The Den of Geek interview: Richard Kiel

Richard Kiel is synonymous with playing steel-toothed Bond villain Jaws. But he's much, much more than an aluminium overbite

DoG meets Richard at the Dorchester Hotel in London. Once inside, we’re greeted both by the man himself and a seemingly endless array of watches. But, fear not, he hasn’t fallen on hard times and resorted to flogging time pieces, he was just in town to promote Swatch’s new line of Bond Villain watches.

Jaws’ teeth have become famous worldwide but we’ve gotta ask: are you the kind of man that goes for regular check-ups or do you hate the dentist?

I grew up with dentists that weren’t too nice. I discovered as I got bigger that I required more novocaine than the average person, but mostly that it needed some time to 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!

So I discovered that I didn’t really need more novocaine, I just needed more time because my jaw was so big. So I said to the dentist let me come in a half hour early, you give me the novocaine and then I’ll go sit in the waiting room until it numbs up and then come back.

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Now I’ve found a really good dentist who can tell if it’s hurting and he’ll stop. He’ll give me some more novocaine or wait. So I go at least twice a year. I find it’s better to have the care and the cleaning than to go in and have the drilling.

We’ve heard tell that you worked as a nightclub bouncer and a cemetery plot salesman before you made it as an actor. Truth or just urban myth?

The cemetery plot salesman was before I tried to become an actor. But it was very good practice! I would put my hand on his shoulder at home with his wife and say, “Mr Brown you took on this responsibility when you married the little lady here.. We all don’t like to think about dying but life is near or far away, the tick of a clock or your next breath and when they pull the sheet over the body it’s really too late to ask all these questions so now’s a good time tonight to take care of this.”

[While recounting his salesman’s patter, Richard puts his hand on my shoulder and pats me reassuringly – I’m terrified at this point!]

I’d buy anything from you!

There was like a regular script that they had. I followed it right to the letter and was a fantastic salesman!

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Then I moved out to the Hollywood area – San Fernando Valley – and was trying to break into the movies. It was the same time as a writer’s strike so it was actually the worse time so I ended up getting a job as a nightclub ID checker/bouncer. Although I never really had to bounce anybody as instead of trying to be mean and tough, I’d be jovial and crazy and I would go [cue crazy, loud, slightly unnerving laugh whilst speaking], “Now you don’t want any trouble do you?” And they sobered up real quick. I actually got hired to replace someone who was a martial arts guy they had to let go of because he hurt somebody. They didn’t really want me hurting people so it was more acting and I scared them into sobering up.

A role came about through a bartender introducing me to a guy at NBC studios who was a head censor. When I met him he’d had too much to drink and was quite drunk and I didn’t think he’d even remember me but he gave me his card and told me to come and see me. He called the producer of this show as he’d read this role of a guy named Duff Brannigan who was a bare knuckle fighter in Klondike.

I had a list of agents from the Screen Actors Guild from A-Z – about 50 of them. I’d been to all of them and nobody wanted to be my agent. I got two lead heavy roles on my own and the agent who was at the end of this list – Herman Zimmerman – wasn’t really optimistic but did say if I still wanted to be an actor in six months to come back. It was his way of weeding out the people who weren’t serious. So I got a Screen Actors Guild card and said, “Mr Zimmerman I’ve got two lead heavy roles on my own without an agent and I’ve got a Screen Actors Guild card. Do you want to be my agent now or not?” He said yes. And he was my agent through both Bond films.

You were originally in The Spy Who Loved Me and viewers liked your character so much you came back in Moonraker. Surely that’s gonna make a guy feel good?

Absolutely. I had convinced the producer that Jaws should have some characteristics that were human to counteract the steel teeth. I guess I overdid it – I became too likeable to kill off! So they brought me back and Moonraker was the most successful box office success for the Bond series for a long, long time.

So what appealed to you about playing Jaws?

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When Mr Broccoli was describing the character – and he sounded like Marlon Brando in The Godfather – 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.” For me it was a put off – it was a monster role. I’d done The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds and I was working on Silver Streak with Gene Wilder, killing people with a gun and talking so my career was going on quite well. So my first reaction was that I didn’t really want to do it as it was a monster part.

Then he said that they’d already interviewed David Prowse who was in the suit for Darth Vader and that made me feel it wasn’t an acting role. A little voice inside of me said, “Richard, how much do you love the Bond series? Make it work.” So I took a chance and said to Mr Broccoli, “Whomever you cast, whether it’s me or somebody else, I think it needs to be an actor because a character who kills people with his teeth could become over the top quite easily. If I were to play the role I’d give him some human characteristics, perseverance, frustration, those kind of things.”

He liked that because he took making the Bond films very seriously. And I think he felt that I was taking it very seriously and that I would add something to the character. He said, “I like that. What are you doing for dinner tonight?” And he invited me to meet his family and the writer who was staying in his pool house. And that’s how it came about.

I loved the Bond films and was real excited about being in one. Of course, I had no idea this character would become the pivotal character in my career.

Jaws is an iconic Bond villain, but yourself excluded, do you have a favourite villain?

I liked Gert Fröbe in Goldfinger. I thought he was humorous. And Odd Job. And Red Grant in From Russia With Love.

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What do you make of the current Bond villains? More importantly, could Jaws have them in a fight?

Yeah, I probably could have them in a fight. I thought the one with the bleeding eye, Le Chiffre, was quite good. I met Mads Mikkelsen in Austria for the Swatch watch event and he’s quite nice – very much like myself. I’m a pussy cat who’s got a wife who’s 5’1”. He’s a super nice guy and much better looking than he was with that funny eye. It’s interesting how somebody who’s a good actor like him – and hopefully myself – can play a character that you’re not and pull it off.

Does it surprise people that you’re actually very nice when they meet you?

Yeah, I think so. It’s like little children. They’re attracted to me because their dad’s a big guy and everyone’s bigger. So they’re quite fascinated by me and it’s quite fun for the parents to find out that I’m not really an ogre who’s gonna kill them with my teeth.

Are you still in touch with Roger Moore?

He got his star on Hollywood Boulevard – which I thought was about time – and I wanted to be down there for that event. We had lunch together at the Magic Castle. There’s a group called the Thalians who raise money for hospitals and they honoured him with a Mr Wonderful award so I saw him again then. Roger’s a great guy with a big heart. He does a lot of work for UNICEF and raises a lot of money for them.

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Is he your favourite Bond?

Well, he’s one of my favourite people. In real life, he’s a good friend. And he allowed my character to steal scenes and become fun and he helped it along the way by playing along with it and making it better.

I feel he has a bigger heart than he does an ego. He doesn’t take life quite as seriously as some people might… But underneath the very sophisticated veneer is a very down to earth human being that is a terrific guy.

You also work well onscreen with Blanche Ravalec (Dolly) in Moonraker and I love that love story.

That’s an interesting story. Remember the scene where she comes in and helps get the cable car debris off me, she smiles and I smile and my teeth glint in the sunlight, and they played the Romeo and Juliet music? That almost didn’t happen. Mr Broccoli had found a 7’7″ woman who he wanted to play Dolly. It would have been a funny thing but it would have been a quick laugh and that would have been it.

It was having the small woman that was much more charming. I had to talk him into not doing that and going with the tiny woman. They were kind of reluctant and said will the audience believe it? I said, “My wife is 5’1″ and I have two children and one on the way, so obviously it works. Opposites attract.”

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Do you have a favourite Bond theme tune?

One would be Goldfinger, Nobody Does it Better was great not just for the lyrics but the orchestral [composition]. It was a big pop hit. And the one the Beatles did [Live and Let Die]. I became aware of the fact that everybody and their brother auditioned to do the Bond theme songs. When I was on either Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker, Frank Sinatra did a demo which they didn’t go for!

Those songs can be such a big part of making the movie a success.

Aside from the two Bond films, you’ve done a lot more than people realise…

I’ve had a blessed career and have got to go all over the world.

You’ve been in a couple of B-movies too…

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Oh yeah. And some C ones as well. And D movies and maybe an F movie here and there. I was in a movie called Eegah and it was written up at one time as one of the 50 worst movies of all time. But it was quite successful at the box office and it was great practice.

I’m not ashamed of those movies. I did another one called The Human Duplicators. I played Dr Kolos. The way the director wanted me to act – kind of robotic – didn’t come off as well as I would have liked. But over those years I had a lot of chances to do television, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Wild, Wild West, and I learned a great deal about acting from doing it.

