He’s one of the most familiar yet unappreciated characters of the James Bond universe – a person who is universally recognized yet strangely mysterious. A small yet crucial part of the success of this phenomenal franchise. I’m not talking about M, or Q, or Miss Moneypenny, or 008, or Bill Tanner, or General Gogol, or Blofeld, or the naked woman who dance in the credits. I’m talking of course about Felix Leiter.
Dear sweet Felix Leiter. All Bond fans know the name – although they might struggle to put a face to that name, because he was usually played by different actors in the series. And that face was often hidden by hats and sunglasses and never stayed too long on screen.
Felix, for those non-Bond fans out there, was a CIA operative who would periodically help out James Bond on his missions. He normally appeared well into the running time, following James around in some exotic locale. We would worry at first that he was some sort of baddy then it would be revealed they knew each other; Felix would then give Bond some important information, help him travel to a location, and then pretty much disappear.
Felix was in the Ian Fleming novels, starting with Casino Royale, and I’m assuming he was created as a device to help appeal to American readers. He also means Bond has the resources of the CIA at his disposal, which allows for greater story options. He was a lot more boozy, racist creature in the novels – as was James Bond come to think of it – but in the films he’s an amiable middle aged, occasionally elderly, American.
On screen he’s been played by Jack Lord, Cec Linder, Rik Van Nutter, Norman Burton, David Hedison (twice), Bernie Casey, John Terry and Jeffrey Wright (twice). The only time he got anything close to his own story was in Licence to Kill when he and his bride are attacked by a drug lord on their wedding night – the bride is killed and Leiter is half eaten (the latter bit is taken from the novel Live and Let Die), prompting Bond to go on revenge. It’s the only time Felix Leiter ever gets in much personal danger in the films.
Which I think is part of his appeal. Felix Leiter is the closest the Bond films have to an ordinary person who is allowed to be part of Bond’s adventure and live. Q is too brilliant, M too highly placed in security, Miss Moneypenny too stuck behind a desk doing filing; there are random ordinary people who pop up in the films, but they are either stunning beautiful girls or innocent bystanders who get killed. Felix not only gets to go to exotic locations (Nassau, Jamaica, New Orleans), he takes part in the missions (driving the boat, flying a helicopter) and gets to live at the end. Apart from the one time when a limb gets removed, it’s a pretty cushy existence.
I remember one time when I was ten years old I went over to a friend’s house for a party. We were playing James Bond – this was the hey day of Roger Moore – and of course everyone wanted to be James Bond. So while the others sat around arguing who got to be James Bond I nabbed the role of Felix Leiter. I instinctively understood that this unfashionable role was the best way to be involved in the action on the side of the good guys. That penny dropped for the others too eventually and once everyone realized they couldn’t all be Bond they looked around for different roles – someone tried to nab Felix Leiter off me but I held fast. Eventually we realized there simply aren’t enough roles in the James Bond franchise to play a game, so we started playing Star Wars instead, which has a lot more options. Regardless, I’ve had a soft spot for Felix ever since.
The appeal of Felix Leiter has not dimmed. Yes, James Bond is one of the world’s greatest fantasy figures – but let’s face it, there’s no way any of us are going to be able to transform ourselves into someone so good looking, sophisticated, brilliantly skillful and smart, successful with women, hard drinking and well dressed. But even at this age there is a chance I could, if I really wanted to, become Felix Leiter. So thank you, Felix.