Although principally concerning the exploits of a lone British secret agent,
the James Bond novels and films have introduced a wide range of supporting characters
to the public consciousness. Although they only feature minimally in Bond's adventures,
memorable creations such as M, Q and Miss Moneypenny are all almost as famous as
Commander Bond himself. Even some of the villains have become icons, particularly the
image of a powerful figure stroking a certain type of domestic pet. With this in mind
it is interesting how one particular character has remained in relative obscurity to
those who do not follow closely the exploits of Bond, despite his frequent appearances
since Bond's debut in print in 1952. That character is of course Felix Leiter.
The seeming anonymity of the Felix Leiter character can probably be explained by the fact that the modern world is generally familiar with the world of 007 through the movies, rather than the original novels. And if we look at the way that the James Bond films treated Leiter, the fact that he is not particularly well known becomes completely understandable...
Felix Leiter, as created by Ian Fleming, was a straw haired Texan who first appeared in "Casino Royale", representing the CIA in aiding Bond in his mission against SMERSH agent Le Chiffre. Leiter then appears regularly throughout the series of books, providing welcome continuity; Bond becomes good friends with the American in a way which he does not with any other character and their reunions would become a highlight of many of the novels.
In the world of the Bond movies, Leiter is there right at the start with Dr No, despite the fact that he was not in that novel. Bond and Leiter had not met prior to the film, although Bond had heard of the CIA man. The character then features regularly during the 60s films, but disappears for a while after Live And Let Die, having been removed from The Man With The Golden Gun, despite appearing in that book. When Timothy Dalton took over the role of Bond the character returned, appearing in both Dalton films.
However, the Felix Leiter character has been one of the greatest missed opportunities of the Bond movie series. No less then six actors have played the part and only one has appeared twice, and that was in two films 15 years apart with another actor in between. The effects of this constant recasting were then exaggerated by those in power not even casting actors of a similar type in the role, with poor Felix frequently changing age, height, weight and even race if you count Never Say Never Again. This all meant that Felix Leiter has never felt like a recurring character - just a recurring name, and as a result he has never been particularly identifiable to the general film going public, especially without the advantage of any obvious props to aid the character in the way which made various villains memorable.
The movies' interpretation of Felix is generally regarded as getting off to a good start in Dr No with the casting of Jack Lord. Although physically unlike Fleming's Leiter, Lord was convincing as a contemporary of Bond. Leiter is introduced in the film as a shadowy figure, whom the audience is led to believe may be stalking Bond intent on some nefarious activity, before his actual identity is revealed. Thunderball later made virtue of an unfamiliar actor playing Felix by repeating this (and similarly Live And Let Die and The Living Daylights both featured other CIA agents working for Leiter who were initially misrepresented).
Leiter was absent from the second film but by the time of Goldfinger the producers had appeared to revise their opinions of the character. Perhaps understandably, those in power were apparently concerned that Jack Lord may be in danger of overshadowing Sean Connery so the Leiter who helps Bond in Miami has changed somewhat, now resembling more Bond's elderly uncle than his close colleague. Cec Linder, a Canadian actor whose earlier work had included the seminal 50s science fiction serial Quatermass And The Pit, played Leiter here. Linder was originally cast as Mr Simmons, the card player whom Goldfinger is cheating, and Austin Willis was to play Leiter. However, the roles were switched, although it is doubtful whether Willis would have been a more appropriate Felix.
Fortunately, Felix Leiter had rejuvenated by the time of his appearance in the following film, with the wonderfully named Rik Van Nutter taking on the role. Van Nutter was apparently intended to play the part of Felix in future films, but the character was not seen again until Diamonds Are Forever some six years later and we are introduced to Leiter number four. If Cec Linder was the old Leiter, then Norman Burton can be considered the overweight one, portraying a version of the character who appeared to be more at home in some desk job than helping MI6's finest save civilisation again.
For the following film, the pattern of bad Felix - good Felix is repeated in Live And Let Die with the casting of David Hedison, previously star of the original version of The Fly and Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Hedison and new Bond Roger Moore make a well-matched double act and it is a shame that the character then disappeared from the films for a while.
Between 1971 and 1987 the only sighting of Leiter was in Kevin McClory's Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again. It has often been quoted that those behind this film had observed that no-one remembered Felix Leiter and in an attempt to rectify this they cast Bernie Casey as the black Leiter. They failed.
By the time that the screenwriters of the EON films decided to resurrect Felix Leiter, Timothy Dalton was making his make in his debut as Bond. John Terry's boyish version of Felix plays a minor part in The Living Daylights and even Terry himself doesn't appear to know what he's doing there.
For the following film, Licence To Kill, the producers returned to a previous Felix, with David Hedison becoming the only actor to date to return to the part. This was despite Dalton being somewhat younger than Roger Moore. However, the producers apparently cast Felix carefully, since for once Felix was to be important to this film. But more of that to come.
From all of this chopping and changing of actors it is clear that the that the film producers were not interested in developing Leiter's character for much of the series, perhaps understandably not wanting to draw attention from Bond. Nowhere is this more clear than in the treatment of Felix's encounter with a shark...
In the literary version of "Live And Let Die", the second Bond novel, Felix is fed to a shark and loses an arm and a leg. He is subsequently invalidated out of the CIA and normally then appears working for Pinkerton's Detective Agency. The film version of the novel was of course not made until much later in the development of the series and the scenes were removed and Leiter lost his one true moment in the spotlight. Perhaps it was considered that such a sequence would have been inappropriate in a film more concerned with comedy inflating villains.
It was however encouraging to see the scenes used later in Licence To Kill, and indeed as a major plot point. The whole film revolved around Bond's friendship with Leiter, although this was somewhat undermined by the inconsistent way that the character had been treated for the 17 years prior to this.
We haven't seen Felix since, so we can't judge what effects the shark attack have had on the way that the character is presented. However, given the way that the producers appear to be distancing themselves from Licence To Kill it is revealing that a new CIA contact for Bond featured in GoldenEye in the shape of Jack Wade. The Leiter-less years of the 70s and 80s had occasionally featured other CIA agents (for instance Chuck Lee in A View To A Kill), but these characters normally existed only to supply Bond with some important plot information before being dispatched by some villain or other. In contrast, Jack Wade survived GoldenEye (probably despite the best hopes of a proportion of the audience) and reappeared in Tomorrow Never Dies.
With a new start such as the one presented in GoldenEye one can understand that the producers did not want to be burdened with the continuity of a disabled Felix. At least the film didn't feature yet another new version of Felix with all his limbs intact. However, it does appear that the producers now see Jack Wade as Bond's CIA contact rather than Felix Leiter, so one wonders if we will ever see another appearance from that young/old, fat/thin, tall/short CIA agent in any future films...
The Bond Film Informant was compiled by Matthew Newton. © Copyright MJ Newton. No part of this site may be reproduced without permission unless otherwise stated.