Bad News For Brits: The First Filmed ‘James Bond’ Was An American!

The birth of Bond, Jimmy Bond

Who was the first James Bond on film?

Sean Connery?

Yes, that is true if you go strictly by movie films. Could you believe that there was a television version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale that predated Connery’s first outing as Bond by eight years? And can you believe that James Bond in this Hollywood version was an AMERICAN(!!!) and went by the nickname ‘Jimmy’ Bond? Or that his historic CIA sidekick Felix Leiter in this Royale is British? Strange, but true.

Barry Nelson, James Bond
Barry Nelson as ‘Jimmie Bond.’

In 1954, a CBS dramatic production called Climax featured suspense stories in one hour formats. Thinking that they might turn the Bond stories into a series, they bought the rights for Fleming’s first adventure of the super spy for a paltry $1,000. This kept Casino Royale out of the hands of the ENO Bond franchise that produced the famous Connery/Moore films for 35 years. Done in black and white, it is obviously the lowest budget Bond ever cranked out.

Except for a corny opening shooting scene, it is not a badly done television bit. Filmed in front of a live audience, the entire story is shot in one local with relatively inexpensive settings. Some money must have been spread out, though, to get professional heavy German actor Peter Lorre to play Le Chiffre, the bad guy.

A forgotten actor named Barry Nelson filled the first Bond shoes as an agent of the CIA, the ‘Combined Intelligence Agency.’ After a lifetime of hearing properly enunciating British subjects playing the immortal spy, it is humorous to hear Nelson do it with an East Coast tough guy accent. He does a decent job as ‘Jimmy’ Bond, skimping a bit on the suave part, but falling into a rough cross between a Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig personification. One can tell this is an underdeveloped Bond, for when asked by a waiter for his drinks, he orders scotch and water and not his famous ‘shaken, not stirred’ martini.

Ian Flemming's drawing of James Bond
Ian Fleming‘s image of James Bond; commissioned to aid the Daily Express comic strip artists.

The plot is based loosely on the Fleming book, much like the release a few years ago was. A notorious gangster gambler is out 80 million dollars to the Russian KGB and is desperate to make it all up in a Baccarat tournament. Bond, an expert card shark himself, is sent to upset his plans. Losing, he is saved by a last minute loan from Felix Leiter in the book; in the TV show, beautiful French agent Vesper Lind comes to his rescue, portrayed by Linda Christian, who can take her place as the real First Lady of Bond femme fatales.

Liberties are taken with the original story, as they were in all Bond films. In fact, the last few Ian Fleming based films lifted only the title from the texts and made up an entirely new plot. In both the recent version and the book, Vesper Lind turns out to be a double agent and kills herself in the end. The heyday of television, however, could only deal with so much negativity, and lets Bond limp off into the sunset with the girl in the climax. The last Craig Bond film, entitled ‘Quantum Of Solace,’ in no way resembles the short story it took the name from. The entire short story concerns an evening James Bond spends listening to a story told by the Governor of Bermuda concerning a marriage gone bad, of an expatriate Brit on the island. No bombs, no babes, no bullets. Not your typical Flemming fare.

The second half of the first Craig film film followed the original story fairly accurately. The overly exotic locales and the overly thuggish Bond are a bit more than Fleming had idealized, but that is what one perhaps must do to make a 50 year old yarn timely.

Now, if you thought that was strange, consider the first movie version of Casino Royale from 1967. It had not one, but several famous actors playing James Bond, including David Niven and Peter Sellers. You know it had to be a comedy, as Woody Allen was the bad guy — Dr. Noah. Orson Welles picked up the LeChiffre role, and with his bulk filled it well. The film was basically a mess, a good part due to Sellers refusing to play his role comically, insisting on acting like a ‘real’ Bond. Ursula Andress, the first Bond sex kitten in Dr. No, comes back for a repeat performance in Royale. It should be interesting to see if there are any revivals of the ’67 Royale with the success of the new, more serious versions, with Craig as the first blond Bond.

Martinis, anyone?

Roger Freed