Barry Nelson, a Broadway leading man who launched his career at MGM in the 1940s and earned a niche in show-business history as the first actor to play British secret agent James Bond — as an American named Jimmy Bond — in a live television production of “Casino Royale” in the 1950s, has died. He was 89.
Nelson died April 7 at a hotel in Bucks County, Pa., his wife, Nansi, said Friday. The cause of death has yet to be determined.
As an MGM contract player in the 1940s, Nelson appeared in films such as “Shadow of the Thin Man,” “Dr. Kildare’s Victory,” “A Yank on the Burma Road,” “The Human Comedy,” “Bataan” and “A Guy Named Joe.”
He later played opposite Debbie Reynolds in the 1963 movie comedy “Mary, Mary,” a role he originated on Broadway with co-star Barbara Bel Geddes; he also appeared in the films “Airport,” “Pete ‘n’ Tillie” and “The Shining.”
But Nelson had some of his greatest successes on Broadway, including appearing in “Light Up the Sky” and “The Moon Is Blue” in the 1940s, “Cactus Flower” opposite Lauren Bacall in the ‘60s and “The Act” opposite Liza Minnelli, for which he received a Tony Award nomination as best actor in a musical in 1978.
“He was a charming light comedian with a wonderful boyish face and a lovely youthful quality,” Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical in Los Angeles, told The Times on Friday.
On television in the early ‘50s, Nelson starred as a globe-trotting businessman involved in international intrigue in “The Hunter,” a half-hour series that ran on CBS from 1952 to 1954.
He also co-starred opposite Joan Caulfield in “My Favorite Husband,” a situation comedy that ran on CBS from 1953 to 1957.
It was while he was doing that series that he was offered the role of Bond in “Casino Royale,” the TV adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel, on the CBS dramatic anthology series “Climax!”
Nelson had just completed the 103rd episode of “My Favorite Husband” and was in need of a break.
“I was burned out,” he recalled in a 2002 interview with the Daily Mirror of London. “ ‘My Favorite Husband’ was filmed live. It was so tiring and difficult. I took a vacation to Jamaica and told my agent I’d had it for a while.”
But soon after arriving in Jamaica, he recalled, “my agent called saying there was this part that CBS really wanted me for.... I had to get the next flight back to America. They were starting rehearsals the next day.”
He said he had doubts about playing the role until he learned who was playing the villain: Peter Lorre.
“That,” he said, “was the clincher.”
With Nelson “decked out in a crooked bow tie and cut-rate suit” and playing Bond as “sexless and glum,” as The Times’ Susan King later put it, the “Casino Royale” segment of “Climax!” aired live Oct. 21, 1954.
Although it reportedly was favorably received, Nelson later said he had no clue that Fleming’s 007 character would ultimately achieve international renown.
“But nobody else did either,” he said in a 1992 interview with the Riverside Press Enterprise. “CBS even had an option on the Bond stories; they didn’t pick it up.”
Eight years after Nelson’s portrayal of “Jimmy Bond,” Sean Connery debuted as the dashing “Bond, James Bond” in the hit film “Dr. No.”
“I don’t spend much time regretting,” Nelson told the New York Daily News in 1995. “I always thought Connery was the ideal Bond. What I did is just a curio.”
Born in San Francisco on April 16, 1917, Nelson later moved with his family to Oakland. He was performing in a production of “Macbeth” during his senior year at UC Berkeley when an MGM talent scout saw him and offered him a screen test.
While serving in World War II, he made his Broadway debut in the Army Air Forces’ production of Moss Hart’s “Winged Victory” in 1943, and he appeared in the 1944 film version of the song-filled play.
Nansi, Nelson’s second wife and sole survivor, said funeral services would be private.
Donations may be made in Nelson’s name to the Actors’ Fund of America, 729 7th Ave., 10th floor, New York, N.Y., 10019.