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By Marshall Julius

We’re both shaken, and stirred, to reveal the sad news that legendary Bond henchman Richard Kiel died on Wednesday, September 10, just three days shy of his 75th birthday. An iconic actor with a sweet nature, generous spirit and lively enthusiasm for starstruck Bond fans, Kiel will forever be remembered as the endearingly fallible yet doggedly durable Jaws.

A towering, 7’ 1¾” presence with terrifying metal choppers, the character’s unique appeal ensured he survived not just one Bond adventure, but two: maritime masterpiece The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and its outer space clone, Moonraker (1979).

What follows is an interview with Kiel from 2008, presented in its entirety as a tribute to the great man. 

“When the late Cubby Broccoli first interviewed me for the role,” said Kiel of Jaws’ matchless appeal, “I told him I wanted to give the character some human characteristics, things like perseverance and frustration that everyone could identify with. No matter what, we all have to carry on, and Jaws became a role model for that. Kind of like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons. Jaws would just straighten his tie, brush off his clothes, and keep going.”

I always hoped that one day Sylvester would catch and consume Tweety. That Tom would gobble Jerry, and that the Coyote would eventually get to enjoy a delicious bowl of Road Runner stew. Likewise, if any Bond villain was ever going to get the best of the suave secret agent, I would have wanted it to be Jaws. 

“Cubby let Jaws survive The Spy Who Loved Me as he suspected the character was going to be a hit. That suited me! After the movie came out, I remember the director’s grandson, who was a big Jaws fan, asking why he had to be a bad guy. That’s why, in Moonraker, they turned me into a good guy.”

Switching sides at the end of Moonraker to save the world and Bond too, not only did Jaws survive that second movie, he also found love and spoke his one and only line, “Well, here’s to us!”

“Jaws switching sides was a little controversial,” Kiel remembers, “but really it was only the die hard Bond fans who took it so seriously. The proof of the pudding, as they say, was that Moonraker was the highest grossing Bond film for many, many years after that. It appealed to young children and old people, as well as the normal 18-30 year old audience. It was a huge success.”

An old school 007 fan and proud of it, I tell Kiel I love his movies better than any Bond movie that’s come since. “I like Pierce Brosnan and I think Daniel Craig is a very good actor,” he says diplomatically. “They’re just different kinds of Bond.”

Maybe it’s the Bond you grow up with, then. “There you go,” agrees Kiel. “People usually like what they grew up with best, whether it’s Bond or Tarzan. I grew up with Sean Connery so I love Goldfinger, Thunderball, Dr No and all those films.”

Fingers crossed he didn’t share his attachment to Connery with co-star Roger Moore. “You know,” he says with a smile, “when people ask me who I think made the best Bond, I always say George Lazenby!

“Really though, Roger was very kind to me and very supportive. His heart’s much bigger than his ego. When I stole scenes he didn’t complain, a real team player kind of guy, and best of all, he doesn’t take it too seriously.”

Least of all himself. “Yeah, I’ve worked with a lot of movie stars who are real jerks. They wouldn’t let you steal scenes and become an icon like I did with Jaws.”

A native of Detroit, Michigan, Kiel stands 7’ 1¾” tall, though he usually rounds it up to 7’ 2”, he reveals, as that’s far less of a mouthful. Despite a rather serious auto accident in 1992 which affected his balance and has forced him ever since to spend the majority of his time sitting down, he still cuts an imposing figure.

“Up until the time I was 12 years old I was average size,” he volunteers. “Between 12 and 14 though, I grew like crazy. I had a pituitary tumour that was not cancerous but caused an overgrowth of growth hormone which made me shoot up. I have stretch marks on my back, like a women gets when she’s pregnant, for growing too fast.”

I wondered at what point in his life Kiel decided to capitalise on his incredible height by turning to acting, and if he’d had any ambitions before coming to that decision. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” he replies, “but my dad died when I was 19 and I had to go out and get a job. I was having a hard time paying for sport coats and shoes and big beds and bigger cars, and actually it was my aunt who said, ‘Why don’t you become an actor?’ That made a lot of good sense, so I went about becoming one. It wasn’t easy, but I did it.”

