The First and Almost Forgotten Bond, James Bond

Great actors have made their mark by playing the role of James Bond, the Ian Fleming creation who travels the world, protecting the interest of good over evil. Most movie aficionados can name the actors who have played Bond in their career, usually best recalling the actor who first introduced them to the franchise.

But mention “Barry Nelson”, and shamefully even the most ardent of Bond fans might be left scratching their heads.

It’s probably worth recounting how the Bond character came about, which will explain how Barry Nelson landed the role as the first Bond. There are 3 versions of Casino Royale in the on-screen Bond world, and Barry played the lead in the very first version. It was the 1954 television adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming that first introduced the character to the screen. Yes, James Bond began on TV.

Barry Nelson as 'Jimmy' Bond in the 1954 version of Casino Royale 

CBS paid Ian Fleming $1,000 at the time for the rights to the story. Due to broadcast restrictions, the adapted version lost many of the details found in the book, although it retained its violence, particularly in the final scenes. Here’s a brief look:

The hour-long Casino Royale episode aired on 21 October 1954 as a live (yes, live!) production, starring Barry Nelson as secret agent James Bond, with Peter Lorre in the role of the villainous Le Chiffre.  The Bond character in Casino Royale was re-cast as an American agent, described as working for "Combined Intelligence", supported by the British agent, Clarence Leiter, played by Australian Michael Pate. As such the Anglo-American relationship depicted in the book is reversed for 1950s American consumption. The full version as broadcast can be seen here:

But it was 4 years later when the Bond franchise we are more familiar with today began to gestate. CBS invited Fleming to write 32 episodes over a two-year period for a television show based on the James Bond character. Fleming agreed and began to write outlines for this series. When nothing ever came of this, Fleming grouped and adapted three of the outlines into short stories and released the 1960 anthology For Your Eyes Only along with an additional two new short stories. From here, Dr No, the first actual Bond film, starring Sean Connery, was raised.

The 1954 version of Casino Royale with Barry Nelson in the lead was lost for decades after its broadcast until a kinescope version of it was located by film historian Jim Schoenberger in 1981. MGM subsequently included a version on its DVD of the 1967 Casino Royale, where David Niven plays the lead in a rather satirical take on the franchise. 

David Niven with Ursula Andress in the 1967 version of Casino Royale