We wait expectantly in a theater for a steady beat of music and then white dots appear as a lone figure crosses the screen, turns in a crouch and fires a gun. Wait, this person is bigger than Sean Connery, more serious than Roger Moore, darker than Daniel Craig and when he smiles we see iron teeth. It’s Richard Kiel better know to many as “Jaws.” and to some as a pastor.
I met Richard Kiel at an autograph show through a friend, Caroline Munro, who starred in a James Bond film with him The Spy Who Loved Me. As giant as he appeared in films and as gentle a person as you would ever want to meet. Only the iron teeth are missing as they are now on display in the Smithsonian Institute. An intensely interesting man, it was a pleasure knowing him before his untimely death and I could not resist securing the following interview with him.
Dr. Fred Eichelman: I read that your earliest days were spent in Detroit and that your dad was a businessman. How did that background help you in your career?
Richard Kiel: It was what helped me to become a successful actor. I knew basic selling techniques and that helped me in two ways. One, it helped me to sell myself. It also helped me to get a job on the side that I needed to get. If you are a very successful car sales person or real estate sales person, your boss will let you off because he knows doing those acting roles will help in your sales business. My father taught me that “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” And my mom would say “If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.” I worked at expanding my acting career where I wasn’t Frankenstein or a dummy. I spent a lot of money on trade ads which I was able to finance by having a regular job. I did quite well so when I got an acting role I had extra money. I put it back in my career and built it that way.
FE: As a retired teacher I appreciate the credit you gave a teacher, John Greeley.
Richard Kiel: I was an introvert. I wasn’t doing well in English as I had had some poor teachers. English was not for me…I hated it. This John Greeley in his English class detected this and he had an Introduction to Speech class. He was having a fun time giving English students a subject at the last minute to speak about. You were supposed to get up there and ad lib your subject like an expert. What I discovered was I had a really good sense of humor that worked for me in doing this. I had the class all laughing and when it was over Mr. Greeley said, “You know, this could be something you would be good at.” He said, “I know you don’t like English, if you take my speech class you can get out of two years of English.” So I signed up for his Speech Class 1 and 2 and Journalism. That helped me in my career. I’ll tell you how much I hated English class, I had a friend who was 300 pounds and the two of us sat by the back door. The door opened up to like a little mall between the classrooms. We would sneak out the back door and disappear I think that is where Mr. Greeley had a better plan and that was to interest me in doing something that was more enjoyable.
FE: I understand that you were involved in your church and faith as early as age nine.
Richard Kiel: Yes. In my first autobiography there is a picture of me with a bunch of people from my church that was used in a denominational magazine. We were passing out tracts at LA General Hospital. I participated in that sort of thing.
FE: What was your chief motivation to go into film and TV?
Richard Kiel: To be able to afford to have a sport coat that I could buy. That’s because they didn’t sell my size off the rack. They didn’t have a sport coat I could wear like a 60 extra long. At that time, in 1960, a tailor made sport coat was like three or four hundred dollars. That was a whole lot of money back then. I was really limited on things like that, like dress shirts. I have a 41 ½ inch sleeve length. Dress shirts had to be custom made. I just couldn’t afford it. I remember my parents bought me a queen sized bed. It was six foot, eight inches long and I was seven foot two inches. I dreamed about having suits, sports coats and shirts and shoes that fit and a car that was big enough. I realized that I had to find something that would enable me to do that. My Aunt Agnes would keep saying “Why not get into movies, why not get into TV?” I thought about that and thought “Maybe that’s an answer.” My father had taught me that if you knock on enough doors you’ll get enough of them to open. So I knocked on all the doors. Nobody wanted to be my agent. I ended up getting a couple of roles on my own and joined the Screen Actors Guild. I went and saw a Mr. Zimmerman and said, “I’ve got these two roles under my belt and I’m a member of SAG. Do you want to be my agent or not?” He said “Yes.” He was my agent for many many years. I was loyal to him, and he was my agent until he died.
FE: You were in many TV shows, Twilight Zone, Thriller, Rifleman, The Wild Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Do any stand out in your mind?
Richard Kiel: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a good one for me. The role was very much like the Henchman I played in Bond. I had quite a bit of talking. I saw it recently and thought “That’s the way they used me in Bond.” In other shows, The Wild Wild West was a big one for me. I did several episodes with Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn) playing Voltaire. I did one on my own as they got to know me and knew I could talk. They gave me a nice challenging role. I did Rifleman, Laramie, It Takes a Thief. I did shows like My Mother The Car, Gilligan’s Island, Honey West and The Monroes, which was another one I did with Michael Dunn. Then I did some children’s shows where you would do five of them in two or three days. When you have the luxury of doing a movie, where they film for five or six months, it could take a whole day to shoot a scene and it seemed a lot easier.
