He stands in the doorway of his small suburban house, his head tucked awkwardly to the right so it will fit under the door frame. The eyes are huge and wideset, the mustache thick, the teeth askew, the hands like swollen catcher's mitts. His shoes are great black round-toed workboots, 16EEE, custom made. His shirt strains across his chest. There is a lump in the middle of his forehead. Somewhere behind him, way back inside the house, a baby is crying.
"Hi," says Richard Kiel, extending the right catcher's mitt. Earlier, on the telephone, he gave directions in a voice tinged with apology because his house is not, as befits a movie star, in Beverly Hills or Baliu or even the faintly fashionable terrain of the San Fernando Valle. He lives in Covina, a squared-off section of Eastern Los Angeles where the smog settles in thick and his wife goes bowling with the woman next door. "I need to be in a place where I'm just the big guy down the street," he says.
The Big Guy Down the Street is 7 feet 2 inches tall, 315 pounds and famous. Children besiege him for autographs: "From your giant pal," he writes. His kitchen table sags under a huge stack of photographs he must sign and send away. He was in the China Post (holding Hu Yin-meng and Ho Ssu-min, Mandarin movies stars). He has been lauded in Hebrew, analyzed in Swedish, headlined in French. "L'homme le Plus Grand du Monde," wrote Paris Match. After 20 years of smashing, muttering, hulking, and terrifing his way through an international array of B movies and television episodes, Kiel has found the role to propel him to glory: Jaws, the gnashing steel-toothed wonder, one of the few villains ever to survive a James Bond movie.
"I knew in my heart that people could like me," says Kiel, in his slow, resonant basso profundo, "and it was just a matter of finding a way to take advantage of it. So along came this stone-faced killer with the mechanical steel teeth."
Jaws, who made his entrance two years ago when he lumbered onto the screen in "The Spy Who Loved Me" and then dispatched some unfortunate enemy with one good chomp to the neck, is a sort of freelance Destructo whose general aim in life is to rip to shreds both James Bond (Roger Moore, in this case) and whatever mysterious vehicle Bond happens to be traveling in at the time.
Jaws goes about his work wih a zealous earnestness, widening his eyes bore the death bite as though a gaint pastrami on rye had been set before him; in "Mooraker," the $30 million Madman-Polts-Destruction-of-World epic that is the latest of the Bond movies, Jaws lunges dutifully through a Venetian glassworks factory, over the cable of a funicular suspended about a million feet above Rio, and into a spacecraft commanded by the demented genius Drax. In the by the demented genius Drax. In the course of all this activity, he also falls in love. "I said, 'Well, there isn't enough time in this movie to establish, you know, a meaningful relationship,'" says Kiel, remembering an early conversation with the producer. "He said, 'No it can be done.'"
Kiel smiles under his mustache. He does not have steel teeth. His teeth are perfectly ordinary, if somewhat irregular, and the cobalt steel dentures they designed for him on the Bond sets were so uncomfortable that he could only wear them for three minutes at a time.
He is also not strong enough to rip automobiles apart, although in "The Spy Who Loved Me" he disembowels a panel truck so convincingly that during the shooting of his last Italian science fiction movie, (which he describes as a "spaghetti Star Wars") the director explained to Kiel that in this next scene five men were going to roar toward him in a land vehicle and all Kiel had to do was pick it up and toss it to one side. "They said, 'What do you means, you can't do that."
At 7 feet 2 inches, one endures that sort of thing. Kiel had reached his full height by his late teens, stretched apparently by a malfunctioning pititary (there are unusually tall relatives on both sides of the family, but no one near Kiel's size). In conversations over the years he has learned to rattle off automatically the daily irritations; the stares, the constant questions about what the air feels like up there, the acrobatic efforts to cope with airline bathrooms. A well-known writer, dipping with sophistication, once told Kiel at a Malibu party that what Kiel really needed was a thoughtful part, a part that would take advantage of Kiel's special talents. "You know," the writer said. "Something like, Jack and the Beanstalk.'"
So did Kiel deck him?
"No," says Kiel. His voice is kind. "i just said, 'Bless his heart, he's not very bright.'"
He has lowered his body into a living room chair and is tousling the hair of his 2 1/2-year-old daughter, who makes Kiel's face light up just by pulling at his pants leg. His 8-month-old son is still crying in the bedroom, and his 4 1/2-year-old daughter, who and his 4 1/2-year-old son is making noises like a coyote in the kitchen. "R.G.!" Kiel bellows, in the direction of the coyote noises. He is crazy about his children. He has been married for 5 1/2 years; his wife Diane, whom he met in a Georgia disco, is 25 inches shorter than he is and has endured more giggly comments about that than anybody should have to bear.