For example, it would be very typical for a director to tell you when you’re picking something up that’s supposed to be very, very heavy- like the block in The Spy Who Loved Me – just pick it up like it’s nothing. I did that back in the early days of my career. I did what they said and I picked it up like it was nothing and then it looked like it was nothing – like it was made out of paper mache or foam. So I learned that the directors weren’t always right and that you had to do what worked. So when I picked up that block in The Spy Who Loved Me, I acted like it was 2,000 pounds – that it was very difficult to pick up even for Jaws. Then, when I dropped it on my foot inadvertently and looked down at the pain of my foot, it was kind of believable.

Back to the watches if we may for a moment. Have you got one and what do you think about them? Honestly?

I have one right here (shows wrist). Doesn’t that look like just a normal watch to you? Let me take it off so you can see for yourself that it’s quite large. It has steel teeth built into the wrist strap. Look at how big the face is… (He then puts it on my pathetically tiny wrist at this point). It’s not exactly a unisex watch! It’s a pretty heavy watch but I like that feel to it. And the big face on me just looks kind of normal. I actually had a Swatch watch before The Spy Who Loved Me watch which was also a diving watch.

So aside from the watches, what else are you working on at the moment?

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I do have a new role, which is a very challenging role that was written with the fact that I’m handicapped in mind. I have scenes with Robert Picardo. I don’t want to give away the story but I’m a challenge to him intellectually as well as physically. They developed some kind of machine that moved me around.

Currently it’s called The Awakened (aka Confined according to IMDB). It’s a science fiction film.

Talking of science fiction, you were in Twilight Zone ‘To Serve Man’ weren’t you?

That was one of the classic episodes. The punch line at the end caught everyone by surprise. The woman yells out to her boss who’s getting on this spaceship thinking that he’s going away to this very benevolent society and she’s discovered that it’s a cookbook!

The costumes were pretty cool as well. On the theme of getting made up for a role, weren’t you the original Incredible Hulk?

They hired me to do two movies of the week to serve as a pilot. I can only see out of one eye since birth and the contact lenses were full contacts that went around your whole eyeball and my good eye didn’t like anything like that being stuck in it. So they had a terrible time getting my eye to accept these lenses and used a fluid to float them in. At the end of the day, as I was driving home – we shot through the night – I was seeing multiple halos of rainbow around every light, headlight, stoplight and streetlight. It was really messing up my vision. Not to mention the green makeup getting all over the white interior of my car and the bathtub and the sheets on the bed!

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I said to my wife that everyone was hoping this was going to be a TV series and I didn’t know whether I could do this continuously. So I asked them if they could have somebody drive me home because it wasn’t really safe and also to scrub me down with a brush or something to get this makeup off. I didn’t work for a couple of days and then the producer called me and said, “Richard, I hired you because you were a good actor but the Marvel Comics people really wanted to have a body builder muscle man. How would you feel if we paid you for the two movies of the week and substituted somebody else?” Of course, I was delighted!

So they paid me off for the two movies and then Lou Ferrigno did a terrific job.

Brave guy. I wouldn’t have wanted to be the one breaking the bad news that you’re not doing something to you!

I’d worked with the producer before and he liked me because he felt I was a good actor. It didn’t upset me at all because I was concerned, not so much for myself, but all the people that were working on the movies of the week, who wanted it to become a series so they could have a steady job for years and yet I was having this giant problem with my eyes. So it was a great solution for me. And something good for Lou Ferrigno as he had a speech impediment and I’ve been fortunate to go and do other things.

So it worked out well for both of you. You don’t ever look back and wonder what if?

Yes, it did. No, not at all. My life has been very good just the way it is. I’ve been able to do commercials for Pepsi Co, Mug Root Beer, Mountain Dew… If it hadn’t of been for Jaws and James Bond I wouldn’t have been doing all that stuff.

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What role are you most proud of?

A pivotal breakthrough movie for me was The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds. I think they called it The Mean Machine here. It was about football in prison with the guards playing the convicts. That was my first really big A movie where I had a chance to shine. That got me into a TV series in America called Barbary Coast.

My best part would probably be Captain Drazak in Force 10 from Navarone. A lot of people don’t even know it’s me because I had a big beard and a great costume. As Jaws, I start off as a bad guy and turn into a good guy whereas in this I appear to be a good guy and turn into a really nasty guy.

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6 January 2009