Richard Kiel: 10 Small Facts About a Big Actor

RICHARD KIEL 3To fans of the James Bond film series, no list of the greatest evil henchmen would be complete without the towering, steel-toothed terror known as Jaws, played by towering, tendered-hearted actor Richard Kiel in the 007 actioners The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). “It is always more fun to play a bad guy than to be yourself,” the 7′ 1½”-tall Kiel–who rounded his height up to 7′ 2″ because people found it easier to remember–once said, “as you can create a character unlike your own and be someone you are not for a change.” In memory of the man behind Jaws, who passed away this week at the age of 74, we’d like to offer a collection of 10 quick facts about his life and career.

RICHARD KIEL 21. Born Richard Dawson Kiel (Boy, imagine if he had hosted Family Feud!) in Detroit in 1939, he held such varied jobs as nightclub bouncer, cemetery plot salesman, and door-to-door encyclopedia peddler before trying his hand at acting (at the suggestion of an aunt); his early TV appearances included roles on Klondike, Laramie, Thriller, The Rifleman, and Lassie. His most famous small-screen stint in this period came in the Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man,” where Kiel was one of the giant Kanamit aliens who came to Earth with pledges of benevolent cooperation and a book with some rather unusual recipes.

2. Richard made his big-screen debut as yet another alien–this time, a monstrous Solarite–in the 1961 sci-fi tale The Phantom Planet. The following year he donned a loincloth to play the title role of a love-starved caveman wandering the Southern California hills in Eegah, the first of two films Kiel would make with the infamous father-son duo of Arch Hall, Sr. and Arch Hall, Jr. (he had an uncredited part as a ranch foreman in the Halls’ 1964 spy spoof The Nasty Rabbit, reviewed here). Small, similarly uncredited roles put the actor alongside Jerry Lewis (in The Nutty Professor) and Elvis Presley (in Roustabout).

3. In one of the more unusual teamings on ’60s television, Kiel was cast as Voltaire, the lethal right-hand man to evil genius Dr. Miguelito Loveless (played by 3′ 11″ Academy Award nominee Michael Dunn) in several episodes of the popular frontier action series The Wild Wild West–which was, coincidentally, often referred to as “James Bond in the Old West.”

RICHARD KIEL 44. Before he came to audiences’ attention in The Spy Who Loved Me, Richard had two notable film roles in the early ’70s. He was a hulking prisoner named Samson who signs on for pro QB-turned-inmate Burt Reynolds’ football squad in the “pigskin behind bars” comedy The Longest Yard (1974), and in the light-hearted suspense hit Silver Streak (1976) he was Reace–a metal-toothed (!) hood who serves as muscle for criminal art dealer Roger Deveraux (Patrick McGoohan) and who tries to kill train passenger George Caldwell (Gene Wilder).

5. Kiel said he was offered the role of Darth Vader in Star Wars, but turned it down because he didn’t want to act behind the elaborate (and face-obscuring) costume. Richard nearly wound up playing another iconic behemoth, TV’s The Incredible Hulk. He was originally cast as David Banner’s (Bill Bixby) colossal green alter ego, but after several scenes were shot it was decided that his towering physique wasn’t “muscular” enough, so he was replaced by pro bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno (Kiel can be glimpsed in one scene from the pilot episode). Kiel didn’t mind, since the special contact lenses he would have been required to wear caused him a good deal of discomfort.

6. The character of Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me was based on a henchman named Horror in the original Ian Fleming novel of the same name (oddly, Jaws director Steven Spielberg was once considered as a director for the film). Kiel couldn’t keep the metallic dentures–which were flat and cog-shaped rather than pointy so he wouldn’t injure himself–in his mouth for more than a minute or two. On the bright side, the chains and cables that he bit through were actually made of licorice.

RICHARD KIEL 57. Early test versions of The Spy Who Loved Me had Jaws losing his watery battle with the shark, but the character was so popular that the scene was reshot so that Kiel came out on top. This, of course, allowed Richard to return to the role in the next Bond series entry, Moonraker, where Jaws wound up falling in love and joining forces with Roger Moore’s 007 to defeat the villainous Drax (Michael Lonsdale). Purists may object to Jaws’ reformation, but at least he got his only line of dialogue in the two features when he shared a champagne toast with his new girlfriend Dolly (Blanche Ravalec) and said “Well, here’s to us.”

8.. After playing Jaws, Richard appeared in such films as the comedies So Fine (1981) with Ryan O’Neal and–as Jackie Chan racing partner–Cannonball Run II (1984), as well as the offbeat western Pale Rider (1985), where he has a memorable fight with director/star Clint Eastwood.

RICHARD KIEL 69. Kiel has a hilarious role as a crazed golf fan opposite Adam Sandler in 1996’s Happy Gilmore…but you may notice that Richard is nearly always shot from the waist up and never seen walking. This is because he suffered a serious head injury in an auto accident four years earlier that affected his sense of balance, and he needed a cane or scooter to get around. The condition also forced him to cut down on his acting workload.

10. A devout Christian (Richard said his faith helped him overcome alcoholism), Kiel wrote an autobiography entitled Making It BIG in the Movies and also co-authored Kentucky Lion, a 2006 biography of 19th-century politician and abolitionist Cassius Clay.

Where do you think Jaws ranks in the all-time roster of James Bond movie henchmen? Vote in our poll here.