Think Sean Connery played the earliest 007? Think “Casino Royale” was first adapted for the screen with that nonsensical 1967 comedy starring Peter Sellers and Woody Allen? A little-seen 1954 TV oddity would have you wrong on both counts.
But had things gone a little bit differently one day at a flea market, we might not have any idea how the on-screen James Bond took the infantile first step of his long motion-picture journey.
First, a little background:
Before John F. Kennedy’s list of favorite books – which included “From Russia with Love” – made James Bond an international sensation, Ian Fleming sold a six-month option to his first Bond novel, 1953’s “Casino Royale,” for a mere $1000 in 1954 to a producer who took the story to CBS.
“Casino Royale” was produced as a black-and-white live-television episode of CBS’ “Climax” drama anthology series on October 21, 1954. The cast featured American actor Barry Nelson in the role of “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre (”The Maltese Falcon“) as the villainous Le Chiffre. An urban legend says that Lorre – perhaps not understanding the concept of live television – got up and walked out of frame after being shot, but this just isn’t so. Wikipedia attributes this as a mix-up with the “Climax” episode that adapted Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye.”
A publicity shot of Barry Nelson for “My Favorite Husband”
– the TV series he toplined the year before playing Bond.
Nelson’s Bond is not the secret agent we’ve subsequently come to know; he’s an American that works for “Combined Intelligence” and orders Scotch-and-waters (there are no martinis to be found). Naturally, the brutal passages of Fleming’s novel are watered down for 1950s television, and so genital torture becomes toe torture.
The episode became a forgotten piece of the Bond saga until years later, when a man named Jim Schoenberger bought a 16mm kinescope (the process of filming a television monitor to preserve a live show for posterity) of the program – reportedly at a flea market sometime in the 1970s.
According to Bond authority and Cinema Retro magazine publisher Lee Pfeiffer, Schoenberger bought the 1954 “Casino Royale” as an unmarked 16mm canister at the flea market, at first not knowing what he had. Bond book author Steve Rubin understands it slightly differently.
“The canister was labeled as the 1967 ‘Casino Royale,’” says Rubin. “But he looked at the print and saw it was black and white.” In any case, Schoenberger bought the “Royale” kinescope, and the episode was soon to get its first showing in decades.
Around the time Rubin’s book “The James Bond films: A Behind the Scenes History” was published in 1981, the author organized the James Bond Weekend at the Playboy Club in Century City. He decided to screen the 1954 “Casino Royale” and invite Barry Nelson.
“He was a little surprised,” Rubin says about the star’s reaction to the invite. Although Nelson wasn’t actively associated with the Bond legacy at the time, neither had he fallen into total obscurity; the actor had recently completed the hotel-manager role for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” (Nelson is the fella who hires Nicholson.)
The “Climax” episode became available as a public-domain video dupe, and Pfeiffer says the 16mm kinescope was donated to the Museum of Television and Radio. But in 1998, Pfeiffer finally gave the ‘54 “Royale” the royal treatment, with a handsomely packaged Collector’s Edition, introduced by Pfeiffer himself.
“There were two versions floating around out there,” says Pfeiffer, “And I realized I had the one with the complete ending.” So he released the Collector’s Edition through his company Spy Guise Entertainment. “I was able to do it pretty cheaply. We shot the intro in my basement.”
A short time after the “Climax” episode aired, Fleming sold full “Royale” rights for $6000 (buying a car with the spoils), and it reached the big screen in 1967 as a goofy, spoofy movie with little relation to the novel. The 1954 “Royale” was included as an extra on the 2002 DVD release of the 1967 version. (And Rubin is now working with Fox to create the extras package for another DVD edition of “Royale” ‘67.) The official Bond film series – as produced by Eon Productions – acquired the rights to Fleming’s inaugural Bond novel in the late 1990s. Now it’s been made by Eon as the 21st official Bond film, with Daniel Craig in the tuxedo and a newly created adventure preceding the casino action.
So in some ways, the original “Casino Royale” adaptation is still the most faithful (and it’s the only to include the memorable cane-gun scene). As for “Jimmy” Bond, the still-living Barry Nelson gets the occasional fan letter but considers his Bond connection to be “more of a trivia question,” according to Pfeiffer. The current issue of Cinema Retro features an interview with the actor.
© Mike Malloy
Filed under: Movie News and Movie News: USA and Movie News: UK and People: Daniel Craig and Movies: Casino Royale (2006) and Contributors: Mike M.