The Many Faces of Felix Leiter
In the world of Bond, James is king sure, but no one can say he works alone 100% of the time. How could a super spy work in a vacuum? Not possible. Throughout his missions 007 had one particular partner, or at least comrade in arms: Felix Leiter. Much like Bond, his face changes in a time-lord kind of way, and his personality also alters depending on what each actor brings to the role. From the smooth Jack Lord to the somewhat goofy Norman Burton, the character has been around since the beginning and gives the American audience a little bit of familiarity, or maybe pride, anyway he may not be as much of a house hold name as Jamesy but he is an integral part of the Bond universe.
Jack Lord – The Cool One
– Dr. No (1962) –
This Hawaii 5-0 actor appeared as the first official Felix, he sauntered onto the screen looking like Elvis Presley, too cool for school. Although not actually a part of the Dr. No novel, he helped put Bond in relation to the rest of the real world, and gave us a glimpse of what Bond might be like if he worked for the CIA. Personally he is my second favorite portrayal, mainly because although he did help Bond out, he still had his own mission and objectives to fulfill, he wasn’t just a Bond lackey like a lot of the other Leiters.
Cec Linder – The Old One
– Goldfinger (1964) –
A character actor of the ’60s who appeared in a variety of bit roles, most of his characters not actually having a real name, just the character’s profession. As to why Lord didn’t return, apparently there was some conflict between himself and the producers on the billing of the film, as well as higher salary demands. Linder wasn’t even supposed to play the role at first, but was a last-minute addition to the cast and I must say the character lost a lot of the Lord swagger. Cec’s Leiter was somewhat goofy and less spy like, more of a pencil pusher type, who kind of stumbled into a good bust.
Rik Van Nutter – The Blah One
– Thunderball (1965) –
Unhappy with how Linder’s age didn’t quite mesh with what they wanted for the role of Leiter, the production company sought out new blood and Van Nutter was a familiar face to the studio and got the role without an audition. Nutter didn’t stay long in Hollywood, only doing small parts in a handful of other projects before falling off the map in the lat 70s. By far the most obnoxious of all Leiter’s for me, he is more of a yes man, a lap dog for Bond to boss around rather than a proper agent of his own. Whether it was the script or just the blaze way he went about the role, he just couldn’t capture the feeling first introduced by Lord. Van Nutter was actually supposed to be Leiter for a few more films, but the next film to feature Felix wasn’t until years later and by then he suffered the same fate as Cec, old age meant less sex appeal and thus no place in the Bond-verse.
Norman Burton – The Chubby Balding One
– Diamonds are Forever (1971) –
The logic behind this casting baffles me, if Cec was too old for the role and not suave enough, why did they go with the somewhat portly and balding Burton? Burton is another one of those character actors who played characters like Hunt Leader or General, is notable however because he is appeared in Towering Inferno and two Planet of the Apes films, one of the few actors to do so. Burton’s Leiter is the oddest and least like the American equivalent of Bond, he is sweaty, nervous and somewhat inept. He was silly and almost an unnecessary character, not adding must to the film and I just don’t get the divergence from the original concept at all.
David Hedison – The Realistic One
– Live and Let Die, License to Kill (1973/1989) –
The first actor to play Felix more than once, although oddly not in a row, as John Terry took on the role for the first Dalton film (but more on him later) and Hedison came back in the second Dalton film. Hedison was far closer in age to the new Bond, Roger Moore, and was a real life friend of the actor as well, which allowed for them to fall into an easy rhythm on screen. Yet another familiar face character actor, although with meatier roles than the previous Leiter actors, he actually had some substantial roles in big films like The Greatest Story Ever Told and the original The Fly. Hedison brought a different weight to the role of Felix, he felt like he was a part of the real world, like he could be a CIA agent, although again lacking the posh coolness of Bond or Lord’s Leiter, he added a new dimension to the role. It wasn’t until he came back over 12 years later that he really shined as Felix though, as the character finally became a central part of the plot and helped drive Dalton’s Bond into action. In License to Kill, Felix was working with the DEA and was a close enough friend to Bond that he included him in his wedding and when he was fed (partly) to a shark, Bond went on a rampage. Finally, a Felix Leiter who was a man of action!
John Terry – The Forgettable One
– The Living Daylights (1987) –
Terry’s time as Leiter was short-lived, he wasn’t in more than a handful of scenes and was far less enthusiastic than Hedison, making him rather forgettable. Terry himself went on to have a full and still thriving career as a character actor and even showing up as a regular on Lost, 24 and ER. Not much to say about his turn as Felix, he was just blah, not as obnoxious as Burton or Nutter, but he really just didn’t make any impact on screen.
Jeffrey Wright – The Best One Yet
– Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace (2006/2008) –
My favorite actor to take on the role of Felix, he combines the cool demenour of Lord and the ferocity and realism of Hedison. Wright is able to match Craig pound for pound, he is just as gritty, brooding and straightforward as Craig’s version of Bond, he also has a certain quality about him that I cannot quite place, whether it is the way he underplays the role, the raspiness in his voice or something else, he just takes over the screen when he is there. He is also an integral part of the two films he is in, aiding Bond but never letting him forget that he has his own motives, he is helpful but not stupid, he is a practical man who understands his role and cannot risk his own life or job just to be Bond’s buddy. Wright’s star is definitely on the rise, he is not a character actor like most of the other Leiter men, he is in a variety of major films playing somewhat substantial roles, and will be in the upcoming Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire. If you really want to see Wright shine though check out Cadillac Records where he takes on the role of Muddy Waters, lending not only his fantastic acting chops but his damn good singing voice to make it a great homage to a legendary artist. I truly hope that Wirght is able to break the Leiter curse and stick around for more than two films, he has the talent and the on screen presence to really make this character leave a more lasting impact on the Bond franchise.
Okay, those were the major players when it comes to Felix Leiter and the Bond canon, but we mustn’t forget that there are two non regulation Bond films that also had a Leiter chatracter.
Michael Pate played Clarence Leiter in the TV version of Casino Royale in 1954. The roles were reversed in this version of the tale however, as Leiter was the Brit and Bond was the American, like a crazy parallel universe and I would rather not think about it. And then there was Bernie Casey in Never Say Never Again, the first African-American to take on the role. Unfortunately Felix is once again easily forgettable in this oft forgotten non Bond, Bond film.
Well, I hope this gave you some insight into a man who has been at Bond’s side from the beginning. And maybe, just maybe, the next time you check out a Bond film you will look for this CIA secret agent man and appreciate all he does for dear old 007.