First Screen James Bond Dies

Barry Nelson as secret Agent James Bond in Casino Royale episode of Climax Mystery Theater (1954)
The first actor to play James Bond onscreen has died.

Barry Nelson, an MGM contract player during the 1940s who later had a prolific television and theater career, died on April 7 while traveling in Pennsylvania, his wife, Nansi Nelson, said. He was 89.

The cause of death was not immediately known.

Nelson first played 007 in a one-hour TV adaptation of "Casino Royale" in 1954, eight years before Sean Connery played the British agent in the big screen adaptation of "Dr. No."

The occasion was the CBS series "Climax!" which had purchased the rights to the first James Bond novel from author Ian Fleming, reportedly for $1,000. The live broadcast on October 21, 1954 featured Peter Lorre as the card player Le Chiffre.

"I was doing a series for CBS called 'My Favorite Husband,'" Nelson told "Entertainment Tonight" in 1987. "And they seemed to get in a jam on casting. I was down in Jamaica at the time, and they gave me a hurried call, and I came up."

Fans of the Bond films might question the purity of the hour-long adaptation, in which Bond — sometimes referred to as "Jimmy Bond" — is an American secret agent, while his CIA counterpart Leiter is a member of the British secret service.

"I had not read the book, and the Bond thing wasn't all that well known, and I did the best I could. Very modestly, I just call myself '001 1/2.'"

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1941, Nelson was signed to MGM after being spotted by a talent scout. He appeared in a number of films for the studio, including "Shadow of the Thin Man," "Johnny Eager," "Dr. Kildare's Victory," and "A Yank on the Burma Road," before entering the Army.

After the war, Nelson starred in a string of movies, including "Undercover Maisie," "Time to Kill" and "Tenth Avenue Angel."

Nelson switched to the stage during the 1960s and 1970s, appearing on Broadway in "Seascape," "Mary, Mary" and "Cactus Flower." He earned a Tony nomination in 1978 for his role in "The Act," which also starred Liza Minnelli.

Among his other film credits were "Airport" and "The Shining" (playing the manager of the haunted Overlook Hotel). He also appeared on such TV shows as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "The Twilight Zone," "Murder, She Wrote," "Dallas," "Magnum P.I." and the original "Battlestar Galactica."

"He was a very naturalistic, believable actor," said his agent, Francis Delduca. "He was good at both comedy and the serious stuff."

More recently, Nelson and his second wife (who were married in 1992) spent time traveling. He planned to write a couple of books about his time on stage and in Hollywood.

Nelson is survived by his wife. He did not have any children from either marriage.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and