Our Favorite Villainous Giant

Image courtesy United Artists/MGM

Our Favorite Villainous Giant
| published Sept. 11, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

When it came to the movie business, he was huge—pun intended.

Richard Kiel, who portrayed one of the most memorable villains ever created for the James Bond franchise, died this week at the age of 74. Kiel’s trademark was his height, which, at an astounding seven feet two inches, meant he generally towered over other actors and performers.

Kiel died about one week after a serious leg injury landed him in Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, California, according to hospital spokespersons and Kiel’s longtime agent, Steven Stevens. Though no additional information has been released regarding the cause of Kiel’s death, there is speculation that he died from an infection or pneumonia.

Kiel played the character “Jaws” in several James Bond thrillers—a massive, silent brute possessing lethal strength and power, and steel teeth. His most famous appearances were opposite Roger Moore in the classics Moonraker and The Spy Who Loved Me. He played villains or brutes in other films as well. He first appeared in the western show Laramie in 1960, and made appearances in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone TV series and in numerous other TV shows, such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. He also famously played the towering henchman “Voltaire” alongside Michael Dunn’s diminutive “Dr. Loveless” in the long-running sci-action-western series, The Wild, Wild West.

Years later he played an annoying, bullying golf heckler in the Adam Sandler comedy Happy Gilmore. In later years, his voice became famous as well, and he made vocal appearances in animated Disney films and in video games. Kiel did the voice work for the ruthless thug Vlad in the animated film Tangled.

Though Kiel often portrayed monster-like thugs and unstoppable villainous brutes, in real life he was a jovial, likeable softy. At special events and in public, he often smiled infectiously and endearingly, and he never seemed to mind that the most common question tossed toward him by reporters and fans was “how tall are you?”

Kiel was born in Detroit in 1939. His height was the result not of genetics, but of a rare hormonal condition called acromegaly. The condition brought about his towering height and also his somewhat oversized facial proportions. Early in life he found ways to turn these attributes to his advantage, and his first jobs were as a night club bouncer and, later, as a cemetery plot sales representative. His earliest appearances in film tended to be those in low-budget, derivative sci-fi or horror works, such as The Phantom Planet, or The Human Duplicators.

In a little-known bit of television trivia, Kiel was offered the role of The Hulk in the famous TV series of the mid-1970s. Shooting began with Kiel in the part, but problems arose almost immediately. Kiel, who had serious vision problems in one eye, was required to wear contact lenses as part of his make-up for the character. This interfered with his ability to see using his good eye, especially in the scenes requiring physical agility or movement. He also experienced a mild allergic reaction to the green body paint which covered much of his body, and Kiel disliked the difficulty and long hours it took to later remove the other elements of special effects make-up. After several days of shooting, and behind schedule, Kiel and the producers came to the mutual decision that the part was not right for him. He was replaced by body builder Lou Ferrigno. Although almost all the scenes were reshot with Ferrigno in the part, one or two small snippets remain in the pilot episode with Kiel as The Hulk.

Kiel suffered from alcoholism off-and-on for many years, but in the 1990s his religious conversion to Christianity helped him overcome the condition. He had remained sober for decades, and on his website he says that his spiritual conversion was the catalyst for the change.

Kiel was also a gifted writer and author. Aside from screenplays and TV scripts, he co-wrote a biography of the 19th Century abolitionist and political figure Cassius Marcellus Clay, Kentucky Lion, and he authored the 2002 book Making it Big in the Movies.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The Shape Shifter: The Death of Philip Seymour Hoffman; R. Alan Clanton; February 2, 2014.