Obituary: Richard Kiel, actor

Richard Kiel: Iconic villain of 1970s was initially reluctant to play role of Bond's chromium-mouthed 'monster' nemesis. Picture: AP
Richard Kiel: Iconic villain of 1970s was initially reluctant to play role of Bond's chromium-mouthed 'monster' nemesis. Picture: AP
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Born: 13 September, 1939, in Detroit, Michigan. Died: 10 September 10, 2014, in Fresno, California, aged 74

The role of Jaws in the James Bond films turned Richard Kiel from a jobbing television actor into an instantly recognisable star all over the world. Even if viewers did not know Kiel’s name they would know him as 007’s steel-jawed adversary, one of the most iconic cinema villains of the 1970s.

But when producer Cubby Broccoli first outlined the role, Kiel’s instinct was to turn it down. “He said, ‘Richard, this character is going to have teeth like tools, or they might be like a shark, but they’re going to be made out of steel and he kills people with his teeth,’” Kiel recalled. “My first reaction was that I didn’t really want to do it, as it was a monster part.”

The character was extreme even by Bond standards – biting through steel cables and ripping apart a van with his bare hands. He had no lines. But Kiel found Broccoli receptive to the suggestion of giving him a few human characteristics such as perseverance and frustration.

Jaws was meant to be killed off in the course of the story. But the producers shot an alternative ending in which he comes out on top in a fight with a shark.

In an interview I did with him a couple of years ago, Kiel recalled: “MGM had this special blue-collar screening, with wives and children. They snuck me in the back door and I didn’t know whether I would live or die until I popped out of the water and the audience cheered and applauded.”

The producers brought Jaws back a couple of years later in Moonraker. He starts off as a baddie, but teams up with Bond after falling in love with the diminutive Dolly and realising there will be no place for them in villain Hugo Drax’s perfect new off-world civilisation. Jaws even got a few words to say. After cracking open a bottle of champagne, he says: “Well, here’s to us.”

In real life, pretty much everyone agreed Kiel was a big softie. He was quiet spoken, a Christian, and a family man, he had a fear of heights – despite the famous battle with Bond on top of a cable car on Sugarloaf Mountain and, ironically, he feared trips to the dentists as a tortuous ordeal.

Born Richard Dawson Kiel in Detroit in 1939, he had a condition called acromegaly, which resulted in unusually pronounced cheeks and jawbone, a bulging forehead and extreme height. At 14 he was 6ft 7in and would grow to 7 ft 2 in. He was also blind in one eye.

There were other difficulties, which left Kiel with an ongoing fear of dental work. “I’d go to the dentist and it would hurt and then he would add more novocaine and it would still hurt. And he would add even more novocaine and it would still hurt. So I went through a lot of pain and then by the time I got home it all worked and my whole head was numb.” Only latterly was it realised that what was needed was more time, not more novocaine.

Despite his condition, Kiel was determined to be an actor. One of his earliest jobs, however, was selling land in a cemetery. He had to talk to people about death and persuade them to buy a plot. He worked to a set script and felt it ideal training for an acting career. He also taught Maths and worked as a bouncer, recalling trouble quickly died down whenever he appeared.

He got regular seasonal work in pantomime and was in demand to play monsters, giants and aliens on TV. He was a dome-headed alien in The Twilight Zone and a Frankenstein-type character who joins The Monkees in an episode of their TV show.

He was also the original choice for The Incredible Hulk on television, but the contact lenses affected his limited vision and Marvel decided they wanted someone more muscular, rather than just big. A co-starring role in the western series Barbary Coast, with William Shatner, led to the role of Jaws.

On screen it looked like nothing could upset Jaws, but Kiel could tolerate the false teeth for only a few minutes at a time. “They were made of chromium steel, they went up to the roof of your mouth and they would kind of gag you,” he told me. “The rather stoic look was me trying to keep from throwing up.”

Later films include Cannonball Run II; the western Pale Rider, in which he clashed with Clint Eastwood; the comedy Happy Gilmore, in which he clashed with Adam Sandler; and Disney’s Tangled, in which he voiced Vladimir, a fearsome giant, who collects ceramic unicorns.

Kiel also wrote, produced and starred in the family film The Giant of Thunder Mountain, co-wrote a book about the abolitionist Cassius Clay and brought out an autobiography called Making It Big in the Movies.

In 1992 he sustained a head injury in a road accident that affected his balance and latterly he used a wheelchair. His first marriage ended in divorce in the early 1970s. He is survived by his second wife Diane and their four children.