If memory serves, although certain arch-villains like Blofeld returned time and again, Richard Kiel’s steel-toothed Jaws is the only henchman to enjoy a return engagement in the 50 year James Bond franchise. And why not? I was 11 the summer the spectacular “Spy Who Loved Me” (1977) hit theatres, already a big Bond fan, and loved the 7-foot-2, (7 feet 1.5 inches, if you want to be picky) shark-eating menace.
Kiel was the reason, too. Size alone won’t earn you a 50 year career. You gotta bring something more, which is what Kiel did to all his roles, especially Jaws. There was a humanity there, something more than brute force. For the first time The Last Gorilla Between Bond And Victory gave off the impression that he was more than just muscle.
There are reports Kiel turned down the role of Darth Vader to play Jaws.
Two years later in “Moonraker” (1979), which (if you count admissions) is still one of the most commercially successful Bond movies of all-time, Jaws was given a full character arc and love interest. Kiel was more than up to the task and rightfully earned his status as an American cultural icon.
Kiel got his start on television in the 1960 series “Klondike.” From there he became a familiar and recognizable guest star on shows like “The Wild Wild West,” “The Rifleman,” “Thriller,” “The Night Stalker,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” and one of the greatest episodes of television ever: “To Serve Man” on the “Twilight Zone.”
In films like the 1974 masterpiece “The Longest Yard,” (I think I broke his fuckin’ neck!), “Cannonball Run II” (1984), and “Happy Gilmore” (1996), Kiel displayed a memorable flare for comedy. Kiel also starred in Eegah (1962), one of the most entertainingly awful movies ever produced.
In 2010, Kiel did a voice role in Disney’s smash “Tangled.” Depending on the status, his final role either would have been or will be in the film “The Engagement Ring.”
In his personal life, Richard Kiel was a soft-spoken, extremely well-read man who wrote an autobiography, historical books, screenplays, and produced for television and film. At his website, Kiel offers a personal testimony of how reclaiming the Christian faith of his childhood helped him stop drinking, saved his life, and his marriage.
Not only did God deliver me from the bondage of alcoholism, he also blessed my family financially because of my commitment to honor what he had done for me and for not doing what I believed could possibly be destructive to others.
About five years ago I attended an autograph show in Burbank. Kiel was there. Near the end of the day, after the crowd had gone, James Bond (George Lazenby), Octopussy (Maud Adams) and Jaws huddled up to talk. It only lasted a few minutes, but I was there to see it.
Richard Dawson Kiel died Wednesday at the age of 74. He is survived by his 4 children and Diane, his wife of 40 years.
John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC