From Jack Lord to Jeffrey Wright: The Many Faces of Felix Leiter
Since his debut in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, Felix Leiter has been a prominent recurring character in the James Bond series. First appearing on screen in the film Dr. No (1962), the resourceful CIA agent has formed a lasting alliance and deep friendship with James Bond as they collaborate on numerous missions in the United States and around the world.
While the specifics vary, a defining moment for Leiter occurs in both the literary and film series when he suffers a devastating shark attack. In the novel version, he loses an arm and a leg, but returns as a private detective, while the film version the shark attack happens on his wedding night. It’s the last we see of him on the big screen until he makes a triumphant return for the series reboot with Casino Royale (2005), and has since appeared in 3 Bond films.
From Jack Lord in 1962 to the present day Jeffrey Wright, Felix Leiter has been portrayed in the movies by six different actors. In this biography, we’ll take a look at who Felix Leiter is, what we known about him from the novels and how his and Bond’s partnership and friendship has blossomed over the decades.
We’ll also take a closer look at each actor that’s played the CIA ally of Bond’s and see how they’ve faired. So, grab your Martini, shaken, not stirred and find out all about James Bond’s most useful connection.
Felix Leiter – Origin and Background
Felix Leiter appeared in six of Ian Fleming’s 12 novels: Casino Royale, Live and Let Die, Diamonds Are Forever, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and The Man with the Golden Gun, and his role ranges from a main supporting character to brief cameo appearances.
Introduced as a former U.S. Marine working for the CIA, he has Texas roots and straw-colored hair. In his second appearance, he reveals a love for jazz music. As a sidekick, he rescues Bond after he loses to the villainous Le Chiffre at the poker tables.
In Live and Let Die, Leiter accompanies Bond around New York and Florida. It’s in Florida where he suffers a shark attack orchestrated by Mr. Big’s henchman, the Robber, losing an arm and a leg. After this incident, Leiter briefly reappears in Diamonds Are Forever, working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency after retiring from the CIA due to his severe injuries.
Leiter’s CIA background allows him to support Bond officially in several missions, such as Auric Goldfinger‘s raid on Fort Knox, SPECTRE’s hijacking of atomic warheads in the Bahamas, and Francisco Scaramanga‘s crime racket in Jamaica.
Felix Leiter returns in continuation novels, including John Gardner’s For Special Services, where he has a daughter named Cedar. Gardner also wrote the film novelization for Licence to Kill, explaining that Leiter’s encounter with sharks in the movie was his second time experiencing such an event.
In Raymond Benson’s novels, Leiter uses a wheelchair, but he’s depicted with fully functioning limbs in the 2011 reboot Carte Blanche. In William Boyd’s 2013 novel Solo, set within the Fleming continuity, Leiter has a nephew named Brigham, who follows in his uncle’s footsteps as a CIA agent.
Felix Leiter in the movies
Jack Lord: The First Felix Leiter
Jack Lord portrayed the first on-screen Felix Leiter in Dr. No, despite the character not appearing in the original novel. As this was the inaugural film in the series, it made sense to include Leiter, setting the stage for his future appearances.
Initially, Leiter is depicted as a mysterious figure, lurking in the background and trailing Bond through the airport and by car, donning a stylish pair of cat-eye sunglasses to enhance the enigma.
On a tropical island of Afro Caribbeans all wearing island garb, Bond seems oblivious to a white man in a suit following him and only confronts him after defeating his lackeys. This marks their first meeting in the film series, as they join forces to investigate Dr. Julius No‘s activities.
Among many Bond fans, Jack Lord is generally one of the best actors to have portrayed Felix Leiter. He possesses the right look and a fittingly reserved demeanor, although the friendship between Leiter and Bond feels somewhat shallow and underdeveloped.
Jack Lord was invited to return for Leiter’s second appearance, but the actor apparently wanted equal billing with Sean Connery and a massive pay raise, so the producers decided to go for a different actor.
Cec Linder: A One-Time Felix Leiter
Cec Linder made his sole appearance as Felix Leiter in Goldfinger (1964), taking over the role after Jack Lord declined to return, and instead went on to join the police force in Hawaii.
In Goldfinger, Leiter makes his presence and identity known right away when he approaches Bond in Miami for some “man talk”. His role in the latter part of the film is more prominent than in the novel, as he observes James Bond, who’s being held captive at Auric Goldfinger’s Kentucky ranch.
Cec Linder is visibly older than Jack Lord, but he brings a sense of warmth and camaraderie to the character, emphasizing a growing bond between Leiter and Bond. His performance was marked by subtle humor and a laid-back confidence.
That said, whether it’s because he was the first character to be played by a different actor, Linder isn’t generally liked by Bond fans.
Rik Van Nutter: A Closer Resemblance
Felix Leiter made a second consecutive appearance in the next film, Thunderball (1965), this time with Rik Van Nutter taking on the role. Though he bears little resemblance to his predecessors, he looks more like Jack Lord’s Leiter than Cec Linder’s. In fact, Van Nutter’s portrayal might be the closest to the literary version of the character.
