I'm a big James Bond fan and since there is a new film out, I'm going to dedicates some time to these films.
Up until the recent film Casino Royale, there had been 5 actors to play James Bond. Just for the record, I am aware that David Niven played Bond in the 1967 spoof Casino Royale, but I don't really consider that a true James Bond movie. I am going to start off by rating the actors from worst to first:
5. Roger Moore: He was just horrid. Some of the films he was in were pretty good, but that was never due to Moore. While Bond is supposed to be fearless, Moore came off as being completely oblivious to any danger he was in. He always just seemed to have this empty, smirking, expression on his face. He was always stiff, but in latter films, especially A View to a Kill, he was downright robotic as he was just too old in 1985. He was never convincing as James Bond and he played the part too long.
4. Pierce Brosnan: While, certainly a more well-rounded actor than Moore, Brosnan just seemed too obvious a man to play Bond. He had the accent, he looked good in a tuxedo, but he lacked the physical presence that the better Bond actors had. He appeared smaller and nimbler and had a more martial arts style when he had to get physical against the bad guys. He just never came across as tough.
3. George Lazenby: He was in only one film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, but it was a good performance. Lazenby played a very human Bond who didn't get much of a chance to prove himself. Unfortunately, Bond audiences weren't very responsive as OHMSS didn't do so well at the box office. This prompted producers Broccoli and Saltzman to dismiss Lazenby and pay Sean Connery a huge salary to do another Bond film, Diamonds are Forever.
2. Sean Connery: Yes, I know. Many Bond fans would consider it blasphemy to not hail Connery as the James Bond. Don't get me wrong, Connery was great. He found a way to be suave and tough at the same time. His very dry humor worked perfectly. He treated women in the same manner he treated the bad guys, that is with utter dispassion. Connery's Bond was with many, many women, but he could never love them. He used them for pleasure or as a means to get at the bad guy. Such chauvinism would never work today but Connery made it an art form.
1. Timothy Dalton: Always professional, grim, and tough, Dalton is the best actor to ever play Bond. Dalton's Bond was completely believable. It is easy to imagine that if there ever really was a James Bond, he would have been like Timothy Dalton. He could be as physically brutal as Connery was, yet he had more depth. He came across as both physically and mentally tough. There was a precision in every movement and every phrase he uttered. In fact, he was almost too good an actor to play Bond. Both films he was in (The Living Daylights and License to Kill) had him falling in love with the lead female character. The problem is that Dalton made the love seem so genuine that it felt wrong to see him in another film with a different woman. Of course, never having the same woman twice is an essential Bond quality. Still, Dalton is number 1 in my book.