Barry Nelson

d. April 7, 2007

Barry Nelson, longtime journeyman actor and light leading man who gained belated fame as the first actor to portray James Bond, died April 7 while traveling in Bucks County, Pa. He was 89.

A talent scout spotted him in a college production of “Macbeth,” and after graduating in 1941 from the University of California, Berkeley, Nelson was signed to a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract. He was soon appearing in such films as “Shadow of the Thin Man,” “Rio Rita,” “The Human Comedy,” “A Guy Named Joe,” “Bataan” and “Dr. Kildare’s Victory,” and got the lead in the studio’s wartime adventure, “A Yank on the Burma Road.” He entered the Army and toured with other actor-servicemen in the inspirational musical play “Winged Victory,” also appearing in the 1944 film version with such future stars as Judy Holliday, Lee J. Cobb, George Reeves and Red Buttons.

After the war, Nelson returned to MGM for roles in the studio’s “Crime Does Not Pay” shorts, “Undercover Maisie” and “The Beginning or the End” (in the minor role of Col. Paul Tibbetts, pilot of the plane that bombed Hiroshima). Like many movie contract players, he was soon cut loose and found work in television’s new dramatic series. By 1952 he was starring in a weekly CBS spy adventure titled The Hunter, and from 1953 to 1955 he was the lead in the CBS sitcom My Favorite Husband.

In 1954, Nelson made his single and immediately forgotten appearance as James Bond. Ian Fleming sold the U.S. television rights to his first Bond novel Casino Royale to CBS, which aired a one-hour adaptation on Climax, a new anthology series broadcast live from Hollywood. Nelson ventured before the television cameras the evening of Oct. 21 in a script that took quite a few liberties with Fleming’s story, not least of which was making Bond an American agent known as “Card-Sense Jimmy Bond.” Peter Lorre at least was inspired casting as Fleming’s villain Le Chiffre, who faces off against Bond over the baccarat table.

With Fleming and Bond virtually unknown at the time, the broadcast was forgotten until the films starring Sean Connery made James Bond the world’s favorite adventure hero in the 1960s. The show was still thought to be a lost relic of the live television era until a kinescope was discovered in 1981.

“I don’t spend much time regretting,” Nelson told the New York Daily News in 1995. “I always thought Connery was the ideal Bond. What I did is just a curio.”

Nelson turned to the stage in the 1960s, appearing on Broadway in “Mary, Mary” (1961), “Nobody Loves an Albatross” (1963) and “Cactus Flower” (1965). He earned a Tony nomination for his performance in the 1977 Liza Minnelli vehicle, “The Act.”

His later film roles included “Airport,” “Pete ’n’ Tillie” and “The Shining,” and he had occasional TV guest shots in Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dr. Kildare, Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Name of the Game, The FBI, Magnum P.I., Murder She Wrote and others. He was in “The Borgia Stick,” one of NBC’s early made-for-TV movies, and the 1977 ABC mini-series “Washington: Behind Closed Doors.”