by Michael Brown, staff writer
Richard Kiel, the towering actor probably best known for his role as James Bond villain Jaws, passed away September 10, 2014. Born in 1939, Kiel worked as a nightclub bouncer and a cemetery plot salesman before his acting debut in an episode of the 1960 tv series Laramie. From there, Kiel was everywhere in Hollywood, appearing as one of the Kanamits in the classic 1962 Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man, an episode that TV Guide would name as #11 of their 100 best episodes of all time list. Kiel would find himself starring in a slew of B-movies, and landing the role of the villainous Dr. Loveless’ assistant Voltaire in the first season episodes of the 1880s-set tv adventure series The Wild, Wild West. While working on The Wild, Wild West, Kiel stepped out of his Voltaire role, instead playing the role of Dimas, the outcast son of a wealthy family who is banished because of birth defects that have driven him insane, in the episode Night of the Simian Terror. This episode would stand out for Kiel, in that this would be one of the early roles where he got to act, rather than just look menacing.
While he wasn’t acting, Kiel worked in Burbank, California before getting a role in the pilot of the 1965 series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., appearing as a guard in Vulcan’s plant, and playing Merry in the episode The Hong Kong Shilling Affair. And almost as a prelude to his career that would happen a mere year later, Kiel played the metal-mouthed hitman named Reece in the 1976 Richard Pryor/Gene Wilder comedy-suspense film Silver Streak. In 1977, both Kiel and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in the running to play the Hulk in the 1977 The Incredible Hulk series. They would both turn it down, however. Kiel passed because he reacted badly to the contact lenses he would have had to wear, being able to see out of only one eye, and the producers felt that Hulk should be more muscular than towering. In a Den of Geek interview, Kiel said that was one role he didn’t mind losing.
In 1977, Kiel was cast in the role that fans would fondly remember most, the villainous metal-toothed Jaws in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me. Kiel turned down the role of Darth Vader in Star Wars to play Jaws, saying that Jaws would give him more range as an actor, since he wouldn’t be covered by a mask. He would be one of the few recurring villains in the Bond franchise, appearing again in 1979’s Moonraker, and would reprise his role as Jaws for a third time in the 2004 video game James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing.
Kiel’s trademark height came from a condition known as acromegaly. In his prime Kiel stood at 7 feet, 1.5 inches. The gentle giant noted in his 2002 autobiography, titled Making It Big in the Movies, that he would always say he was 7 feet, 2 inches tall, just because it was easier to remember. He suffered from a fear of heights, needing a stunt double in the cable car scene in Moonraker because Kiel was adamant about not being 2000 feet up in the air.
In 1992, Kiel suffered a severe head injury from an auto accident that affected his balance. He was forced to walk with a cane, as seen in his role in the Adam Sandler comedy Happy Gilmore where he played Sandler’s boss. In 2010, he lent his voice to the character of Vladimir in the Disney film Tangled. He was also a born-again Christian, saying that his focus on God helped him overcome his struggle with alcoholism. Kiel stepped away from acting after his accident, but he recognized and appreciated his fans, remaining visible and active on the autograph circuit for James Bond fans.
Kiel wouldn’t let his height define him. Often perceived to be unintelligent because of his appearance, Kiel would break those stereotypes. He was a night school math teacher, writer of an autobiography and co-writer of a biography about abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. Richard Kiel spent 44 years in film and television, an extensive list that included such hits and pop-culture classics like The Longest Yard, Pale Rider, Cannonball Run II, The Monkees, Gilligan’s Island, and still many, many more.
Richard Kiel passed away at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California, one week after breaking his leg. As of this writing, no cause of death has been reported, and it is unknown if his leg injury played a role. He was 74.
“He was a very loyal friend and client for over 35 years, a terrific husband and father, and was not only a giant actor but a giant man,” said Steve Stevens, Kiel’s agent.
In a statement posted to Facebook, the Kiel family said in part: “Though most people knew of him through his screen persona, those who were close to him knew what a kind and generous soul he was. His family was the most important thing in his life and we are happy that his last days were spent surrounded by family and close friends … It is nice to think that he can, once again, stand tall over us all.”
We at SCIFI.radio are saddened at the loss of a man who contributed so much to the fandom we enjoy, and we wish the Kiel family peace and offer our deepest sympathies.
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Michael Brown is a comics nerd and a father who lives in small town Tennessee. When he’s not making his players mad in his “Shadowrun” RPG or experimenting with new and inventive uses of duct tape on his children, you can find him checking out the latest comics and movies for SCIFI.radio!