Why Jack Portrayed Felix Leiter Only Once
Jack with Sean Connery during the filming of Dr. No.
Photographer unknown. Deemed to be in the public domain as per Copyright Notice Circular 3, Revised 09/2017. US Copyright Office, Library of Congress. https://www.copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf.
Rumors abound regarding Jack’s appearing in only one James Bond film. He portrayed a strong and credible Felix Leiter, CIA operative and Bond ally, in the series premiere, Dr. No.
Leiter was on surveillance at the Kingston, Jamaica, airport when Bond arrived aboard a Pan American Airlines DC-8. Wearing dark glasses and peering over the top of a newspaper, Leiter watched as Bond stepped into not a British government car, but one belonging to the notorious Dr. No. The CIA operative then gave chase to the MI6 agent. If Bond had not appeared in the opening scenes, in London, we might easily have thought Jack was the star of the show.
At the waterfront bar, Leiter intervened when Bond got in a ruckus with his island allies, Quarrel (John Kitzmiller) and Pussfeller (uncredited). Leiter’s tailor was in Washington, he said to Bond, who replied that his tailor was on Saville Row, London. Properly, it was their way of ascertaining that each was who he said he was. Fashion-wise, at least, it was their way of saying that London was more powerful than Washington. Perhaps, at that point, the audience needed to be reminded that Connery was the star.
Later, Leiter upbraided Bond for being two hours late in arriving at the pier, after “dealing with” Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), to set out for Crab Key in search of Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman):
Leiter: Better late than never.
Bond: Everything ready?
Leiter: For the last two hours.
Bond: Now, don’t worry, Quarrel. Everything’s going to be fine.
Quarrel: You say so, Captain. Bottom part of where my belly used
to be tells me different.
Bond: For me, Crab Key’s going to be a gentle relaxation.
Leiter: From what? Dames?
And, then, as if to remind the audience of his stardom, Bond refused to allow Leiter to accompany him and Quarrel to Crab Key, claiming superiority in the case and establishing Leiter as second-in-command.
Quarrel: This is as far as we can go with the engine. Make with a
paddle and wind from now on in.
Leiter: Let me go with him.
Bond: No. We settled that. It’s my beat.
Leiter: But it’s my head in the noose if anything gets unstuck.
Canaveral say they can only wait 48 hours for that moon
Bond: We’ll be back in 12. If not, then it’s your beat. You’d
better bring your marines with you.
Strictly speaking, this seems strange. Jamaica was a British territory, true, but the toppled rockets were American. That should have given the agents equal status in the case.
Finally, when Bond and Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) were adrift at sea, it was Leiter to the rescue. He made a commanding presence as he stood on the forecastle of a Jamaican Coast Guard cutter with a bullhorn in hand and called in authoritative tones, “Ahoy, Mr. Bond!” Somehow, it almost seemed as though he were Bond’s disapproving superior, except that we already knew that role was held by M (Bernard Lee), who was thousands of miles away.
Here’s how William Bradley explained it in the Huffington Post(1):
While Bernard Lee, who's only been surpassed by the essential Judi Dench as M, and Lois Maxwell as the yearning and ever bantering Moneypenny were to stick in their roles for a very long time, the actor playing Felix Leiter was not. But not because he wasn't good. . . . Lord is a strong and charismatic presence in Dr. No, and clearly an experienced actor. Which the actor playing Bond, a fellow named Sean Connery, known in some circles for a small role in [a] Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, was not.
. . . the series probably didn't need a second lead who was already a polished product, albeit of the American variety, in Jack Lord's CIA officer Felix Leiter. Leiter continued, but with much more drab figures playing the role — recast in every film until Jeffrey Wright's Leiter of the last two pictures — figures who were usually no competition whatsoever for the shining light of Bond. And Jack Lord? He went on to become his own sort of iconic figure in a little show called Hawaii Five-O.
"Book 'em, Danno."
Nor was Mr. Bradley alone in his sentiments about Jack's performance in Dr. No. In their book, Bond Films, Jim Smith and Stephen Lavington said that Jack played Felix Leiter in a "swaggering" fashion and considered him "excellent, an effective American version of James Bond."(2)
And, so, that is all there was to it. No producer is going to allow a stronger actor to upstage his star.
(1) Bradley, William. “Bond at 50: Dr. No Is a Time Capsule From the Early Mad Men Era. Huffington Post. October 4, 2012.
(2) Smith, Jim and Lavington, Stephen. Bond Films. London: Virgin Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7535-0709-4.