Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Bond Bios: Felix Leiter

I'm just going to go ahead and say that this week is the unofficial James Bond Week on Blessed are the Geeks. Writing one post about James Bond gets me thinking about other posts I want to write about James Bond, so I figured I'd just go ahead and get them all out of my system. Today, I'm going to be talking about nobody's favorite Bond character Felix Leiter.

If you aren't a die hard fan of the franchise, you're already confused. Although the character has appeared in ten James Bond films (nine official EON productions and in Never Say Never Again), he has never achieved the iconic status of other Bond characters like Q, M, or Miss Moneypenny. Maybe it's because he has only appeared in about half of the films (alongside every version of Bond except George Lazenby and Pierce Brosnan), but it's more likely he has been overlooked because of those ten appearances, he has been portrayed by eight different actors. By contrast, there have only been three Ms, two Qs, and five Moneypennys (not to mention six James Bonds!). Here, in chronological order, are all of the actors who portrayed Felix Leiter, along with my brief opinions and thoughts:

Jack Lord
Dr. No (1962)
Jack Lord is the first -- and in my opinion, the best -- Felix Leiter. Just look at him. He's a stone cold cool mother. To begin with, Jack Lord is a fantastic actor who is a major star in his own right, so casting him as Bond's American counter-part made him stand out as something of an equal instead of the second banana he turned into in some of the later films. He is a CIA operative who can handle himself in a fight and has as much of a way with the ladies as Bond. Well, maybe not as much of a way, but he probably does ok. Lord also has awesome chemistry with Connery, and the scenes featuring the two of them working together are great fun. Lord set the standard against which all the other Leiters are to be judged, and he set that bar really high. According to James Bond folklore (which is probably true), they dropped the character from the next film (and eventually recast it for the third film) because Jack Lord wanted more money and a co-starring credit. He went on to bigger and better things as the star of Hawaii Five-O.

Cec Linder
Goldfinger (1964):
Are you kidding me? Were Martin Balsam and Vic Tayback busy so they got this guy instead? Did Leiter age, like, 30 years since Dr No? What happened to him? Don't get me wrong, Cec Linder is a fine actor who has done a lot of fine work over the course of his career. And, all things considered, he is fine in this movie, giving a really fun performance that is charming and likable. But come on. What happened to the suave, cool, agent from the first film? This guy seems more like James Bond's wacky uncle than a cool CIA operative.

Actually, it's not even clear who this version of Leiter is working for, since he seems to take orders from M as well as from the Americans. Maybe he is a part of some kind of exchange program where we sent one of our agents to England while they sent one of theirs to America. Anyway, Linder is ok. He actually has a pretty big role and gets maybe the most screen time of any Leiter in a single movie. But I miss Jack Lord.

Rik Van Nutter
Thunderball (1965):
I have no opinion on this guy. In fact, I have no real memory of this guy.

He definitely had a look more akin to Jack Lord's, with his suave good looks and nice hair. He definitely seemed more comfortable and believable as a CIA operative. Anyway, he wasn't an old man wearing an old man hat and being all wacky and weird. Then again, I remember Linder's performance and enjoyed it. Nutter... I always forget about this guy. We'll call him the lost Felix Leiter.

Nutter, we hardly knew ye.

Norman Burton
Diamonds Are Forever (1971):
There was very little good about this movie, and Norman Burton's portrayal of Felix Leiter certainly didn't help much. He was just kind of unlikable and unappealing. He was more comic relief than anything else, although he wasn't actually that funny. He approached the role of Felix Leiter as though he thought he was playing Darrin on Bewitched. Here's a snippet from his Wikipedia page:

" In the movies, he is best-known for his unconventional (and frequently disparaged) performance as Felix Leiter in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever (1971)."

Ouch. I should edit his wiki page so it says, "everybody loved his portrayal as Felix Leiter..." It wouldn't be true, of course, but it'd be nice.

David Hedison
Live and Let Die (1973)
Licence to Kill (1989):
Ok, now things are starting to get interesting, since Hedison was the first actor to portray Felix Leiter more than once, although there was a span of sixteen years and he played opposite two different James Bonds. After Jack Lord, Hedison is probably the best Leiter, if only because over the course of his two films he has so much to do. He works and fights along side James Bond, hijacks a plane, goes skydiving, gets married to a beautiful woman, and gets eaten by a shark. In that order too. In fact, his entire character is the driving force for the plot to Licence to Kill, since the movie details Bond's search for vengeance against the man who fed Felix Leiter to that shark. It sounds funny when I write that out, but that's actually the plot of the movie.

And the movie works -- with the audience getting invested in Bond's quest -- mostly because Hedison is such a great actor who made the character his own. He was ok in Live and Let Die (if a little too Alan Alda esque to match up to Jack Lord or Rik Van Nutter), but over those 16 years he grew into a fairly rugged leading man. According to what I've read, they decided to recast a previous Leiter because this film's story revolved around his character. Kind of odd that they recast an actor who did the role that long again, but I guess their choices were limited. They weren't going to bring back Burton, and Jack Lord was an old man by then. Anyway, he was a good Leiter. And he survived the shark attack (spoiler!!).

John Terry
The Living Daylights (1987):
John Terry played Felix Leiter after Hedison played him in 1973, but before Hedison played him again in 1989. You got that? He was the first actor to play Leiter opposite Timothy Dalton and the last new actor to be cast in the role until they rebooted the franchise with Daniel Craig's Casino Royale.

