By ROBERT WALDMAN : 2012 is an important year in movie history. This October marks the 50th anniversary of the award winning James Bond series. And in November comes the release of the 23rd Bond blockbuster: Skyfall. Through it all Afro American actors have played a pivotal part in shaping 007’s success.
Film fans by now will know that the origins of agent 007 harken back to Ian Fleming’s novels of the 1950s. It took two producers working in Britain: Albert R. Broccoli an American from New York and Canadian Harry Saltzman to bring the films to the silver screen beginning with Dr. No in 1962. Starring then unknown Scottish actor Sean Connery he turned Bond into a household name – along with the talented crew and cast. Bond’s first encounter with a member of the Afro acting community came when he met Quarrel, a local fishermen afraid of dragons. Together Sean and Battlecreek Michigan born John Kitzmiller faced off and faced down Dr. No before Quarrel’s unfortunate fire breathing demise. Oh, and let us not forget agent 007’s first encounter with a foreinger when he landed on Jamaican soil only to be photographed by a pesty reporter played by former Miss Jamaica Marguerite LeWars. Maybe this “encounter” should have forewarned the producers of Connery’s ultimate negative take on the press. Another Jamaican born beauty Martine Beswick ran into Bond in 3 different early films: as the silhouette dancer in the opening credits of Dr. No, one of the gypsy fighters in From Russia With Love and as Paula, a CIA contact with Bond in Thunderball. All three films were directed by original director Shanghai born Terrence Young – the man credited for grooming Sean Connery for stardom and said to be the real role model for Bond.
It was 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever, the last film for Connery in the letitimate Bond series, that saw the first true Afro American actress square off against 007. That honour went to Brooklyn born Trina Parks as the aquatic Thumper, one of two babes determined to drown Bond in Las Vegas. Once Connery left the official series for good producers made Live and Let Die which features the first Afro American villain in a Bond piece – and a dual role at that. Acclaimed actor New York born Yaphet Kotto got down and dirty as Mr. Big and Kananga, two master criminals who made former Saint Roger Moore’s debut as Bond much more problematic. Mr. Moore survived the ordeal and also was fortunate enough to have agent 007’s first romantic encounter with an Afro American – Newark New Jersey’s own Gloria Hendry as Rosie. On that film Julius Harris also scored well as Tee Hee, the thug with a nasty mechanical arm and menacing laugh, hence his name.
Some other memorable moments from the Bond films include Frank McRae as the affable Sharkey in Timothy Dalton’s License to Kill and Bernie Casey as the first black Felix Leiter in the non-official Bond entry Never Say Never Again. Getting back to the offical series and current Bond Daniel Craig, the sly Brit now has Jeffrey Wright to count on in a squeeze as Felix Leiter, the first Afro actor to play Bond’s C.I.A. friend back to back in two films: Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, a rare feat indeed.
To their credit the original Bond producers, Mr. Saltzman and Mr. Broccoli have always mounted highly entertaining motion pictures that benefit from multicultural casts. When other Hollywood movies shunned away from hiring non-white actors the trendsetting team at EON productions realized way back then that it was important to show other people from diverse backgrounds in their movies. Through the use of qualified Afro American actors in the 60s this helped forge the way for other ethnic actors to appear in Bond films, a tradition continued to this day by producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson.
For sheer entertaintment value, no one truly does it better than James Bond the man who the Italians refer to as Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Unlike other movies, the producers of the Bond films go all out to bring the world truly enjoyable motion picture experiences as Skyfall will undoubtedly provide to folks of all ages.