To celebrate the opening of our new home in Houston, we explore the special relationship between James Bond and his Texan friend, Felix Leiter, who plays a part in six of the Ian Fleming 007 novels. The two men share many adventures, with Leiter a far more rounded character than portrayed in his cinematic role. He is Bond's saviour in Casino Royale, providing him with 32 million francs when Bond is cleared out by SMERSH paymaster, Le Chiffre. His knowledge of jazz gets Bond into Harlem in Live and Let Die (Leiter losing both an arm and a leg after a shark attack in that novel) returning in Diamonds are Forever with a hook for his missing hand and a prosthetic leg, but in remarkably good spirit.
Leiter's hook replaces the hand lost in the Live & Let Die shark attack
However, it is the screen Leiter who perhaps demonstrates the friendship more clearly. We first meet the cinematic Felix in Dr. No, played by Jack Lord, who engaged in the role with far more steely cool than the more happy-go-lucky, light-hearted Leiter of the novels. Their introduction to each other has Lord’s Leiter getting the upper hand on Bond by disarming him. Recognising Bond’s firearm, he asks: “Where’d you get measured for this, bud?” Bond, not noticing the reference, straightens his Anthony Sinclair suit and says: “My tailor, Savile Row.” It’s a great exchange and one that highlights both the American and Britishness of the two perfectly. However, Lord was well cast in the role and even though there wasn’t much for him to do in the story, his performance is memorable and it remains an excellent introduction to the character.
Leiter and Bond talk tailoring in Dr No (1962)
Lord would go on to find fame, of course, in Hawaii Five-O, but his demand for equal billing to reprise the role for Goldfinger saw the character recast with Cec Linder, who gave the part a more avuncular quality. This portrayal was quite a distance from the Leiter we’d come to expect up to this point. Linder was considerably older than Connery and it was difficult to imagine that these men were best friends, or indeed that this was the same icy-cool customer we’d seen in Dr. No. However, it did establish something of a precedent in that Leiter would be recast for almost every film going forward.
"Man talk" between Leiter and Bond in the infamous onesie
Rik Van Nutter was to play Felix Leiter in Thunderball (1965). Having already known the Broccolis through his wife, Anita Ekberg, who starred in Eon Productions Call Me Bwana, (incidentally, it is her “mouth” that the Bulgarian assassin Krilencu emerges from in From Russia With Love). Van Nutter was offered the role without an audition. It’s a return to form, with the role written more as an active participant in the investigation, helping Bond with more than just a blank cheque from the US Treasury, and instead providing him with the intelligence and local knowledge to help Bond complete the mission. Bond does have the upper hand here, (particularly greeting Felix with a punch in the guts), but it still shows that the friendship is much more than material aid.
Bond & Leiter share a love of Camp Collar shirts in Thunderball (1965)
Felix would next appear six years later in Diamonds are Forever, played by Norman Burton. Connery was a little older and less athletic than he had been in Thunderball, and so having Felix played by an actor who was also slightly older and rougher around the edges didn’t hurt. Burton played Leiter as something akin to Cec Linder’s portrayal - somewhat entertained and bemused by his friend’s exploits.
Leiter appears with hands intact in Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
When the moment arrived for Roger Moore to be introduced as the new James Bond, so came another Felix, this time in the shape of David Hedison for Live and Let Die (1973). Hedison was cast perhaps due to his personal friendship with Moore. Whether that influenced the casting or not, the decision paid off, the chemistry between the two of them palpable on screen. Moore’s Bond and Hedison’s Leiter appear to be genuine friends. Hedison doesn’t have much to do other than clear up Bond’s considerable destructive messes, but in terms of the affection and the friendship between Bond and Leiter, Hedison's performance brings great warmth and is perhaps one of the most memorable. Indeed, so much so that fifteen years later, he was asked to reprise the role (the first time an actor had done so) for Timothy Dalton’s Licence To Kill.
David Hedison, the first actor to reprise the role of Felix Leiter
Prior to Hedison playing Leiter opposite Timothy Dalton, John Terry had been cast in the role for The Living Daylights. This was such a short scene that it is difficult to get a sense of their friendship and it is, perhaps the least memorable in the series.
Felix Leiter in Sports Casual mode
Leiter appeared in the non-Eon produced Never Say Never Again in 1983, this time played by African American actor Bernie Casey. Whilst this casting might be against type, his performance shows Leiter as a capable agent, very much involved in Bond’s mission and the relationship between them feels genuine and more dynamic than it had previously been in other films.
Some say never say Never Say Never Again
Finally, Jeffrey Wright was cast as Leiter in Casino Royale (2006) , opposite another new Bond, Daniel Craig. The film, being a reboot, presented the opportunity for a reintroduction to the character, allowing the two to meet for the first time. Wright’s Leiter is frustrated, tired, an air of resignation in his portrayal. He recognises Bond’s superior skill and takes advantage of Bond’s loss to seize back the collar of Le Chiffre for the CIA. This is a different interpretation from the book and the two don’t feel exactly friends, but by Quantum of Solace, his second outing as Leiter, his friendship is evident, if more subtle.
Felix Leiter is reintroduced to Bond in Casino Royale (2006)
Despite these varied interpretations, the friendship is still strong, spanning over 60 years of film and literature. However, Ian Fleming cast Leiter squarely as a Texan, imbuing Leiter with all the traits he admired about Americans. A quote from Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), defines the sentiment:
“It turned out that Leiter was from Texas... Bond reflected that good Americans were fine people and that most of them seemed to come from Texas.”
It’s something we at Mason and Sons agree with wholeheartedly and one of the reasons we are extremely proud to open our new location in Houston, to continue the special relationship that has been personified by Bond and Leiter and to extend that bond of friendship to our American customers.