Sean Connery Was Not the First Actor to Play James Bond
Sean Connery is usually called the original James Bond. But Barry Nelson actually played 007 some eight years before 1962's Dr. No hit the big screen, starring in an hour-long episode of the live American teleplay series Climax!
You can see the entire episode below.
A teleplay is exactly what it sounds like: Climax! was a production more in keeping with live theater, shot with three or more cameras, performed and broadcast live. These were either stories made specifically for the television medium or heavily adapted from other sources like Broadway stage shows, films and novels. Casino Royale, the first book by a virtually unknown Ian Fleming, was ripe for adaptation since it was simply another book at that point.
Still, many do not realize this was America's first exposure to James Bond in a motion-picture medium – and it's no wonder: The spotlight falls mostly on groundbreaking work done by writers Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling, or directors such as Sidney Lumet and John Frankenheimer. These were the winners who wrote the history, and Fleming and 007 had to wait for the big screen to stake their eventual claim.
There were key differences. The protagonist in Climax!, as played by Nelson, is referred to as "Jimmy" – not James Bond – and is Americanized in the teleplay. The show also featured Peter Lorre as the villain, Le Chiffre. Lorre would have been the big draw for the broadcast, due to an impressive body of work that included Fritz Lang's M, The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Since the novel's rights had been sold to producer Gregory Ratoff for the show, Casino Royale was not available to be included in the theatrical deal for Fleming's literary output later brokered with Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. (The duo was collectively known as EON Productions, rumored to be an acronym for "everything or nothing.")
After Ratoff's death, the rights were passed on to Charles K. Feldman, who subsequently produced the satirical 1967 Bond spoof of the same name. This edition of Casino Royale featured David Niven as Bond, Woody Allen (in a nod to TV version) as Jimmy Bond, and Peter Sellers as yet another James Bond. The film was made by Columbia Pictures, which was bought decades later by Sony Entertainment.
MGM agreed to pay $5 million to Sony Pictures Entertainment in 1999 to cement its rights to the entire Bond franchise, as well as to obtain from Sony the rights to Casino Royale. That paved the way foranother adaptation in 2006, this time with then-brand new Bond Daniel Craig.
But it all comes back to a 1954 television presentation of Casino Royale, not Dr. No. That's actually where American audiences would get their first glimpse of the legendary man of action.
Nelson was an American character actor with many television credits on his resume, including The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Suspense, the Twilight Zone episode "Stopover in a Quiet Town," among others. Most notably, Nelson played Stuart Ullman, the general manager at the Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining.
How did Nelson feel about being the first 007? “At that time, no one had ever heard of James Bond," he told Cinema Retro in 2004. "I was scratching my head wondering how to play it. I hadn’t read the book or anything like that, because it wasn’t well known. The worst part of it was that I learned it was to be done live. I thought I was finished with live TV. I was trying to get out of it, actually."