Here’s a quick question, who was the first James Bond? If you said Sean Connery, you’d be wrong. While he was the first actor to play Bond in a film in 1962’s Dr No, that wasn’t the first time an actor played him onscreen.
In 1953 Ian Fleming wrote a spy thriller called Casino Royale, which introduced the world. The following year US broadcaster CBS bought the rights to the book and adapted it as a one hour episode of its popular anthology series Climax! Cast in the main role as US secret agent “card sense” Jimmy Bond was Barry Nelson (who you may remember as the hotel manager in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining).
Yes, Bond is American in this. Now this may seem like a bizarre and baffling creative choice in hindsight, but remember that there had only been one James Bond book at this point so was not the icon of British culture, and it hadn’t sold that well in the US where it was given released under the title You Asked For It (thankfully CBS used the original UK title for the TV version) so it made sense to change the story to appeal more to American audiences. As a result, Bond’s friend from the CIA Felix Leiter has also been changed to a British agent called Clarence Leiter played by Australian Michael Pate.
A review of the episode
So how is how is the episode itself? First let’s talk about the positives. The script sticks close to the plot of the novel it’s adapting (albeit streamlined to fit an hour-long running time). Pate makes for a likeable Leiter and Peter Lorre as the big bad Le Chiffre is excellent, bringing a creepy menace that makes you wish he’d had the chance to play the villain in one of the Bond films. The infamous scene in which Bond is tortured for information, while obviously far less graphic and brutal than it is in the book and later Daniel Craig version due to the broadcast standards of the time, is well staged and still works effectively even today.
Despite these highlights, the episode overall just comes across as a bit slap dash because of it being a live broadcast. Many TV dramas were shot live in the 50s, and while they could be done well (see the excellent original BBC version of Quatermass and the Pit for an example) it meant that it was a lot easier for things to go wrong such as technical goofs and actors messing up their lines, which is unfortunately the case here. It doesn’t help that Nelson is woefully miscast as Bond. He’s clearly trying his best, but he’s just not believable as a gentleman spy. The actor himself was unhappy with his performance in later interviews and felt that his version of the character was nothing more than a curio.
And that’s ultimately what this production is: a curio that will mostly appeal to hardcore Bond fans, and would probably have been completely forgotten had it not happened to feature who would become one of the most famous in cinema history. It is a lot more watchable than Die Another Day and about half the Roger Moore Bond films, so it at least has that going for it.