton, who had portrayed the character in the first ‘Bond’ film, ‘Dr. No’ (1962), was unavailable. The film premiered to rave reviews on October 10, 1963, at the ‘Odeon Leicester Square’ in London.
Since then, the actor appeared in every ‘Bond’ film till ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997), with the exception of ‘Live and Let Die’ (1973) and ‘Never Say Never Again’ (1983). The latter starred Sean Connery.
He also reprised his role in ‘EON’s TV feature ‘Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond’ (1967), alongside ‘Bond’ co-actor Lois Maxwell. His total screen time, however, was still just above 30 minutes, despite him being the longest-recurring actor in the series.
As ‘Q,’ short for ‘Quartermaster of the MI6 Gadget Lab’ or the ‘Q Branch,’ Llewelyn usually had brief scenes of levity with ‘007,’ instructing him on the latest gadgets, ingenious explosive devices, and killing-machines and expressing annoyance at the agent’s gratuitous flamboyance and disregard for government property.
Being a fan favorite and a major institution of the franchise, he also starred in several ‘Bond’-related commercials, including promotions for video games such as ‘GoldenEye 007’ and ‘Tomorrow Never Dies.’ He was succeeded as ‘Q’ first by John Cleese in ‘Die another Day’ in 2002 and then by Ben Whishaw in ‘Skyfall’ in 2012.
Family & Personal Life
Llewelyn married Pamela Mary Pantlin in 1938. They had two sons, one of whom later joined the ‘British Foreign Office,’ while the other ventured into wine trade.
The financial rewards of ‘007’ were meager for Llewelyn, as he started with a pay of £400 “by the day” and had no share in the franchise’s enormous success even much later, unlike the producers, directors, and some co-actors, who became multi-millionaires. He once claimed to be living entirely off his state-pension “in a dilapidated house in Bexhill.”
An authorized biography, titled ‘Q: The Biography of Desmond Llewelyn,’ as told to author Sandy Hernu, was released on November 1, 1999. It had Llewelyn talking not only about his life as an actor but also about his “hellish WWII experiences.”
In November 1999, aged 85, he attended the European premiere of his 17th and last ‘Bond’ film. On December 19, 1999, he died in a car crash while driving back home from a book-signing event for his recently released biography. His son, Justin, died in 2012, at the age of 59.
Llewelyn was reportedly advised by director Terence Young to use a Welsh accent for ‘Q,’ an advice he ignored saying, "My interpretation of the character was that of a toffee-nosed Englishman.”
In real life, Llewelyn was self-admittedly hopeless and disinterested with gadgets and technology, in sharp contrast to his on-screen avatar.