Happy Birthday Barry Nelson: Remembering the First Actor to Play ‘James Bond’

by Matthew Wilson

The name’s Nelson, Barry Nelson. Celebrate the birthday of the first actor to bring everyone’s favorite British spy to life for the first time. Of course, 007 wasn’t British when Nelson played him, and he didn’t play the famed spy on the big screen like his later counterparts.

Nelson starred in the first adaptation of author Ian Fleming’s creation. He appeared as James Bond on television in an adaptation of Fleming’s “Casino Royale.”

The anthology TV series “Climax” adapted the book for one of its episodes. Nelson played Bond in the episode but now reimagined as an American agent. The show featured essentially live plays filmed on an extremely limited budget. CBS approached Fleming with $1,000 to use the character during the episode. His James Bond books had garnered a mass audience during that time. And the author agreed.

Differences Between Barry Nelson’s James Bond

Including Nelson, there have been eight actors to portray James Bond. Each actor brought his own flair and characteristics to the role. After all, few audience members would say that Daniel Craig and Sean Connery’s secret agents are the exact same character. But Nelson’s portrayal missed many of the signature elements viewers associate with the secret spy.

For instance, even Nelson admitted that making the agent American was a mistake. The results created a generic spy that didn’t capture the audiences’ imagination how CBS and Nelson might have hoped. But the 1954 episode followed the events of Fleming’s novel pretty closely, albeit in abbreviated form. The episode didn’t feature the elaborate vehicles and gadgets that later adaptations of the character relied on. But that may have more to do with a TV budget than anything else.

Perhaps most blasphemy is that Nelson’s Bond drank scotch and water instead of his signature vodka martini. But as the old saying goes, Nelson crawled so later actors like Roger Moore and Timothy Dalton might stride. He introduced a live-action version of a character, whose popularity has endured for several decades and generations later.

Nelson is an often forgotten part of James Bond’s history. But he played an important role and is honored as such. James Bond next appeared on the big screen, played by Sean Connery to much acclaim. But Nelson beat him to the role by a couple of years. The actor made a career in both movies and television, appearing most notably in the horror film “The Shining” as Stuart Ullman.

Nelson passed away in 2007 at the age of 89-years-old. Have a scotch and water in his honor.