50 years on, Lee Pfeiffer commemorates 007`s screen debut and shares some of actor Barry Nelson’s memories of being the first James Bond...

The Curious Legacy of Casino Royale
22nd October 2004

Fifty years ago this month, the first screen adaptation of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel was presented to audiences. Lee Pfeiffer, co-author of the best-selling book “The Essential James Bond” and Editor-in-Chief of the new film magazine “Cinema Retro” commemorates 007’s screen debut and shares some of actor Barry Nelson’s memories of being the first actor cast as James Bond.

When most movie fans are asked to name the first actor to portray James Bond, the answer is inevitably “Sean Connery”. However, eight years prior to Connery donning Mr. Bond’s shoulder holster for the first time in “Dr. No”, American actor Barry Nelson brought James Bond to life in a one hour live television production of “Casino Royale”. The year was 1954 and Bond’s literary father Ian Fleming had nervously overseen the release of his first novel “Casino Royale” in England. Although Fleming was well regarded as a journalist, he had no prior experience as a novelist. In the upper-crust world of the Park Lane crowd with whom Fleming associated, there was an air of tawdriness regarding writers who penned “potboiler” thrillers. The novel, published by Jonathan Cape, caused a bit of a stir because of its generous doses of sex and violence. The controversy helped the book gain publicity and the resulting sales made for a modest success.

Fleming was always convinced that the Bond novels would make a viable franchise for the screen. He recognized that the post WWII period in England was one of hardship and despair. The British may have been on the winning side, but the economy was dismal, good jobs were lacking and shortages of everyday goods were a common occurrence. He intuitively felt that the general public would respond to a hero who acted as though the British empire was still in fine form.

Above: 1st edition Jonathan Cape hardback (UK)

James Bond was the ultimate anti-hero: a man who had only a grudging respect for authority, an obsession with high stakes gambling and exotic travel, and an even more fervent passion for the seemingly endless array of sexually aggressive women who surrounded him. These qualities may have endeared the character to the British public, but prospective film producers were intimidated by them. Fleming found a conspicuous lack of interest in Hollywood in terms of seeing potential for a James Bond film. The novel’s emphasis on sex and violence alienated investors during a period in which prudish studio executives felt compelled to water down even James Jones’ steamy bestseller “From Here to Eternity” before bringing it to the screen.


Fleming ultimately conceded to an unrewarding deal whereby he would sell the screen rights to the novel for a paltry $1,000 on the proviso that the American t.v. network CBS would broadcast a one -hour production of “Casino Royale”. Making the best of a bad hand, Fleming rationalized that any exposure for the character was better than none. During the mid-1950’s, there were a number of shows that presented one hour live t.v. dramas. Among the more popular was “Climax!”, a program hosted by actor William Lundigan. Each week a new cast was employed to bring a different story to life. CBS adapted “Casino Royale” to the one-hour slot, and in doing so, quite obviously left most of the nuances and rich characterizations from the source novel out of the teleplay. In the CBS version, telecast in October, 1954, Bond was reduced to a Bogart-like gumshoe with only the slightest connections to national intelligence operations. The character was presented with the implication that he was a free-lance adventurer who, in the style of Simon Templar, uses his considerable courage and self-defence skills to thwart the forces of evil. Even Fleming must have cringed when, at one point, another character refers to his literary creation as “Card Sense Jimmy Bond”. Since the character of Bond was virtually unknown, the producers also felt free to Americanize him. Barry Nelson, a popular t.v. and screen star, was cast in the role.

Nelson, a stolid all-American who sported a crew cut, was a far cry from the actors Ian Fleming had envisioned for the role of Bond. In fact, Fleming had hoped that both Noel Coward and David Niven could be tempted to portray Bond onscreen. Nelson was unaware of the fact that the character of Bond was an Englishman. In an exclusive interview with Cinema Retro, he said “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. The worst part of it was that I learned it was to be done live. I thought I was finished with live t.v. I was trying to get out of it, actually.”

Left: Original T.V Guide advertisement promoting the screen debut of James Bond on "Climax!" (Photo: Lee Pfeiffer/ Cinema Retro archive).

Nelson’s reluctance to do the show was due to the fact that he had already been a veteran of several series that had been broadcast live. Although these increased his popularity with audiences, the pressure of performing live left no safety net. He recalled of “Casino Royale”, “They were making changes up to the last minute. There was nothing you could do if anything went wrong.” The casting of Linda Christian, with whom he worked at MGM, as the femme fatale of the teleplay, Vesper Lind, buoyed Nelson’s spirits.

Additionally, legendary screen bad guy Peter Lorre had been cast as the villain Le Chiffre. Nelson enjoyed acting opposite these two talented individuals, but was frustrated by the fact that time constraints had eliminated any background information about the character of Bond. Nelson recalled “I was very conscious of the fact that there wasn’t much to go on. It was too superficial.”

Above: Barry Nelson

Despite a virtually non-existent budget, the show did succeed in capturing some of the tension of the “do or die” gambling bout between Bond and Le Chiffre. Additionally, Peter Lorre was a fairly inspired choice for the role of the first Bond villain. The production was directed William H. Brown, whose resume was uniquely undistinguished. More impressive were the credentials of the screenwriter Charles Bennett, who had collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock on several of the Master’s early films, as well as having written the screenplays for such high profile films as “Reap the Wild Wind”. He would go on to write episodes of such popular 1960’s series as “Land of the Giants” and “The Wild, Wild West”.

