Why Jaws was best ‘Bond’ villain ever

Story highlights

Gene Seymour: Jaws wasn't standard, scheming Bond villain. He was no Dr. No or Hugo Drax

We wanted Bond to beat them. But Jaws more a low-level employee: scary, not hateful, he says

He says late actor, Richard Kiel, who played Jaws, said he tried to make him more human

Seymour: His passing makes you realize how singular his villain was; no one else like him

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

CNN  — 

You couldn’t really call him a “Bond villain” in the grander context of Dr. No, Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax or that annoyingly resilient cat-fancier Ernst Stavros Blofeld. Those guys were schemers, planners, twisted visionaries of mass apocalypse whose Big Ideas were to be played out at humanity’s expense.

They thought they were so much smarter than the rest of us that it made it easier to invest our collective hope that James Bond would ultimately ruin their parties.

Gene Seymour

But Jaws? We could never get as worked up about him any more than you get upset about a lower-level employee called upon do to a dirty job, even if the employee is over 7 feet tall and has the chromium grill of a compact car for teeth.

In the fantasy universe of henchmen and human tool-kits, Jaws was the uberstooge, an angel of death who couldn’t soar far or fast enough to deliver the coup de grace to 007. It’s not that we (necessarily) rooted for Jaws any more than we really wanted Wile E. Coyote to catch the Road Runner. Wait, maybe we did. Jaws often resembled that poor scrawny desert wretch whenever he fell (literally) short of his quarry.

In any case, we had so much fun watching him chase Roger Moore’s plummy-voiced version of Bond in 1977’s “The Spy Who Loved Me” that we cheered upon first seeing him return in 1979’s “Moonraker.” Imagine how Goldfinger’s henchman Oddjob would have been received if his hat hadn’t gotten caught in that electrified grill.

Monstrous as Jaws was, there was something deep inside that made us feel a little sorry for him when having all that muscle and menace and grillwork did him little good. (I mean, c’mon, man, you can take down a real shark by yourself, but can’t do away with a smarty-pants secret agent smaller than you?)

The man who played the role, Richard Kiel, died Wednesday in Los Angeles at 74. And it’s no surprise to learn, from an interview he did in 2009, that he insisted on making him less a walking prop and more like a person with such “human characteristics” as “frustration” and “perseverance.”

There was more of the latter than the former in Kiel’s post-Bond career. He embraced his Jaws-inspired notoriety with abiding grace and generosity. He continued to act, became a born-again Christian after a bout with alcoholism and even co-wrote a biography of the Kentucky abolitionist Cassius Clay for whom the Louisville-born Muhammad Ali was originally named.

With Kiel’s passing, you suddenly realize how inimitable Jaws was. Is there anybody like him in movies now? Beyond, maybe, the pro wrestling circuit, is there anybody like him anywhere?

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