James Bond is a half century old? Shocking. Positively shocking. Of course, 007 only gets better with age, which is why we're celebrating him with a complete guide to the movies (including the newest, ''Skyfall''), exclusive photos, and a tribute to Bond's best gadgets. But first, EW's Benjamin Svetkey looks back on 18 years of covering the spy we love.

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated August 03, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

There are drawbacks to being a writer for Entertainment Weekly. The long hours. The brutal deadlines. Having to sit through that press screening of Wrath of the Titans. Still, every once in a while an assignment comes along that makes it the best gig in the world. Like the time I got sent to Monte Carlo to meet James Bond. Or the time I got sent to the Bahamas to meet James Bond. Or the time I got sent to Panama to meet James Bond…

Thanks to EW, over the past 18 years I’ve spent more time chasing 007 around the world than Blofeld ever did. That scene in 1995’s GoldenEye where Bond pulled up to a casino in Monaco driving a vintage Aston Martin DB5? I was there, peering from behind the cameras, watching Pierce Brosnan wrestling with the gearshift. When Bond rescued Denise Richards by launching her out of a submarine torpedo tube in 1999’s The World Is Not Enough — I was standing next to the water tank on the soundstage in London, mentally holding Richards’ towel. I was chilling in the arctic Ice Palace on the day Halle Berry traded sexy innuendos with 007 (”I think I got the thrust of it”) in 2002’s Die Another Day. I witnessed Daniel Craig dangling from a construction crane in the Caribbean while shooting his first Bond movie, 2006’s Casino Royale, and I followed him all the way to Central America (where Panama was doubling for Bolivia) when he made his second, 2008’s Quantum of Solace.

Getting so much face time with James Bond was more than just journalistic boondoggle for me — it was a chance to live out my deepest juvenile fantasy. Ian Fleming’s supersuave spy had been my favorite fictional hero long before I started writing about him. We first became pals when I was 8 and my family took me to see 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (I still have a soft spot for George Lazenby). From then on we were inseparable. I spent countless hours of my youth in his company, watching Bond in theaters, on TV, and later on home video, where I could replay his best bits over and over again. More than any other pop culture hero, Bond was the guy I most wanted to be, or at least be more like. And then I found myself, years later, visiting my first Bond set, standing yards away from an actual DB5 idling in front of a real-life Monte Carlo casino, waiting with the camera crew for Brosnan to figure out how to operate the parking brake. It was a magical, unforgettable experience, like seeing my childhood action figures suddenly spring to life. No wonder I kept going back to set after set.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Bond’s appearance on the big screen. At 50, some men start thinking about buying convertibles and having flings with yoga instructors. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Bond in all those years of close-quarter surveillance, it’s that he’ll never have to worry about a midlife crisis. He never grows old, or even up. Different actors come and go, some playing him for laughs, others for posterity, but James Bond the character remains remarkably untouched by time. He still drives the same car (even if he cheated with a Lotus or a BMW for a few movies). Still orders his martinis shaken, not stirred. Still introduces himself the way he did — last name first — when he originally sauntered into theaters with the U.K. opening of Dr. No on Oct. 5, 1962. Even the guy currently wearing his tuxedo (next appearance: Nov. 9’s Skyfall) admits he didn’t exactly have to reinvent the wheel for the role. ”The simple fact is, the character was pretty much fully formed from the start,” Craig told me six years ago on the set of Casino Royale. ”Sean Connery nailed it from the beginning. Bond’s single-mindedness. His toughness. His ruthlessness. He wasn’t infallible, but he always knew the answer, always knew exactly what to do in any situation. And he always knew how to wear a suit.”

The past five decades haven’t always been easy for 007 — there was the end of the Cold War, the rise of feminism, and the financial turmoil of MGM, Bond’s longtime studio — but Bond is nothing if not a survivor. Indeed, he’s been such a durable fixture on the pop culture landscape for so long that it’s easy to take him for granted, to forget how huge a contribution he has made to moviegoing. Steven Spielberg gets credit for inventing the Event Film with Jaws, but audiences mobbed theaters a full decade earlier for 1965’s Thunderball. One theater in New York City held round-the-clock showings to accommodate the crowds. Bond introduced the world to the modern action franchise — without him, there’d be no Jason Bourne or John McClane or Indiana Jones. (In fact, Spielberg made Raiders of the Lost Ark in part because he couldn’t get a job directing a Bond movie.) Bond films were among the first to tap into a global movie audience; the 22 official films in the franchise have grossed a total of nearly $5 billion. They were also among the first to experiment with ancillary consumer marketing and product-placement promotions. Without Bond, I probably never would have purchased that crappy vintage Rolex that looked so much like the one Roger Moore wore in 1973’s Live and Let Die. The thing didn’t even tell time, let alone deflect bullets or contain a buzz saw.

You’d think that spending all that time on Bond sets would have spoiled the films for me. (That Ice Palace where Berry flirted with Bond in Die Another Day? Turns out the whole place was made of polymer plastic.) But the opposite happened. Seeing Bond in imperfect flesh and blood just made me feel even more connected to the character. When I witnessed Brosnan fumbling with the Aston Martin in Monte Carlo while shooting GoldenEye — at one point, he accidentally set off the car alarm — I was thrilled. I realized I could drive a DB5 just as badly as 007! Later that day, when I sat down inside the casino with Brosnan for what would be my very first interview with James Bond, I realized something else. I wasn’t the only one with a childhood Bond fixation. ”It sends tingles down my spine when I think about it,” Brosnan confessed. ”This character has been in my life for so long…. I was this green Irish lad — I was 10 — and I saw this naked lady covered in gold paint and this man who could kill with his hat. It was Goldfinger. That was the first movie I saw.”

I’d like to be able to say that I’ve outgrown my juvenile fascination with James Bond, that as an adult I’ve finally learned to put aside childish dreams. But I’d be lying. To this day, I still hear Monty Norman’s zippy theme music in my head whenever I stroll into a casino, or check into a hotel in a foreign city, or even when I’m just driving around Santa Monica. The fantasy has never fully faded, even though I don’t recall any Bond movies in which 007 drove an SUV with a child seat in the back covered in animal-cracker crumbs.

But apart from diamonds, nothing is forever. Bond may never grow old, but some of us are starting to feel closer to M’s age. This year I took my first Bond break in nearly 20 years and didn’t make it to any of Skyfall‘s exotic locales, such as Istanbul and Scotland. When the film opens in November, I’ll be enjoying Bond the way I used to long ago, before I started writing for EW — on film, projected onto a screen. I’m pretty sure the experience will still be magical.