007 MAGAZINE - The World's Foremost James Bond Resource!

From The Archive
Issue #18 (Autumn 1988)


CASINO ROYALE the TV Bond found!

Casino Royale intro

This article originally appeared in 007 MAGAZINE Issue #18 and is revised and expanded here with many additional images.

GRAHAM RYE takes a look at the very first screen version of James Bond,  Secret Agent 007.

If you were to ask the average person, or perhaps even the average Bond fan, ‘Who was the first actor to play James Bond?’ it's almost a certainty that both people would give you the same answer — Sean Connery! Well if they did they'd be wrong, but this would be an excusable error as until recently the first obscure incarnation of lan Fleming's seemingly eternal secret agent was thought to be lost to posterity forever.

The American TV production of Casino Royale surfaced from obscurity when film and TV historian Jim Schoenberger discovered an old kinescope of the production in Chicago. It was originally broadcast live on Thursday, October 21st 1954 as the third show in the season of the drama series CLIMAX!, sponsored by the Chrysler Automobile Corporation. In the early fifties video recording was yet to be developed, and the only way a programme could be visually recorded was to set up a movie camera in front of a TV monitor. The action was then filmed as it happened and this was called a kinescope.

When James Bond, in the guise of actor Barry Nelson walked across the TV screens of America that autumn evening, he wrote himself a page in the history books, but the public response to the programme was unimpressive and ideas for future adaptations of Bond stories for TV were shelved. Ian Fleming made little money from the TV production and was disappointed by the whole affair.

Barry Nelson as James Bond

James ‘Jimmy’ Bond (Barry Nelson). Nelson portrayed Fleming's character as an expert card-playing American CIA agent.

Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre

Herr Ziffer - Le Chiffre (Peter Lorre). Whilst Lorre did not fit Ian Fleming's description of the character, he more than compensated for this by his sinisterly entertaining performance.

TV Guide cover

Barry Nelson appeared on the cover of TV Guide for the week of October 30, 1954 (nine days after the live broadcast of Casino Royale), when he starred in My Favorite Husband opposite Joan Caulfield.

Barry Nelson/Michael Pate & Linda Christian
 ABOVE: (left) Barry Nelson and Michael Pate (right) Linda Christian.

After the unsuccessful showing of Casino Royale Fleming sold the rights to Gregory Ratoff for only $6,000. The unused storylines that Fleming had written for the projected series of Bond TV adventures were later to appear in his collection of short stories FOR YOUR EYES ONLY, published in 1960.

In retrospect the TV production of Casino Royale is still worth viewing, and remains entertaining even after 34 years gathering dust. The story had to be changed for TV and some characters were dispensed with, others were amalgamated to suit the screenwriter's plot. The most alarming, but quite understandable alteration was that Fleming's character became ‘Card sense Jimmy Bond’, an American CIA agent. Felix Leiter was changed accordingly to Clarence Leiter (Michael Pate) of the British Secret Service, and was portrayed as a typical ‘plummy’ upper class Englishman, but with a hard edge. It is interesting to note how one could transpose Nelson and Pate in their roles to match our contemporary impressions of Bond and Leiter. Ironically, Pate cornered the market in Hollywood playing Red Indians (most notably as the bloodthirsty Apache renegade Sierra Charriba in Major Dundee [1965]) in a remarkable career that has spanned over half a century.

The heroine of the novel, Vesper Lynd — was in fact working for the villains SMERSH — in the TV version is combined with Rene Mathis, Bond's friend from the Deuxieme Bureau to become Valerie Mathis, secret agent for the Bureau. Linda Christian's attractive blonde hardly conjures up Fleming's femme fatale with “very black” hair, but after the other liberties taken with the story this hardly matters. Scriptwriters Antony Ellis and Charles Bennett dispensed with various secondary characters from the novel: Mr. & Mrs. Muntze — the German couple working for Le Chiffre — who eavesdrop on Bond's movements in his hotel room; and the ‘Two Men in Straw Hats’ — the bomb-carrying Bulgarian SMERSH agents.

Peter Lorre may not have fitted Fleming's description of Le Chiffre exactly, but what he lacks in physical similarity is amply compensated for by his enormously entertaining and subtle performance. The scenes where Le Chiffre questions Bond about where he has hidden his winnings show how Lorre beautifully underplays the violent streak which runs through the character, making him even more menacing.

Barry Nelson portrays Bond as a likeable ‘laid back kinda guy’ with the ability to turn nasty when the going gets rough, which it certainly does when Le Chiffre and his henchman use Bond's toes to test the strength of a pair of pliers. Although the TV adaptation only retains certain elements of the novel it does succeed in capturing the feel of Fleming's book, and the excitement and suspense of the ‘card duel’ — between James Bond and Le Chiffre. It is unfortunate that the TV version of Casino Royale has mostly been forgotten because not only does it deserve a place in the history of James Bond but it also deserves a wider retrospective showing, which hopefully may happen in the future.

Casino Royale storypics

Casino Royale Blu-ray FINAL CUT

Since this article was first published in 1988, the original 1954 TV version of Casino Royale has been commercially released as an extra on several DVD editions of the 1967 spoof film, and even as a standalone blu-ray (although still of poor quality). All releases (with the exception of a 1997 VHS edition from the US collectables company Spyguise) are the truncated version discovered in 1981, which is missing the last 2½ minutes and original end credits. In 2021 a new Region Free Blu-ray (although it states Region B on the packaging) of Casino Royale (1967) was released by Final Cut in the UK. The latest blu-ray carries over the special features from the 2008 DVD edition and adds an interview with director Val Guest, and the 1954 CBS-TV version of Casino Royale starring Barry Nelson (these were originally extras on the 2002 DVD release). The Final Cut blu-ray is therefore the most comprehensive yet in terms of extras.



Casino Royale (1954) FACT FILE