Early work included the role of carnivorous alien Kanamit in The Twilight Zone (“It’s a cookbook!”) and rampaging caveman Eegah in the classic exploitation film of the same name. “It may have been one of the worst movies of all time,” Kiel concedes, “but it was a great learning experience.”

Fifteen years later, Kiel’s role in The Spy Who Loved Me guaranteed him movie immortality as Jaws, though we might also have known him as TV’s The Incredible Hulk had his casting in the pilot been a better fit. “I’d worked for the producer before and he hired me to play the Hulk,” explains Kiel, “because he felt I was a good actor and obviously I was big.

“I had a terrible time though. I can’t see out of my right eye, and my one good eye reacted very badly to the contact lenses I had to wear as The Hulk. By the end of the first day of shooting they’d stuck the lenses in and taken them out maybe fifty or a hundred times, and as I drove home that night my eye wouldn’t stop watering. Every light had a halo around it. It was very unpleasant.

“On top of that they put this green stuff all over my back, legs and other places that I couldn’t really get to. I had a new Chevrolet convertible, candy apple red with a white interior that turned green, as did my bathtub and bed sheets. Between my watering eyes and the green dye, I didn’t feel The Hulk was something I could keep doing if it went to a series.

“I felt bad because I knew everyone else on the show wanted it to run and run, but it wasn’t for me. After the second day though, I didn’t get called for a while to go in, and then when the producer finally called me, he said that Marvel had decided that they really wanted more of a body builder, and would it be ok if they just paid me for the movies, and I then step aside to let someone else play The Hulk?”

Result! “Yes indeed,” agrees Kiel. “Hallelujah!”

Sadly, no stills or footage exists of a green Kiel, with one surprising exception. “I think they must have burned everything,” says the star, “but if you remember, at the beginning of every show, there’s a scene where the Hulk carries a woman out of burning building. Well, that’s me!”

Thirty years on from his triumphant portrayal of Jaws, Kiel retains his star quality, charismatic, personable and one-of-a-kind, though he recalls with a wince the times he’s been mistaken for fellow behemoths Andre the Giant, of Princess Bride fame, Fred ‘Herman’ Gwynne from The Munsters and from The Addams Family, Ted ‘Lurch’ Cassidy.

“Some people,” he says, “all they see is the size. It’s offensive, but I learned to deal with it a long time ago. One time, my family and I were on our way to this beach resort and we got a bit lost. I pulled into a supermarket parking lot to ask for directions, and spotted this lady going towards her car. I caught her attention and she looked up at me, smiling, saying, ‘Oh, you’re him!’

“I asked her who she thought I was, and she said, ‘You’re Lurch!’ I told her I wasn’t, that in fact he was dead, but she argued, ‘Oh no, you’re him.’ I tried to move on and asked her how to get to the beach, but all she did then was ask for my autograph, over and over again. In the end, I scribbled the name Lurch on a piece of paper, and imagined her going to work the next day, telling everyone that she’d met Ted Cassidy. I wish I could have seen her face when she found out that he really was dead, though she probably just thought then that I was his ghost or something!

“I used to get mistaken for Lurch all the time, especially when The Addams Family was new on TV, but I learned to live with it. After I did the Bond film though, Ted started getting mistaken for me, and he couldn’t handle that at all. In fact, he hated it, and he absolutely hated me. I met his son once, who told me that Ted was a really unhappy guy who didn’t like anything he ever did. He did Mackenna’s Gold, which I thought was quite good, he played Goliath in a biblical thing and he was in Star Trek too, but really he wanted to be Hamlet. It was a sad and frustrating way to live.

“The trick to being happy,” says Kiel, summing up, “is you have to go with what you’ve got. I know I’m never going to play a brain surgeon or an obstetrician, but I’ve had a very blessed career. I’ve taken my family all over the world, and I don’t have any regrets. I’ve enjoyed it all the way.”

Richard Kiel (1939-2014) and Marshall Julius

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