Anyway, now that we got all of that out of the way, let's talk about John Terry's performance: He sucked. He definitely looked the part, since he was young and probably the handsomest actor to play the role since Jack Lord. But boy was he boring. He was only in the film for once scene (which was completely pointless and probably stayed in the film only because it contained Felix Leiter), showing up on a yacht wearing some blue Member's Only jacket. He had no chemistry at all with Dalton and gave a very wooden performance.

John Terry, of course, went on to bigger and better things, playing a major role on the second season of 24, and then as Dr. Christian Shephard on Lost.

Jeffrey Wright
Casino Royale (2006)
Quantum of Solace (2008):
And then we have the 7th (and so far last) Felix Leiter to appear in an official EON produced James Bond film. Jeffrey Wright is notable for being the first African American Leiter in an official Bond film, the first actor to play Leiter in two consecutive Bond films, and the first actor to portray Leiter more than once alongside the same James Bond.

And he's also notable for being pretty darn good. His portrayal isn't quite as fun or exciting as Jack Lord's or Hedison's from License to Kill, but that's only because he isn't really much of a man of action. He's more of a behind the scenes, puppet master type. But he's still a lot of fun to watch because Wright is such a fantastic actor. He gives a very subtle yet nuanced performance in both films, making Leiter seem very deep and suave and full of intrigue. When Casino Royale first came out, I honestly went into it fairly cold, since I didn't read much of the hype having all but given up on the franchise after the abysmal Brosnan years. So when Wright came on screen as Leiter, I was overjoyed, not just because one of my favorite characters was finally back in the series after almost 20 years (!!), but because I was already a fan of Jeffrey Wright. And he didn't let me down. His performance wasn't quite as iconic as Jack Lord's, but he was well cast and a delight to watch. I hope he makes another film, if one ever even gets made at all.

Unofficial Appearances:

Bernie Casey
Never Say Never Again (1983):
Wright may have been the first African American to portray Felix Leither in an official Bond film, but Bernie Casey was the first African American to play Leiter overall. Bernie Casey is also totally and completely bad ass. If you've ever seen Bernie Casey in any movie, you'll have some idea of how he approached the role of Felix Leiter. Casey is a big, commanding actor with a lot of presence and a lot of charisma. His was a Felix Leiter that could've been an action star in his own right.

He's just a cool, fun actor who's only problem was that he was cast as Felix Leiter in Never Say Never Again. This movie isn't as bad as a lot of people will claim, but it still doesn't really feel like a true James Bond film. This movie is kind of like a version of James Bond as viewed by the characters on Sliders, who went to some other dimension where the James Bond series is completely different (even though they both feature Sean Connery, but this was not the Connery from Goldfinger). Anyway, I liked Casey.

Joe Don Baker
Goldeneye (1995)
Tomorrow Never Dies (1997):
Let me be completely clear: Joe Don Baker did not play Felix Leiter. He actually played CIA agent Jack Wade. But Jack Wade was clearly meant to be a stand-in for Felix Leiter. Why didn't they just make the character Felix Leiter? I have no idea. It was just another in a long list of bad ideas and confusing decisions made during the Pierce Brosnan era. They kept Q, M, and Moneypenny, so I'll never understand why they created a new CIA agent who fulfills the exact same role as Felix Leiter. I suppose they recast the character because Leiter had his leg bitten off by a shark in his last appearance, but since when did consistency matter for the character of Felix Leiter?

But, anyway, as fun and engaging as Joe Don Baker is, he wouldn't have been my first choice to play Felix Leiter. First of all, he's not exactly suave, not is he very good looking. Ok, he's chubby and ugly (no offense!). And while that's fine for Jack Wade, he doesn't quite cut the right figure for Felix Leiter. But at least he is fun to watch. Baker also played one of the villains in The Living Daylights, making him one of the very few actors to have played multiple characters in different James Bond films.


And... that's it. There was also an appearance by Michael Pate in the 1954 version of Casino Royale, but I've never seen that and, chances are, neither have you. Michael Madsen played another similar character in Die Another Day, but that makes him even more removed from the character than Joe Don Baker's Jack Wade so we'll forget about him too.

Anyway, we had some fun today and I hope you learned a lot about Felix Leiter. If you want to learn even more, I recommend FelixLeiter.com, which I only just discovered while I was doing a bit of research for this post (mostly looking up the names of a couple of the actors and searching for pictures).


Justin Garrett Blum said...

heh. Damn good post.

The only Leiters that really stick with me are Jack Lord and Jeffrey Wright. Though it kind of annoyed me how Leiter was just a CIA douchenozzle in Quantum of Solace. Though really, that was probably the most realistic portrayal of the CIA in any of the Bond films.


You forgot the very first Leiter, also "unofficial" since he's not part of the later EON film series, though he actually predates DR. NO by eight years.

In 1954, the first Bond novel, CASINO ROYALE, was adapted as a live TV drama, a presentation of the anthology series CLIMAX.

Barry Nelson played American CIA Agent Jimmy Bond, assigned to bankrupt Soviet Agent LeChiffre in a game of baccarat. Australian actor Michale Pate played his contact in British Intelligence, Leiter.

For reasons that escape me, in addition to changing the character from a CIA agent to an MI-6 agent (paralleling Bond's switch of nationalities and agencies), Leiter was given the first name of "Clarence." Is that really an improvement over "Felix?"