Barry Nelson, the first actor to play James Bond onscreen in the 1954 production of Casino Royale, has died aged 89....

Barry Nelson (1920-2007)
13th April 2007

Barry Nelson, an MGM contract player during the 1940s who later had a prolific theater career and was the first actor to play James Bond on screen, has died. He was 89. Nelson died on April 7th 2007 while traveling in Bucks County, Pa., his wife, Nansi Nelson, said Friday. The cause of death was not immediately known, she said. Nelson is survived by his wife. He did not have any children.

Contrary to popular belief, the honour of being the first actor to play James Bond fell not on Sean Connery, but on American Barry Nelson, who starred in a live one-hour production of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale. The performance on 21st October 1954 (8.30pm EST) was the first in CBS's 'Climax' series of dramas. CBS brought the rights for Fleming's first book for $1000. Nelson played James Bond as an American named "card sense" Jimmy Bond; the program also featured Peter Lorre as the primary villain. Originally broadcast live, the production was believed lost to time until a kinescope emerged in the 1980s. It was subsequently released to home video, and is currently available on DVD as a bonus feature with the 1967 film adaptation of the novel.
The Curious History of Casino Royale
Casino Royale (1954) Coverage

Above: A publicity shot of Barry Nelson taken one year before he would play James Bond.

During production Nelson was unaware of the fact that the character of Bond was an Englishman. In an exclusive interview with Cinema Retro in 2004, 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".

Above: Barry Nelson in a 007-style pose

Fleming's novel had only just been published in America six months before the TV production (it was first published on 13th April 1953 in the UK), and the screenplay was developed late on. “They were making changes up to the last minute. There was nothing you could do if anything went wrong”, Nelson said.

Whilst he enjoyed acting opposite Peter Lorre (Le Chiffre) and Linda Christian (Vesper Lynd), he 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.”

“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.

Since then the rights have gone via Charles Feldman's spoof of 1967 to Eon Productions, who picked them up in early 2000 and later produced the first 'official' movie based on the story with Daniel Craig as 007 in 2006.

Above Left: Barry Nelson as 'Card Sense' Jimmy Bond at the tables of Casino Royale
Above Right: Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre tortures Bond in an attempt to retrieve his money

Nelson was born Robert Haakon Nielsen in San Francisco, California on April 16th 1920. He began acting in school at age of fifteen, playing an 80 year old man. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1941 and, because of his theatrical efforts in school, was almost immediately signed to a motion picture contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

Nelson made his screen debut in the role as Paul Clark in Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, with Donna Reed. He followed that with his role as Lew Rankin in the film noir crime/drama Johnny Eager (1942) starring Robert Taylor and Lana Turner.

During his military service in WWII, Nelson debuted on the Broadway stage in one of the leading roles, Bobby Grills, in Moss Hart's play Winged Victory (1943). His next Broadway appearance was as Peter Sloan in Hart's Light Up the Sky (1948), which was a first-rate success. He also appeared opposite Lauren Bacall in the Abe Burrows comedy Cactus Flower in 1965. Another Broadway role, that of Gus Hammer in The Rat Race (1949), kept Nelson away from the movies again, but after it closed he starred in the dual roles as Chick Graham and Bert Rand in The Man with My Face (1951), which was produced by Ed Gardner of radio fame.

He was the first actor (and, to date, the only American) to play James Bond on screen, in a 1954 adaptation of Ian Fleming's novel Casino Royale on the TV anthology series Climax! (preceding Sean Connery's interpretation in Dr. No by eight years). Nelson's additional television credits include guest appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone and Dr. Kildare. He appeared regularly on TV in the 1960s. He was one of the What's My Line? Mystery Guests and later served as a guest panelist on that popular CBS quiz show. Nelson appeared in both the stage and screen versions of Mary, Mary. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Dan Connors in The Act (1977) with Liza Minnelli. His final appearance on Broadway was as Julian Marsh in 42nd Street (1986).

Nelson has had two wives, actress Teresa Celli (married February 19, 1951-divorced) and Nansilee Hoy (married November 12, 1992-). Nelson and his second wife divided their time between homes in New York and France. Nelson was often seen publicly at American Civil War Shows across America. He had planned to write a couple of books about his time on stage and in Hollywood.

Selected Filmography
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) (MGM) ... Paul Clark
Johnny Eager (1942) (MGM) ... Lew Rankin
Dr. Kildare's Victory (MGM) (1942) ... Samuel Z. Cutter
The Human Comedy (1943) (MGM) ... Fat, first soldier
Bataan (1943) (MGM) ... F.X. Matowski
A Guy Named Joe (1943) (MGM) ... Dick Rumney
The Man with My Face (1951) (United Artists) ... Charles "Chick" Graham/Albert "Bert" Rand
Casino Royale (1954) (CBS) ... Jimmy Bond
Airport (1970) (Universal) ... Capt. Anson Harris
Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) (Universal) ... Burt
The Shining (1980) (Warner Bros.) ... Stuart Ullman

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