Date of Birth: 13 September 1939, Detroit, Michigan, US
Birth Name: Richard Dawson Kiel
Nicknames: Richard Kiel
Richard Kiel, the actor, who was the orthodontically-challenged Jaws, the indestructible Bond villain who terrorised audiences in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979).
Standing at a shade under 7ft 2in, Kiel’s natural presence was further enhanced by the set of stainless steel teeth which gave the character his nickname. “The character we have in mind is going to have teeth like tools, maybe like a shark. They’ll be made out of steel and he’ll kill people with them,” the Bond producer Cubby Broccoli told him. Several enemies and, in the final scene of The Spy Who Loved Me, a shark, met their ends at the hands of Jaws, who usually managed a sinister smile before biting his victims to death.
Originally Broccoli contemplated having Jaws bumped off by the shark; and until the film was test-screened, even Kiel did not know whether his character had survived. “They had shot the ending both ways and I didn’t know what version they were going to use,” he recalled.
When the film was finished, the two versions were tested on people who worked in the studio, and there was little doubt which ending they preferred: “At the end there was such a long time after I went into the shark-tank that I thought, 'I guess that’s the end of me’,” Kiel said. “Then, all of a sudden they cut to the surface of the ocean and Jaws popped up the audience just screamed and hollered and laughed and applauded. That was the defining moment, the moment that I finally made it big in the movies.”
The character proved such a hit that Broccoli gave him a reprieve and, unusually for a Bond baddie, Jaws was brought back for a second outing.
In the follow-up picture, Moonraker, however, Jaws became something approaching a comedy figure, and developed an implausible ability to survive any event unscathed. Audiences saw him fall several thousand feet from an aeroplane without a parachute, only to land safely on a trapeze net in a circus tent. Another time he crashed through a building on top of a runaway cable car but survived without a scratch. He also gained a girlfriend roughly half his size and eventually abandoned the villain, Sir Hugo Drax, to become Bond’s ally.
The metal-mouthed monster was last seen waving weedily at Bond from the bridge of a doomed space station as he and his tiny, bespectacled girlfriend set off on a happy, but presumably short, future together. The scene furnished Kiel with the only words he uttered in either movie: “Well, here’s to us.”
Richard Dawson Kiel was born in Detroit, Michigan, on September 13 1939. He took a variety of jobs in his youth, working as a cemetery plot salesman and nightclub bouncer, before being offered minor parts on American television in the late 1950s. His towering height and distinctive features were the result of the condition acromegaly, when the pituitary gland produces excess growth hormone, and ensured that he was rarely out of work playing a variety of freaks and aliens in programmes including The Twilight Zone and The Monkees. He also featured in the prehistoric B-Movie Eegah (1962) and showed some depth with a sensitive turn in The Human Duplicators (1964). Other credits included bit parts in the Jerry Lewis comedy The Nutty Professor and alongside Elvis Presley in Roustabout.
When he was first approached by Cubby Broccoli for the part of Jaws, he was initially hesitant about toothing up. He wanted to break away from rent-a-monster parts and play as he put it “regular henchman or villain roles”. It was Kiel who seems to have persuaded Broccoli to make Jaws a more sympathetic character in Moonraker: “If I was to play this role, I told him I’d want to give this character who kills people with his teeth a human side to make him more interesting, maybe have him be persevering and frustrated, so he wouldn’t become boring. A guy killing people with his teeth could easily become over the top.” But it was, of course, his over-the-top quality that made Jaws such a hit.
Kiel complained that the teeth he had to wear for the part were so uncomfortable they made him feel sick, and he could tolerate them only for short periods of time. “They were made out of chromium steel and they went up in the roof of my mouth and caused a little bit of gagging, so it was kind of difficult,” he admitted. “But it gave me a stoic expression, trying to keep from throwing up.”
After Moonraker Kiel’s career nosedived to the extent that on one occasion friends took out a full-page advertisement in Variety magazine, to let the film world know he was still alive.
But he went on to appear in a number of other films, among them Pale Rider (1985), Happy Gilmore (1996) and Inspector Gadget (1999), and appeared regularly on television. In between the Bond films, in 1978, he had been offered the role of the Incredible Hulk on television, but was dropped after two days in the studio for not being bulky enough in favour of the body builder Lou Ferrigno.
For some time Kiel struggled with alcoholism and, following a serious car accident in 1992, was forced to use a buggy or walking sticks to manoeuvre himself. In later years he set up a production company, became a born-again Christian, and wrote books, including an autobiography, Making It Big In The Movies (2002).
But he remained most popular for playing Jaws, and as acting work dried up he supplemented his income with appearances at comic book and film conventions, signing autographs for Bond fans.