Introduced in a similar fashion to Dr. No‘s Leiter, he’s first seen lurking in the background, donning a suit and sunglasses. The confusion only heightens when Bond punches him upon their first face-to-face interaction, but Leiter’s true identity is quickly revealed, and he joins Bond in the search for stolen nuclear warheads.
A younger and more sophisticated Rik Van Nutter delivered a solid, if not particularly memorable, performance as Felix Leiter. The limited scope of his character prevented him from being more prominent, but Van Nutter’s portrayal was a big improvement on Linder’s.
Norman Burton: A Likeable but Unconvincing Leiter
In Diamonds Are Forever, Norman Burton took on the role of Felix Leiter, assisting Bond during his infiltration of the diamond smuggling pipeline in the United States. As it’s mostly based in the US, he plays a significant role in investigating Willard Whyte, although most of his work occurs behind the scenes.
Burton’s primary shortcoming, like Cec Linder’s, is his age and physical appearance, which make him less convincing as a CIA agent and friend of Connery’s Bond. He doesn’t seem like the type of person Bond would typically associate or form a close bond with, although he does have the odd moment.
David Hedison: Felix Leiter Twice Over
David Hedison holds the distinction of being the first actor to play Felix Leiter twice. He first appears alongside Roger Moore‘s James Bond in Live and Let Die (1973), primarily working behind the scenes tracking Dr. Kananga‘s activities and smoothing things over with the Louisiana police after Bond’s speedboat chase pile up. At the film’s conclusion, Leiter actively assists Bond and Quarrel Jr. in infiltrating and destroying Dr. Kananga’s poppy fields.
Hedison reprised the role a massive 16 years later in Licence to Kill (1989), alongside Timothy Dalton‘s Bond. In this film, Leiter works as a DEA agent who arrests drug lord Franz Sanchez along with Bond, before they go to Leiter’s wedding.
Shortly after, Sanchez escapes and captures Leiter on his wedding night, feeding him to a pack of sharks. Upon learning of Sanchez’s escape, Bond rushes to Leiter’s home, only to find Della raped and murdered and Felix gravely injured. This tragedy sets the stage for the plot, with Bond going rogue to avenge his friend and ally.
David Hedison delivers two commendable performances, establishing himself as a solid and charismatic Felix Leiter. His charisma in both films elevates the emotional stakes, particularly after the tragic events of Licence to Kill, as he portrays a genuinely likable character.
John Terry: A Brief and Unmemorable Leiter
Between David Hedison’s two portrayals of Felix Leiter, the character made a fleeting appearance in The Living Daylights (1987), played by John Terry. With limited screen time and an unremarkable presence, it seems as though his inclusion in the film was an afterthought.
Terry’s Leiter and James Bond lack a strong bond, and it is easy to overlook his presence in the movie altogether. This is probably the reason, Hedison was invited back for a second time 16 years after his first appearance.
Jeffrey Wright: Felix Leiter Rebooted
After Felix Leiter’s dismemberment in Licence to Kill, the character was replaced with other allies, such as Jack Wade, during the Pierce Brosnan years. However, with the series reboot, Felix Leiter returned in Casino Royale (2005) after a 17-year absence, this time portrayed by Jeffrey Wright. Wright went on to become the second actor to play Felix Leiter more than once.
In Casino Royale, Leiter is introduced as a somewhat shady background character participating in the high-stakes poker game. It’s only when Bond is financially desperate that Leiter reveals his identity and helps Bond buy back into the game, in exchange for the rights to extradite Le Chiffre to the United States rather than Britain. This forms the foundation of their friendship.
In Quantum of Solace (2008), Leiter takes on a more prominent role as a subordinate to the corrupt CIA agent Gregg Beam in South America. He goes out of his way to warn Bond of impending danger, providing him with information on the villainous Dominic Greene. By the film’s end, M informs Bond that Leiter has been promoted to Beam’s old position.
Felix Leiter didn’t appear again until No Time To Die (2021), marking Jeffrey Wright’s third performance as Bond’s CIA ally. In the film, he works alongside State Department newcomer Logan Ash, and tracks down Bond to get him to help them locating a bioweapon in Cuba.
However, once they have the weapon aboard their vessel, Ash turns on them, shooting Felix and sabotaging the ship. As the boat starts to sink, Bond frantically attempts to save Felix’s life, but the devoted CIA agent urges him to leave, ensuring his sacrifice isn’t in vain.
This marks the first on-screen death of Felix Leiter in the James Bond franchise. But with No Time To Die being the end of the Daniel Craig era and Bond dying, too, we can assume that we will see both Bond and Felix Leiter again.
Jack Leiter’s Many Faces
Felix Leiter has undergone numerous transformations since his introduction in Ian Fleming’s novels. From Jack Lord’s trailblazing portrayal to Jeffrey Wright’s modern and nuanced interpretation, each actor has brought a unique perspective to the role.
While some have showcased the character’s charm and charisma, others have emphasized Leiter’s resourcefulness and unwavering loyalty to Bond. As the Bond franchise continues to evolve, it remains to be seen how the character of Felix Leiter will be reimagined in future films.
However, one thing is certain: Felix Leiter will forever be an integral part of Bond’s cinematic univers.