FE: In the James Bond films The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, you became the first and only henchman to be in two 007 films and still survive. In fact you had a happy ending in the second one, saving Bond’s life, helping save the world and finding love. Do you feel, as I do, that you drew such a feeling of sympathy there had to be a good ending written for you?
Richard Kiel: Definitely. There was a sympathetic quality to “Jaws”. Something comes out of having a charisma. That’s happened with me in other films. In Pale Rider I was a really tough guy, but I wasn’t so bad I’d allow the young girl to be molested or Clint’s (Eastwood) character to be shot in the back. I think it comes from what is seen in you. In neither one of the Bond films was it written that “Jaws” would be sympathetic. In both cases I turned into kind of a good guy. I think that came out of my own character. My relationship with the people working on the shows helped.
FE: Among your other films were there any special favorites?
Richard Kiel: Force 10 From Navarone was my favorite acting role. I played a very despicable guy who was a Nazi. It was a very interesting role, the opposite of “Jaws”, a bad guy who pretended to be a good guy. He seems jovial and kind of a buffoon. Under that he is a very treacherous, nasty person. One thing I find in a lot of good actors, is that underneath they are shy. But not in a role when they are playing somebody else. In roles they play, they come out more dramatic and gregarious than they normally would be. I found that kind of fun.
Then there was The Longest Yard which was another favorite of mine. It was a breakthrough movie for me. The director was a very He liked what I was doing and wanted me to do even more. “Don’t wait for the film to stop, keep going until I say ‘Cut’!” I did that one scene in The Longest Yard where my nose gets broken and Burt (Reynolds) resets it. A lot of extemporaneous stuff was done with that scene. When it was over with they actually called everybody around and Burt said “Richard did a great job with that and he deserves a hand.” That was the first time that ever happened. I did one in Atlanta with Tim Conway and Chuck McCann, They Went That-Away and That-Away that was a lot of fun. Tim Conway was a down-to-Earth guy.
FE: You often describe the influence The 700 Club had on your life and you give a beautiful emphasis on the power of prayer.
Richard Kiel: Well, first of all it works. I had a half dozen or dozen experiences where I have seen prayer work. It made God very real to me. It isn’t like a magic formula or anything, because I know are all going to die in the flesh. I learned from my experiences of seeing a lot of people healed through prayer and recovering from drug abuse and alcohol abuse. Then I had an accident that caused me to become handicapped, I lost my balance. It made me realize we are all going to die and the main thing is whether our name is in The Book of Life. That’s the bottom line. God showed me His power and made Himself very real to me in seeing how prayer can work. I have had the opportunity to preach and this is my chief emphasis.
FE: Another thing we have appreciated about you is the love you share with your wife, children and grandchildren. Family is most important to you and you have taken them on a number of trips when you were on location or on film promotion tours. It is a very different image that we get from too many Hollywood stories these days.
Richard Kiel: There wasn’t any real plan in that. It is just how I am. My wife Diane is very family orientated and so am I. The children were too dear to us to leave behind or put in a military or other private school. Unfortunately some of the big Hollywood stars leave their children behind, and they ended up getting into drugs and over dosing. They lose their children. My wife and I did involve the children and years later when we looked at other people in “the business” we have found it very sad. They gained fame and lost their children. There are some really big names in TV and movies that this happened to. It is important not only for actors, but all people, that they spend time being involved in the activities of their children. It is the reason I never got involved in politics. Either because of my name recognition or speaking in churches I have been approached to run for various offices. I am a conservative. I admit I found the idea appealing, but felt it would take away from my family time. An old man said to me one time, “There are three things in life you need to be happy. One, is to love. Two, is to be loved. And three is to have a feeling of accomplishment. Two out of three ain’t bad.” To love and be loved, that is one thing about being a Christian. You have love from the Father and your brother Christ. It is a fabulous feeling. When you have that with your family it’s really important.
FE: I have no doubt that you would have been a successful candidate for any office just as you are as a preacher. For one thing, I have no doubt that when you speak people listen.
On that note we ended laughing and I wish Richard were still alive today as I have no doubt that he would be a PolitiDude people would listen to.