Licensed to Die?
David Hedison returns to James Bond’s side. But will he survive the adventure—in one piece?
By LEE GOLDBERG
David Hedison became famous submerged on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but when he emerged four years later, he found his career had taken a dive.
Hedison, like so many other lantern-jawed TV heroes of yesteryear, found that after series stardom in a one-dimensional role, “no one takes you seriously,” and you’re relegated to cruises on The Love Boat, dying on Murder, She Wrote and summers spent in dinner theaters.
But now he’s reprising his 1973 Live kind Let Die role as Felix Leiter, James Bond’s CIA buddy, who until this film had been played by a different actor every time.
“1 expect it will be good for a trivia quiz one day,” says Hedison, talking from the set of a Murder, She Wrote two-parter. “Who’s the only person to play Felix Leiter twice’
This time, Felix Leiter is more than an extraneous plot point. In Licence To Kill, the 16th 007 opus, and Timothy Dalton’s second outing as James Bond, Leiter has become a Drug Enforcement agent Miami vicing in the Florida Keys. On the eve of his wedding to shapely Priscilla Barnes, Leiter and his best man James Bond foil a plot by evil drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi—who takes revenge by killing Leiter’s wife and tossing Leiter to the sharks (a fate similar to what he suffers in the book Live And Let Die, but was spared in translation to the screen). Leiter survives, minus an appendage or two, and Bond goes on a vengeful rampage, losing his Licence To Kill in the process.
Still, it’s just more of the same for Hedison, a glorified guest shot in the most successful movie series in history and, he concedes, not something that’s going to change the one-dimensional image that has dogged him since his Seaview days (which he discussed in STARLOG #108).
“Live And Let Die didn’t really do much for my career,” he says. “I got some wonderful fan mail, sent my pictures out, but it didn’t lead to any work at all. With this kind of film, it won’t lead to other work unless you do something stand-out with a really wonderfully written scene. Otherwise, you’re just doing a job, part of the ensemble. And in this case, I have lots of action scenes, but no one memorable scene.”
“This is much more violent than any of the earlier Bonds,” reveals Hedison.
David Hedison isn’t so much reprising a role as filling it once again. The Felix Leiter character is so uninvolving because, the actor insists, “there’s not much to play.” “Felix is a fairly one-dimensional character; you never get into any depth. You do what you can,” he says. “All you can do is perform with a simple reality.” Unlike other Bond standbys like M, Q and Miss Moneypenny, Felix Leiter has never made a lasting impression in the series—even though the character, played by Jack (.Hawaii Five-O) Lord, was introduced along with James Bond in Dr. No. Since then, Leiter has been played by Cec Linder (Goldfinger), Rik Van Nutter (Thunderball), Norman Burton (.Diamonds Are Forever), Hedison (Live And Let Die), John Terry (Living Daylights), and, in the rogue 007 production Never Say Never Again, black actor Bernie Casey.
The role has been short-changed over the years because, Hedison believes, “they probably thought it’s not worth paying good money for a part that’s so unimportant. They would get a beginner or a new actor or someone like that and save on the budget.” Hedison thinks he was asked back, rather than John Terry, the last Leiter, because “there was much more to do in the film than in the past, and they were afraid of using an unknown or someone they weren’t quite sure of.”
He had a tremendous time doing Licence To Kill, which “has some wonderful gimmicks at the beginning. Jumping out of helicopters, shooting guns. I just had a ball for eight weeks.”
This is a much harder-edged Bond, which reflects Timothy Dalton’s talents in much the same way the light-hearted romp suited Roger Moore, an old friend of Hedison’s.
“Roger was a clown, a lot of fun, always kidding around on set. Tim is much more earnest and serious,” Hedison says. “Off the set, we got on very well. I found him to be a remarkable person to work with, very caring, very conscious of the scene. He gave a lot to his fellow actors. He was not playing the big star.”
Photo: “For me, the real joy was working with Richard Basehart,” notes Hedison of his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea tour. Voyage Photo Copyright 1964 20th Century Fox TV.
Hedison has already seen a rough cut of Licence To Kill and says it’s “really wonderful, certainly a much better film than Living Daylights, which I liked, but it was not one of the better Bond films. I just thought Living Daylights was bland. This one is much more relentless, particularly the second half. It didn’t stop! I found it very exciting, very well done.”
In fact, the film is so relentless and bloody, the producers are “having problems with Licence To Kill because this is much more violent than any of the earlier Bonds,” he says. “They’ve cut quite a bit of it out.
All the Bonds have been PG, and this one might get an R, and that is what they’re trying to avoid. This sort of film is for Saturday matinee audiences, and with an R, kids can’t get in.”
Hedison attributes his return to the producers who may not have wanted to bank on an unknown for the important part Leiter plays in the life of James Bond (Timothy Dalton) this time.
Photo: Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and his new bride (Priscilla Barnes) receive some deadly uninvited guests.
Timothy Dalton was good in his first film, but in his second outing, Hedison says, “he really comes around. Sean Connery, the more he played Bond, the better he got. Same with Roger. Tim just plays it so well.” Hedison professes to like the approach that Roger Moore, his old friend, took to James Bond as much as the tougher tone Dalton prefers. "Roger does a whole different thing, and that’s Roger and what Roger does. Tim is great at what he does.” He has nothing but praise for director John Glen, who marks his fifth Bond film with Licence To Kill, besting the previous “most 007s” record held by Guy Hamilton (STARLOG #102), Hedison’s director in Live And Let Die.
