Pop quiz: who was the first actor to portray James Bond on screen?
Correct! The answer is Barry Nelson!
*looks around at the confused faces*
I can already see people looking this one up, because everyone knows the first person to play James Bond was Sean Connery. Technically, that’s correct. Sean Connery was the first person to play James Bond on the big screen as the now familiar suave and sophisticated agent of the British secret service.
But in 1954, James Bond was first portrayed as “Jimmy Bond,” a rough-around-the-edges “combined intelligence” agent working for the American government. He enters the Casino Royale to meet with his British counterpart Clarence Leiter (played by Michael Pate), who needs a lesson in the rules of baccarat that Jimmy Bond is only too happy to provide. Their mission: to defeat Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre) at the game, forcing his Soviet masters to take action against him. Along for the complication is Bond’s former lover Valerie Mathis (Linda Christian), currently Le Chiffre’s girlfriend. Mathis is also an agent of the Deuxieme, France’s external military agency at the time.
Got this straight? The more you know Fleming’s original novel, to say nothing of the 007 franchise as a whole, the more your eyes will twitch. The only two things you can take away from this are that somebody will finally demystify the game of baccarat for you (it’s essentially blackjack with a goal of 9 instead of 21, and face cards are worthless), and the original score was composed by not-yet-Hollywood-legend Jerry Goldsmith.
This version of “Casino Royale” was an hour long television episode for the anthology television series Climax!, recorded live on set. Producer and director Gregory Ratoff bought the rights to the novel from Ian Fleming in May of 1954 with a six-month option, and Ratoff took it to CBS. Before this sale of the rights, the novel wasn’t very successful, and it had been retitled for its American audiences in the paperback issue. Fleming also needed the money. A year after that, Ratoff bought the rights to the novel in perpetuity for an additional $6000.
Three years after the TV episode aired, CBS offered Fleming a Bond television series. Details are a bit sketchy. It is reported to have either been thirteen or thirty-two episodes, which would have run over two years. Fleming had written some outlines for the project before CBS axed it. Several of those stories ended up as the four short stories in the 1960 book For Your Eyes Only. Bond would not return to the screen for another eight years following this TV appearance, with the film Dr. No.
Fleming regretted both decisions, the initial sale and the bigger one for the TV series of his own. EON Productions (the official film series custodians), would not have the rights to Casino Royale for years to come. This is why Fleming’s original novel would not be realized on the big screen until Daniel Craig stepped into the role in 2006. It took that long for the legal entanglements to unravel.
There was an official home video release of this little curiosity / abomination years ago. Good luck finding it, but it can be done. Every now and again, you can find it as a bonus feature on the release of the 1967 spoof version of Casino Royale, which was made because Ratoff’s widow sold the rights in 1961 to the film’s producer, Charles K. Feldman.
EDIT: Did I say good luck finding it? It’s on YouTube now. Of course it is.
Barry Nelson as Jimmy Bond
Linda Christian as Valerie Mathis, the first on-screen Bond girl
Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre, the first on-screen Bond villain