To the world, Richard Kiel is ‘Jaws’, the hulking seven-feet two-inches assassin from the classic Roger Moore James Bond movies, The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. So popular a villain in his first outing, he returned due the outpouring of fan mail—becoming the only actor to reprise his role in all of Bond villainy (Blofeld, while appearing in four films, was played by four actors).
But who is the man behind the metal teeth?
Popcorn Taxi’s Oscar Hillerström had a chat with the man who has been working in film and television since 1960, acting in more than 70 roles. As well as starring opposite his now life-long friend, Roger Moore, in the Bond films, Richard starred as Kanamit in one of the quintessential The Twilight Zone episodes, ‘To Serve Man’. Yes, that one—with the cookbook. If you’ve never seen it, see it.
Richard’s other TV credits include, I Dream of Jeannie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Gilligan’s Island, I Spy, The Wild Wild West, Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Starsky and Hutch. On the big screen, he’s been in The Nutty Professor, The Longest Yard, Silver Streak, Cannonball Run II, Pale Rider and Happy Gilmore.
What’s fascinating isn’t just his long and varied career as an actor, with highs (Bond) and lows (B-grade sci-fi such as The Humanoid) but the way he got into acting—not so much as a desire, but as a necessity—after first flirting with the law and being a burial plot salesman (you’d have to say ‘yes’, wouldn’t you?
That, and his interest in the history of slavery, his work as an author, and how it connected him with Muhammad Ali. Ali’s original name was, as you probably know, is Cassius Clay, Jr. What you might not know is that he was named after a white man, from the South, who ran against Abraham Lincoln for president. Richard knows all about it; he even wrote a book about it, called The Kentucky Lion: The Cassius Clay Story.
Who, with, the what, now? Read on.
Popcorn Taxi: Hi Richard, thank you very much for your time.
Richard Kiel: Yeah, my pleasure.
PT: I apologise, but we do have to discuss your height. I wanted though to ask you about what it meant to you when you were younger? When did you realise that you were bigger, and when did that start to affect the way you thought about yourself?
RK: Well, actually, until I was around 12, I was normal height. My father was a little less than five-feet 10-inches and kind of a slight man, and my mother was about five-feet three-inches. Between the ages of about 12 and 14, I grew from about five-feet 10 to six-feet eight-inches.
I grew so fast that I had stretch marks on my shoulder blades; the skin was like a woman gets on her belly when she’s pregnant, from my bones growing faster than my skin. I found I was very popular; the guys all wanted me to be their friend, so it wasn’t a negative thing.
PT: It’s interesting that you decided to become an actor, obviously you could have been any number of things; I am just wondering when you decided that was the thing for you?
RK: Actually, I was hoping to become an attorney, and my dad died when I was just 19, we had a family business and it was in the middle of the big recession in 1958, and so we eventually had to close up the business and my mother had to go to work.
I had to go to work and everything cost a lot of money then, for clothes; they didn’t have all these big and tall shops like they have today. So a sport coat would cost around $500, which in those days, that was a lot of money. They had to be tailor made, and it was like the price of a good used car. They had just stared selling queen-size beds and king-size beds cost—well you had to be a king to afford one!
So, I was trying to figure out how I was going to have bigger cars and bigger beds and custom-made clothes and survive, and I had an aunt who said, ‘Why don’t you get into the movies? Why don’t you get into television?’ It sounded like a good way to make enough money to pay for all these extra costs for tailor-made clothes and king-size beds and bigger cars, so I tried to break into the TV and movies. And I succeeded.
PT: Ha! You were forced into acting by your height.
PT: I guess most people would look at you and think, ‘Oh well, obviously somebody saw him’ and thought you’d be good in the movies.
RK: Yeah. No, actually, I moved out to the North Hollywood area and I ran into a guy whose uncle owned a night club called The Crossbow, and he claimed that Clint Walker was discovered there, you know the guy who played Cheyenne, and I found out years later that he was discovered in Las Vegas. Anyway, I got a job at this guy’s club as a doorman, bouncer, ID-checker and I just let everybody know that I wanted to be in television and movies.
There was what you call a horse-wrangler who frequented The Crossbow and he told some producer about me, because they had the role of a guy named Big Mike in a TV pilot, and I ended up doing that. So, inadvertently, through letting people know what I wanted to do, I ended up doing it.
PT: Your acting ability comes through in what is, many times, if you like, ‘monster parts’, but you imbue them with humanity that connects you with the audience.
RK: Yeah, I do a lot of other roles other than monster parts, certainly. In Silver Streak I played the killer on the train. Or Force 10 From Navarone I played a Chetnik pretending to be a partisan, or Cannonball Run II I drove one of the Mitsubishi cars along with Jackie Chan, so I’m really varied. I played a cowboy, you know, a tough guy—my career is not made up of monster parts as much as it was good acting roles.
PT: Where do you think this acting ability came from?
