The first James Bond was an American veteran
Barry Nelson was the first actor to portray the super spy. He went by the name of Bond, Jimmy Bond.
"Bond, Jimmy Bond." That just does not have quite the same ring to it. Yet in 1954, when 007 made his screen debut, the spy sported a crew cut, drank whiskey, spoke like an American, and went by the friendlier nickname of "Jimmy."
CBS had paid author Ian Fleming a mere $1,000 for the rights to his novel Casino Royale, the debut entry in his James Bond series that had been released in 1953. The network hired two screenwriters, Anthony Ellis and Charles Bennett, to chop the book into a one-hour teleplay. The latter had previously adapted works for Alfred Hitchcock films.
While the Bond of the books was a British Naval Commander, CBS cast Barry Nelson in the role. Nelson had served in an entertainment unit of the U.S. Army and honed his acting skills in MGM productions and on Broadway. He was not new to pretend espionage. The California native was coming off The Hunter, a short-lived TV series from 1952 about a spy named Bart Adams.
The live broadcast of Casino Royale made its debut in late October 1954 as the third episode in the first season of the anthology series Climax!, hosted by actor William Lundigan. Climax! would frequently adapt popular novels for television, including Huckleberry Finn, A Farewell to Arms and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Lundigan was not only a veteran actor, he had served in the Marines in World War II, working as a combat cameraman for major battles in the Pacific.
With his quick talking, football player's build and tweed blazer, Barry Nelson feels wrong in the Bond role, though it must be said the emotional depth and doubt he brings to the character is closer to the Bond of the books than other cinematic iterations. While it is weird to see an American talking about baccarat with Felix Leiter, the role of the villain Le Chiffre is perfectly filled by Peter Lorre. The horror icon turns in a performance that makes him one of the most underrated, if not outright forgotten Bond bad guys.
Daniel Craig is coming back for (supposedly) one more James Bond movie. Naturally, discussion has already heated up about who will and can be the next Bond. Barry Nelson, the first man to fill the shoes, is a reminder that anyone can play the role. Even an American.