Nearly anyone who knows James Bond would say his first film was Dr. No. Sean Connery may have set the standard for the spy, but he wasn’t actually the first actor to take on the role. Let’s take a look at the early days of Bond on screen.
The Origins Of An Icon
Ian Fleming worked for Britain’s Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. He was instrumental in organizing covert jobs like Operation Mincemeat and Operation Goldeneye. He would later use his experience in the spy game as inspiration for his first novel, Casino Royale.
Casino Royale introduced the world to Bond, M, Q, Le Chiffre, and Vesper Lynn. The original run of nearly 5000 copies sold out in less than a month. England loved the spy story, and Fleming was soon hard at work on numerous sequels.
The series took quite a bit longer to take off in the United States. It wasn’t until 1961 when John F. Kennedy named From Russia, With Love one of his favorite books did sales really pick up stateside. By that point, Fleming had already written eight novels and a collection of short stories.
Time For The Screen
It’s obvious in hindsight that Bond was meant for the big screen, but it took a while before the character appeared in films. It took no time, however, for Bond to appear on television. In 1954, just one year after Casino Royale was published, the American anthology series Climax! on CBS beat EON Productions to the punch with the first screen adaption of a James Bond novel.
The episode, “Casino Royale,” saw Barry Nelson play the American spy “Jimmy Bond.” The 50-minute broadcast also saw legendary actor Peter Lorre as the villainous Le Chiffre, and Linda Christian as Valerie Mathis. The episode came and went with hardly a peep, but that doesn’t change the fact that Nelson is technically the first man to play Bond on screen.
Who Is Nelson?
Nelson was a respectable actor for decades before passing away in 2007 at 89. He started on stage before moving into TV and films. Nelson later recollected what it was like playing the spy: “At that time, no one had ever heard of James Bond….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.”
Nelson’s portrayal was lost to history until researchers dug it back up in the 1980s. The episode was purchased, alongside the 1967 spoof Casino Royale to make way for the Daniel Craig film. Nelson may not have set the standard as Sean Connery did, but he’ll always get to be first.