The Unlikeliest of Secret Agents, Ron Cohen Went to China a Tourist and Came Back as James Bond

updated 04/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 01:00AM

Quick. Name all the actors who have played Agent 007 in movies. Sean Connery and Roger Moore? Of course. Timothy Dalton? Right. George Lazenby and David Niven? Very good. And? Give up? The name is Cohen, Ron Cohen.

A 5'8", slightly balding 37-year-old Pleasant Hills, Calif., travel agency-franchise salesman who wears polyester sports coats and sensible shoes, Cohen was plucked from obscurity a year ago while visiting his girlfriend, Tracy Mannon, 29, a teacher of English in Beijing. She introduced Cohen to one of her friends who was a friend of an actor in The Green Jade MahJongg, which was to be China's first movie with a James Bond character. The film, not based on an Ian Fleming novel, was about to go into production, but the urbane secret agent had not been cast. The actor sized up Cohen and declared him "very beautiful."

"Handsome," Cohen corrected him. "I'm very...handsome."

Whatever. Director Yu Xiaoyang agreed Cohen was right for the Ling Ling Chi (007) part. From what Cohen could figure out—he doesn't speak Chinese and his action-packed role had no lines—the story is about a struggle by competing spies, including Bond, to retrieve priceless stolen jade. The state-sponsored epic had a budget of $140,000. For his three weeks' work, Cohen was paid $16—about a year's rent in the People's Republic.

Cohen got into character by singing the themes from Goldfinger and From Russia with Love in the shower. At one point he reminded the director that Bond generally makes love to at least a few beautiful women. "Today," replied the director, "you will make love to a beautiful naked Chinese woman."

Alas, something must have been lost in translation. The actress wore a bra and panties, and Cohen didn't exactly have a love scene with her. He carried her under one arm and fired a machine gun with the other.

As the end of filming neared, Cohen found himself wired with smoke charges and realized that Bond was going to be killed. He suggested to the producer and director that blasting Bond wouldn't do much to improve China's relations with the West, one of their goals. They cut the scene. Today Cohen is again an ordinary salesman. Still, he has one proud boast: "You might say I saved Bond's life."

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