“They’re two totally different directors.
John is very quiet, very unemotional, very caring for his actors, and he has a wonderful even temper. I hardly remember what Guy did. He got it done and did a very good job.”
Which is, basically, what Hedison has done with the Felix Leiter role—he got the job done. “It was running around, bang, bang, getting wet, screaming and yelling, and all kinds of fun, but not serious acting.”
Where was the misstep that put Hedison on the guest-star treadmill rather than easy street? He has thought about it. Perhaps he should have stayed in LA rather than move to London after the Voyage ended.
“I liked London very much. I just wanted to go and spend a couple of years there. I was able to do wonderful stuff like Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke with Lee Remick on the BBC. It’s two years I’m not sorry for. The problem was, when I came back to the U.S., it was more difficult getting work.”
Perhaps he should have taken the Robert Reed role on The Brady Bunch when it was offered. “I turned it down because after four years of subs and monsters, who needs kids and dogs?”
And perhaps he should never have taken the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea role to begin with, a part he turned down for the 1961 film that inspired the series because it was a “one-dimensional bore.”
Robert Sterling nabbed the film part, but Hedison let buddy Roger Moore, then the star of The Saint, talk him into taking the TV series. Unlike what The Saint did for Roger Moore, Voyage didn’t develop a lucrative, engaging persona for Hedison. It only reinforced the nagging perception that he was yet another cardboard leading man (Moore, still a close friend, snagged Hedison roles in ffolkes and The Naked Face and they hope to work together again).
“In your career, you must be so careful, otherwise you get caught in a particular image and it’s hard to break,” Hedison says. “When people think of David Hedison, they think of Voyage. They don’t think, ‘Jesus, great acting job,’ or of anything with any particular depth.”
And it’s that four years of one dimensional performing that has dogged him ever since.
“There was no emphasis on character, it was all on action and monsters and gimmicks and effects. I wanted more of a realistic character.” Instead, Captain Lee Crane was a simple, interchangeable character. “If I was sick, they would just give my lines to someone else.
“Irwin Allen is very big on special effects, loves all that stuff. That’s what he’s good at, what he loves. I can’t fault him for that,” Hedison says. “For me, the real joy was working with Richard Basehart.”
Hedison finds his solace on the stage, which is where he finds the meaty roles and “where I get most satisfied. I did a new play with Elizabeth Ashley, Come into My Parlor and toured in Florida and Texas. It was a terrific acting part. I felt good about myself. Then, I did a new Bernard Slade play, Return Engagement, in summer theater, and that too was a great experience.
“When I go back to theater, I feel good about myself. When I do films or TV, it’s to make a little bread to pay my mortgage or whatever, and when I’ve made the money, I do theater again.
“And when I get a part I like, a part I can work on, that satisfies me. I feel good about myself. Most of the time I don’t even watch what I do on TV. I go in, get the job done, and just know it’s nothing. It’s a job. Sometimes, I try something different, and I’ll watch out of curiosity. Generally, I don’t watch too much of what I do. Movies are basically the same, except it’s more money spent on sets.
“Occasionally on TV, I’ve done something particularly interesting, but not enough. I would love to do L.A. Law, thirtysomething, a movie of the week, an interesting part. All the parts I do on TV are murder suspects or the bad guy with no dimension and I play them as best I can, but it’s not enough,” says Hedison. “You can say, ‘I won’t do any more TV,’ and turn down a lot of episodic work, but eventually, you say, ‘I’ve got to work.’ ”
Nonetheless, he’s proud of his time with Bond.
“I saw Live And Let Die on TV, and I thought, ‘God, what a good film.’ You forget. You see a film once, and then you may see it five years later and it’s better than you originally thought.
“Of course, there are pictures you never want to see again—most of the films I’ve made, like The Fly, The Lost World, Marines Let’s Go,” he says. “There’s a whole slew of shit I avoid like the plague, and when I know they’ll be on TV, I have a dinner party and invite all my friends over so they can’t see it.”
Those films were made back in the late ’50s, when Hedison was a busy 20th Century Fox contract player. “I didn’t want to do Lost World, but I was under contract to the studio, it was something I had to do. If I had to do it today, I would be put on suspension.”
His best TV or film role, in his opinion, lasted one night, and will never be seen again. It was during his sojourn in London, when he did a television adaptation of Summer and Smoke with Lee Remick. To obtain the rights, the BBC had to agree to erase the tape 48 hours after airing it. It was the 1970s, a decade before the VCR age. Even Hedison doesn’t have a copy. The fact that it wasn’t seen in America, and will probably never be seen again (unless a copy is gathering dust in a BBC vault) hurts.
“It does pain me. The London Times gave it such a glowing review. Very painful. It’s like having a wonderful scene in a movie and finding it cut.”
But, when all is said and done, David Hedison is happy in his craft. “As long as they pay me, I’m not complaining,” and he hopes maybe, just maybe, Licence To Kill could change his career.
“I hope it makes a lot of money,” he says. “It would be nice to play Felix with one leg.”
LEE GOLDBERG, veteran STARLOG correspondent, has scripted episodes of Murphy’s Law, Spenser: For Hire and Beauty & the Beast. He previewed Ray Bradbury Theater in STARLOG #128.
[Source: Starlog August 1989 P.54-56, 58. Copyright © 1989 O'Quinn Studios, Inc. All rights reserved. Starlog is a registered trademark of O'Quinn Studios, Inc.]