“Casino Royale” made little impact on audiences or critics and was largely dismissed as just another “run of the mill” edition of “Climax!”. Over the next few years, however, Fleming’s Bond novels began to grow in popularity and by the early 1960’s they had established an enthusiastic following throughout the world. He would later regret having sold the screen rights to “Casino Royale” for such a paltry sum. Fleming eventually contracted with producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to adapt his Bond novels for the big screen, though Fleming himself would not be providing the screenplays. His attempts to write scripts were notable only in his failure to convey the type of action and drama that he had mastered in his novels. A brief flirtation with bringing Bond to the screen in the late 1950’s via a collaboration with Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham had yielded only frustration and eventual legal troubles. Fleming wrote outlines for several prospective Bond screenplays, but in contrast to his novels, these were stodgy and bland attempts that did little to elicit excitement. Under Broccoli and Saltzman, professional screenwriters succeeded in creating a persona for Bond that eventually eclipsed that of the literary 007 in terms of public recognition.

Above: A bizarre Italian poster promoting Woody Allen in the equally bizarre 1967 film version of "Casino Royale" (Photo: Lee Pfeiffer/ Cinema
Retro archive)

The first Broccoli/Saltzman Bond film, “Dr. No” premiered to record breaking grosses in 1962 and a cultural phenomenon was born. By the mid-1960s’, the screen rights to “Casino Royale”, which had at one point been controlled by the producer Gregory Ratoff, were now being handled by another producer, the flamboyant Charles K. Feldman. With Bondmania sweeping the globe, Feldman knew he had a hot property, as “Casino Royale” was the only Bond novel that Broccoli and Saltzman did not own the screen rights to. Feldman initially proposed producing a film version starring Sean Connery, in partnership with Broccoli and Saltzman.

When his offer was rejected, Feldman took an unorthodox route. Inspired by the recent success of his zany comedy “What’s New Pussycat?”, he decided to turn “Casino Royale” into a big budget slapstick comedy. He signed an eclectic and talented cast that included Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen and William Holden. Ian Fleming’s wish to have David Niven play James Bond was also fulfilled, though the author probably spun in his grave if he saw the manner in which his literary creation was interpreted.

The big screen version of “Casino Royale” quickly became a debacle, with an out-of-control budget skyrocketing as multiple directors shot the film simultaneously at several British studios. The ensuing mess was released in the summer of 1967 opposite the “official” Bond film “You Only Live Twice”. Although Feldman succeeded in garnering decent reviews for his “hip” comedy, the sizable box-office grosses were compromised by the film’s extravagant production costs.

The bizarre legacy of “Casino Royale” took another turn in the 1980’s when film fan Jim Schoenberger visited a local flea market. He noticed a pile of unlabeled 16mm films laying in the rain and quickly made a deal to salvage them from the owner at small cost. Upon returning home, he was shocked to find that among the reels of film was a complete, uncut print of the “Climax!” production of “Casino Royale”. Schoenberger recognized the value of his find and eventually donated the print to the care of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City (several years ago, Barry Nelson hosted a screening of the program at the museum). In the early 1990’s, the American cable station TBS presented a one-off showing of the “Climax!” production introduced by noted film historian Leonard Maltin. When it was discovered that Maltin had presided over a notoriously incomplete showing of the film, he voiced his displeasure. It seems that another print of the show had surfaced and it was mysteriously missing the last few crucial seconds in which Bond has to finally dispose of Le Chiffre by shooting him once again. In the cut version, the villain is presumably dispatched with one shot and the show ends far too abruptly. Sadly, this is also the version that has been produced on most home video versions, although Spy Guise had made the uncut version available on VHS some years ago. In 2003, MGM released the big screen version of “Casino Royale” on DVD in the United States. The disc contained an interesting chat with the film’s last surviving director, Val Guest. As an added bonus, the 1954 “Climax!” show was included - although much to the frustration of fans - the studio made the mistake of using a print of the truncated version of the program.

Fifty years after the original telecast of the first James Bond screen adventure, it’s worth pausing to reflect on how this modest production paved the way for the screen legacy of agent 007. Sometimes Bond’s impact on popular culture manifests itself in unorthodox ways.

Barry Nelson recalls a recent experience in which he and his wife Nancy attended a small theater production that required them to take a brief elevator ride to where the play was being performed. Two young men and a woman entered the elevator with them, causing the confined space to become very crowded. Nelson recalls, “After a short lift, everything stopped and we were between floors. Nothing was open and there was nowhere for any air to get in. It got very hot…..Everyone started to get a little panicky and someone said “I wish James Bond were here!” I thought to myself, “If only he knew that he is!”

Right: Commemorative lithograph by Spy Guise Inc. Art by Jeff Marshall. Copyright www.spyguise.com


Cinema Retro Magazine
A more in-depth interview with Barry Nelson will be published in a forthcoming issue of Cinema Retro magazine. Nelson will expand upon his comments regarding playing James Bond, as well as discuss working with legends such as Dean Martin and Stanley Kubrick. For information about subscribing to the magazine, visit www.cinemaretro.com

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