A Look Back at “The First James Bond” (Spoiler Alert: It’s Not Who You Think)

Who was the best James Bond? 

That’s easy: Daniel Craig. 

Nevertheless, people still love to debate the question, and absolutists will insist that no one is better than the “original.” 

Whoever did it first, that’s the guy they love. 

Who was Really the First James Bond? 

The web is filled with Google-Bait pages that purport to list “Every James Bond Actor to Play the Role,” beginning with Sean Connery, and Bond puritans view anyone else as a pale imitation. 

And who was “the first Bond girl”? According to the web, Ursula Andress was the first “Bond girl,” who, as Honey Ryder, “dazzled cinema audiences, stepping out of the Caribbean sea wearing a white bikini with a large hunting knife at her side.”

But just as George Washington was not actually the first president (that honor goes to Peyton Randolph), Sean Connery was not the first James Bond, and Ursula Andress was not the first Bond girl. 

Barry Nelson was the first actor to portray James Bond, in the original Casino Royale, filmed for American television in 1954. 

Naysayers insist that Peyton Randolph was not really the first President of the United States — he was merely the first President of the governing body of the United States — Connery partisans will tell you that Barry Nelson doesn’t count. The first Casino Royale was not a “movie” proper, after all, since it aired live and was not shown in movie theaters at the time of its initial release. 

That’s quibbling, though; Barry Nelson was the original Bond.

Like Pete Best, the original drummer in the Beatles, Barry Nelson was destined to go through life as a weird sort of footnote, the originator of one of the most iconic characters in cinema history relegated to bit parts on shows like The Ropers and Magnum P.I. 

But Was He Any Good?

For many years, the kinescope was missing, and it was believed lost forever. Then in the 1980s, a black and white version turned up (it originally aired in color) but remained unavailable to view. 

When I first heard about it, it drove me crazy that it was lost. I wanted more than anything to insist that Barry Nelson was the best James Bond, the definitive Bond, better than all that came after him. 

It is today available for all to see, on YouTube, of course. 

Once I finally watched it, though, I had to admit that even contrarianism has its limits. 

Barry Nelson was not the best Bond. He was the worst. 

The plot is intact: Bond arrives at a casino, determined to bleed an enemy agent dry in a high stakes game of baccarat.

But this is not the Bond you know. He’s American, for one thing, and he works for something called the “Combined Intelligence Agency.” Everyone calls him “Jimmy,” not James. And he’s a “Jimmy” from head to toes. 

“Different” doesn’t necessarily equal bad, of course.

But Nelson brought nothing to the role. He was not suave; not ruthless; not cunning; not haunted; not cheerfully amoral. Not anything that any of the other Bonds brought to the role. He was a bland Bond; a cipher, and not the interesting kind. 

The Golden Age of Television

You can’t chalk this up to the limitations of the era. You can find plenty of great performances in old kinescopes: Rod Steiger in Marty; Jack Palance in Requiem for a Heavyweight. They used to call it the “Golden Age of Television,” and those old live anthology shows, like the one that aired the original Casino Royale, were the reason why. 

The rest of the Casino Royale cast acquit themselves quite well. That great star, Peter Lorre, as “le Chiffre,” the first Bond villain, is reluctantly sadistic and satisfyingly world-weary, and Linda Christian, the first Bond girl, also manages to find some depth as a tormented double agent. The supporting players are good. Nelson is the black hole that sucks all the energy from the production. 

Linda Christian, incidentally, was not just the first Bond girl, but was also the first pick for the leading role of Lorene Burke in From Here to Eternity, in which she would have co-starred with her husband, Tyrone Power. 

Instead, the role went to Donna Reed, who won an Oscar for it. 

A Stellar Pedigree

The talent behind the show was impressive. Charles Bennett, one of the Casino Royale screenwriters, previously wrote the Alfred Hitchcock classics, BlackmailThe Man Who Knew Too Much, and The 39 Steps. The director, William H. Brown, Jr., was a veteran of fifteen episodes of Studio One, one of the greatest of all the Golden Age anthology shows. The music was by Jerry Goldsmith, who went on to become one of the greatest and most prolific of Hollywood film composers.

It could have been at least good, but it wasn’t. 

It’s probably lucky for us, and for movie history, that it wasn’t good. 

If this version of Casino Royale had turned out to be terrifically popular, it would probably have led to a TV series, and to this day, James Bond would be remembered as an American spy from a now-obscure 1950s TV show. 

^^^
This article is by Steven S. Drachman, the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is published by Chickadee Prince Books.

Image by Cottonbro Studios / Pexels

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