Richard Kiel: Actor whose on-screen chemistry with Roger Moore made Jaws one of the most memorable villains in cinema history

 

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The Independent Online

As the steel-toothed, verbally-challenged assassin Jaws, the comically nightmarish nemesis of James Bond in the late 1970s, lumbering colossus Richard Kiel made his mark on film history with one of the most popular monsters of the era.

Standing at 7ft 2in, his gigantism and protruding features were caused by acromegaly, a condition in which the pituitary gland produces excess grown hormone. He was also blind in one eye.

Inevitably this meant that his roles were rarely "bloke-next-door" types; his filmography reads more like the roll call in a chamber of horrors, but his appearance did allow him to become a regular, and conspicuous face on screen, and as recently as 2009 he topped a poll as the greatest ever James Bond character. Jaws was the embodiment of the style of the Bond franchise 15 years on from Dr No (1962): massive, unlikely, and both goofy and joltingly violent.

The aquatic adventure The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) owed something to the success of Jaws (1975), with Kiel's seemingly-indestructible man of steel (teeth) not only named after that film, but at the climax battling (and defeating) a man-eating shark. Moonraker (1979) was even more opportunistic, pouncing on the sudden thirst for sci-fi after the success of Star Wars (1977), for which Kiel had turned down the role of Chewbacca, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), the Bond film even referencing its famous musical motif.

Kiel's return for Moonraker was no small factor in making it the highest-grossing Bond film until 1995, reaping over $200 million worldwide. Graceful space sequences and a supernal score by John Barry sat uneasily beside scenes of women being savaged by dogs, but at its best Moonraker was loveable, expertly-assembled hokum, and delighted Kiel's millions of junior fans.

Before becoming an actor Kiel worked as a cemetery plot salesman. It was good practice: he learnt a script off by heart and would always deliver it while patting the customer reassuringly (or so he intended) on the shoulder. Few said no to him, but itching to break into movies, he moved closer to Hollywood. Unfortunately a writer's strike had ground the industry to a halt, so he found work as a nightclub doorman. His predecessor had proved too free with his fists, and so Kiel was hired simply to "scare them into sobering up".

A drunk who worked for NBC gave him his business card one evening, suggesting he read for a part in the Western series Klondike (1960). More little parts soon came his way, via Thriller (1961) and Laramie (1961), and after a spell playing the Jolly Green Giant in local supermarkets and working evenings as a mathematics teacher at Ogden's Engineering School in Burbank, he got an agent, and then worked constantly in series television and B-movies, notably as a love-struck extra-terrestrial in The Human Duplicators (1965), as Moose Moran in the William Shatner-led thriller series Barbary Coast (1975) and as an invader in the fiendish Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man", which, with its story of seemingly benevolent aliens and the titular manual they live by, gave birth to a catchphrase across America when the twist-in-the-tail was revealed: "it's a cookbook!"

He was initially reluctant to play Jaws, fearing that, like Chewbacca, it was merely a monster-role. But after hearing that Dave Prowse had already been seen, he suggested to producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli that the role required an actor, to allow some characterisation to break through despite the lack of dialogue. Kiel certainly made something of Jaws: his taxed expression, he claimed, was the result of the teeth making him gag, while his huge beams when confronting Bond and his childlike frowns when outwitted by him showed off a fabulous chemistry with Roger Moore, who was more than happy to have him steal the scenes.

The role made Kiel a global sensation, but the hospitality that came with movie fame seduced him into alcoholism. He struck up a friendship with fellow-drinker Robert Shaw during the making of Force Ten from Navarone (1978), but Shaw's drink-related death soon after was the wake-up call Kiel needed. Deeply religious from childhood, he used his Christianity to overcome his addiction and remained steadfast for the rest of his life, even at one point turning down $50,000 for one day's work fronting a beer commercial.

He was cast as the Incredible Hulk between the two Bond films, but was paid off and the part recast after Marvel Comics insisted the role go to a more muscular actor. His film career yielded no more major surprises now that he was typecast not only in monstrous roles but in one particular monster role, although he was good fun as a loan-shark in So Fine (1981) and returned to Westerns with Pale Rider (1985). A serious car accident in 1992 left him unable to walk without the aid of a stick, but he still managed to soldier on as the bad-guy-turned-good in Happy Gilmore (1996).

As well as voice-over work, especially on Bond-related computer games, and appearing on the lucrative autographing circuit, Kiel also co-wrote and produced the family film The Giant of Thunder Mountain (1991), and co-wrote a well-received novel, Kentucky Lion: The True Story of Cassius Clay, about the politician and anti-slavery campaigner.

Both projects were testimony to what a very gentle giant he really was.

SIMON FARQUHAR

Richard Dawson Kiel, actor, writer and producer: born Detroit, Michigan 13 September 1939; married 1960 Faye Daniels (marriage dissolved), 1974 Diane Rogers (four children); died Fresno, California 10 September 2014.

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