RK: Well, I had worked in my family business, we sold TVs and appliances, and my father had trained me in sales, so I was used to meeting the public. Then I had a speech teacher in high school who got me in to do extemporaneous comedy speech as part of this class—and I was pretty funny; I mean, everybody laughed and it was very entertaining—and he suggested that I look to being in comedy or perhaps in acting. So, I really give him credit for encouraging me.
PT: The interesting thing is since obviously having success as an actor and such extraordinary popularity as the character, ‘Jaws’, you’ve also been writing. And I love the idea you’ve been working on, Kentucky Lion about Cassius Marcello Clay. Can you tell me what drew you to that particular subject and that particular man?
RK: Well… I found that there was a lot of fiction about people from the South, based upon a very good mini-series called Roots (1977) that kind of painted everybody in the South as whip-wielding, mean racists, raping black slave women, and I found that to be totally false.
I found out that only seven percent of the people in the South ever owned slaves and the 93 percent were affected adversely by slavery and were actually poor white trash because of slavery and were eager to vote it out.
A producer friend of mine, who had done one of the earlier exploitation movies—well, I had played a caveman and the movie—Eegah (1962), and he had a sister who worked at Brewer College, which was the first non-gender college that women could go to and also interracial college where blacks were free to go.
I found out that there was this guy named Cassius Clay who was a white man who inherited his father’s plantation—his father was one of the richest men in Kentucky—and that he had given money and land to a Reverend James Fee, to build a school for the slaves he freed when he inherited his father’s plantation.
He freed all of the slaves on the plantation and started paying them wages, and he was very successful at doing that. Slaves weren’t allowed to go to school, but once they were freed, they could go to the school that he had built for them and that became Brewer College, still in operation today.
The more I found out about this man and this producer whose sister worked at Brewer College… then I got my friend the producer to start a documentary about him. He showed it to me in progress and then he died, and I thought well, somebody needs to tell this story because it’s a fascinating story.
A guy that ran for President the same time as Abraham Lincoln named Cassius Clay: why was Muhammad Ali’s father named after this guy?
Muhammad Ali was under the misconception that he had that name because this plantation owner was the father to his father and he was very, very upset, saying that if he had white blood in him, because some slave-master raped a poor black slave woman. He really felt that that was the truth and he hated the name Cassius Clay.
In my research I found out that Muhammad Ali did have white blood in him, but it was from his mother’s side: his mother’s maiden name was Brady. That was a result of a white Irishman named Brady coming from Ellis Island over to America and marrying a free, northern slave, and Muhammad Ali’s mother was a product from that, and that is where the white blood in him came from.
I’ve been very fortunate in getting a copy of my book to the Muhammad Ali family, for his wife, and they read the story and made a trip to Ireland and they were welcomed with open arms by tens of thousands of Irish people who love Muhammad Ali, and they were very happy to learn this truth and the history.
It was just a fascinating story that I got involved with. I did about 40 years of casual research from time to time and found out that Cassius Clay was an ambassador to Russia for Lincoln, and that he actually was very close friends with the Tsar of Russia. At that time, the Tsar was a Christian man who had just freed some 23 million slaves, they were called, ‘serfs’, but they were white slaves.
Ironically, both Abraham Lincoln and this Tsar of Russia, they both freed slaves and they were both assassinated by the people that wanted things to stay the way they were.
RK: Cassius Clay was the man responsible for making a deal with Russia to buy Alaska, what they called ‘Russian America’. The deal was two cents an acre and no money down, interest-only payments, until the war was over and then they would pay. He got the Tsar of Russia to sail the Russian Royal Navy into New York and Boston harbours and San Francisco harbour, to warn Europe to stay out of our conflict and to not take sides with the Confederates which they were about to do. Russia and America at that time were friends.
PT: Fascinating. You and Roger Moore have remained very good friends over the years.
PT: But I have to swerve off: I met Verne Troyer recently, and he was telling me how he went to Sweden with you.
RK: Yeah, we did Welcome to Sweden together, a special TV program over there.
PT: Now, how did you find that?
RK: They found us! They made a proposition to us to come over and do that program together and we proceeded to go over and enjoy Sweden. Unfortunately, it was in the winter-time and so my recollection of Sweden on that trip was little red houses and all this white snow [laughs]. But I have been to Sweden during the summer-time. I’ve been to Malmö and Gothenburg and Stockholm a couple of times, and the weather was nice. It’s a beautiful place.
PT: I have to ask you about playing ‘Jaws’. Did you get to keep any of the teeth?
RK: There was only one set of the teeth made because that’s all the dental technician could make. They wanted about a half a dozen sets, but he could only mould this one set because he could only get the thing to forge and melt one set and then he had a really hard time getting that done, so… but I do have what they call a ‘replica’ set and each of my children have one set of those too.
PT: So do you get dressed up sometimes?
RK: At Halloween we scare the hell out of the whole neighbourhood!
PT: Oh that’s fantastic! Well Richard, thank you very much for your time; it’s a pleasure to talk to you.
RK: It’s my pleasure. You are absolutely welcome, Oscar.
Buy Kentucky Lion from Amazon.