The film is 1962’s Dr. No and James Bond is in a corner. He’s gotten the better of a knife-wielding Jamaican fisherman-turned-spy named Quarrel with the help of his Walther PPK and is demanding answers from Quarrel when another voice comes from behind. “Hold it,” says a man emerging from the shadows wearing sunglasses. “Gently, gently. Let’s not get excited.”
The man takes Bond’s gun, orders Quarrel to frisk him, and only then introduces himself: “Felix Leiter. Central Intelligence Agency. You must be James Bond.”
A relieved Bond says, “You mean we’re fighting the same war?”
And so James Bond, played by 32-year-old Sean Connery, meets his American counterpart Felix Leiter, played by 41-year-old Jack Lord. The smooth CIA agent who when necessary coordinates with Bond on his missions was created by Ian Fleming in Casino Royale. In fact, he salvages Bond’s mission in the first novel of the series, supplying him with 32 million francs after Bond has lost to Le Chiffre at the gambling table.
Fleming, with his usual flare for character portrayal, describes Leiter like this in Casino Royale:
“Felix Leiter was about thirty-five. He was tall with a thin, bony frame, and his lightweight, tan-colored suit hung loosely from his shoulders like the clothes of Frank Sinatra. His movements and speech were slow, but one had the feeling that there was plenty of speed and strength in him and he would be a tough and cruel fighter. As he sat hunched over the table, he seemed to have some of the jack-knife quality of a falcon.”
When Saltzman and Broccoli were developing the James Bond series, they selected the Dr. No novel to be the first adaptation instead of Casino Royale. In that book, Felix Leiter does not appear, so the screenwriter inserted him into the plot. He is the one who briefs Bond on the situation with a “Chinese cat” on the mysterious island of Crab Key named “Dr. No.”
Jack Lord, who was billed fourth in Dr. No, plays Leiter very closely to how the character was conceptualized by Fleming, and he was rewarded with positive reviews. Many responded to his cool, slithering moves and his suave suits and dark glasses. According to the Bond wikia, Lord played Leiter in a “swaggering” fashion and was an “effective American version of James Bond.”
In a movie known for its visuals, and the genius of designer Ken Adam, Jack Lord’s look won special notice.
“His most well-known accessory is his pair of cat-eye sunglasses, which have since become primarily worn by women,” purrs a James Bond fashion site. “Nevertheless, Felix Leiter looks hipper than Bond with his sunglasses, which he places in his outer breast pocket when he removes them. No Felix Leiter other than Jack Lord, except perhaps Jeffrey Wright, comes close to having a competing screen presence with Bond, and his cool look has a large part to do with it.”
Yes, some devoted Bond watchers consider Jack Lord to be an excellent Felix Leiter. Yet Lord only played him once.
Born with the name John Joseph Patrick Ryan on January 2, 1920, in Brooklyn, New York, the man who took the stage name Jack Lord just might have selected the name because he had a lordly sense of his own importance. And it worked for him. It was that tough, dominating, cool, by-the-book persona that made his Steve McGarrett, the head of the state police in Hawaii, such a fantastic character in Hawaii Five-0, which premiered in 1968 and ran for 12 seasons. The persona of McGarrett still vibrates, and not just in continual reruns on cable TV. Whether it’s the catchphrase “Book em, Danno. Murder One” or the huge wave cascading in the show credits, the series is a core part of popular culture, not as huge as the Bond films but important nonetheless. As seen in the HBO series The Wire, when criminals want to warn one another that police are visible, they yell “5-0!”
Jack Lord was not a well known actor before Dr. No. A merchant marine veteran, he was regarded as a solid actor with TV, film and stage credits. The success of Dr. No vaulted him forward. But when the Bond producers approached Lord to play Leiter in Goldfinger and sign a long-term contract like the actors playing M and Moneypenny, Jack Lord pushed back. He asked for much more money–and for Leiter to be a more significant character, functioning as a partner for Bond, not a sidekick.
The answer to that was a firm no.
Before Dr. No was released, there was some doubt over whether Sean Connery was right for the part. The press pored over his background, which included shoveling coal, laying bricks, polishing coffins, and posing as a male model. Even the studio was unenthusiastic at first, and said to the director, “See if you can do better.” Connery himself said, “The press had a bit of fun with the notion of an ex-coffin polisher playing this silky Ian Fleming character.”
But after the film came out, and Connery’s Bond was a smash hit, all doubts vanished and there was no question of his needing a partner. Perhaps to make the point crystal clear, in Goldfinger, the actor who plays Leiter is gray-haired, paunchy, and inferior to Bond in spying skills. A conga line of actors have rotated in and out of the Bond series to play Leiter and they’re never memorable. Some have speculated that the Bond producers have an ambivalent feeling toward the CIA’s part in Bond’s missions. Even though in reality the Cambridge Five had made a shambles of British intelligence by giving secrets to the Soviets, in the Bond series MI-6 is the leading spy agency in the Western world. When Blofeld submits a demand for money or else he’ll blow up the planet, he delivers it to London, not Washington. D.C.
Before signing on to Steve McGarrett, Jack Lord came close to starring in two other important TV series stars. He was considered for Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and was actually offered the part of James T. Kirk in Star Trek. Reportedly, he asked for too much money, once again. Kirk went to William Shatner.
In Hawaii Five-0, Lord found his calling. Although his perfectionism could be hard on costars and producers, he fought for a quality show and delivered it. A lover of poetry and an accomplished painter, he was devoted to Hawaii. When he died, a significant portion of his money went to charities and causes in Hawaii.