The fortuitous union of Jaws and Kiel got underway back in 1976, when Kiel had ust finished making a foot-ball picture in Georgia called "The Longest Yard." The United Artists people f'offered Kiel the part -- at that point, as he describes it, your basic "kill people and die" James Bond heavy. Kiel was not quite satisfied. "You could have seared the people for a little white, but it needed something else."
Now, Kiel had played a lot of heavies by this time. He had played heavy spies and heavy thieves and heavy crazed killers from outer space. He had been acting ever since 1960, when he got paid $70 to play a brawling fighter in an episode of the television show "Klondike," and in all the work he had done since then, all the "Lassie" and "I Spy" and "My Mother the Car" episodes, all the memorable pictures like "The Human Duplicators" and "House of the Damned" and "The Nasty Rabbit," Kiel had recorded a few character traits useful to the project at hand.
There was the strong but silent composure of the giant Indian with thhe hawk on his shoulder who rescued Timmy from a river in a five-part "Lassie" special. There was the Neanderthal innocence of Eegah, the protagonist in Kiel's first movie, which he describes as the story of a Jaws-like modern dat caveman who lives in the mountains outside Palm Springs, wanting only for love. ("one night he crosses the road in search of food . . . he sees a girl for the first time, smells her perfume, drops the rabbit he's carrying over his shoulder . . . .")
Jaws, Kiel figured, needed a little soul. "The worst killers can be likeable," he says. "It's the human qualities of a man that has a mother, he has a sister, a bird, a dog, a cat, something."
So they filmed a cataclysmic fight, in which Bond heaves Jaws through the window of a speeding train and into some live electric wires. Kiel lifted himself carefully from the smoke and sparks, straightened his collar and tie, and brushed the dirt from his jacket. That was the right touch, he decided. "The little things, the subtle things that make him somebody the average person could identify with." Later he would add effects, like dropping a huge boulder on his foot and leaping around in wordless mock pain, but it was that dignified, tie-straightening survival that lifted Jaws to some Bondish immortality.
Jaws was supposed to die. He was going to be assaulted by a killer shark and blown to smithereens in the wet, frenzied, blood-drenched finale of "The Spy Who Loved Me," but somewhere in the course of the filming -- on a whim, as Kiel remembers it -- the director decided to film an alternate lst scene in which Jaws swims decorously into the horizon, having once again survived all. Kiel still remembers his first time in the movie theater, watching audience reaction as the picture proceeded.
"People were saying, 'Wonder if he's gonna get through this one,' and 'Oh, s --, there he is,'" says Kiel. "Old ladies, saying, 'I knew it, I knew it.'" He looks very pleased. "About half the people, when they talk about The Spy Who Loved Me.' they call it "jaw," he claims.
What all this means, most likely, is that Richard Kiel will no longer have to sell real estate or cemetery plots or Fuller brushes or Toyotas to augment the erratic income of an actor who makes producers blink, hard. "Herman," they used to wail to Kiel's agent, Herman Zimmerman, "what are we gonna do with this guy?" And Zimmerman would say: "Just use a little imagination."
Kiel had grown up in Los Angeles and taken over his father's washing machine repair business at 19. He started acting because people kept telling him to. "Sounded like it beat working," he says. "The typical heavy, the killer, the retarded brother, the demented convict -- to me those things seemed obvious, but in the beginning it was very difficult. They'd say, Well how many pictures where you'd play the circus strongman are there? That was the last thing I wanted to play. That was before the Dustin Hoffmans and the Al Pacinos and the Charles Bronsons. Today there's more of a tendency to look a little real in films -- you don't have to look like Robert Goulet."
Even after Kiel began to get work, people kept confusing him with Ted Cassidy. Cassidy played Lurch on "The addams Family," was chiefly known for staggering onto the screen to murmur in a baritone croak, "You rang?" and was six inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than Kiel. No matter. Kiel's own neighbor confused them: After Cassid's death last January Kiel's returned from a 9 1/2-month absence and could not understand why his neighbor started so violently when they first saw each other. "I thought you died," the neighbor said.
Whether Jaws will return, true love in hand, is one of the mysteries of moviedom right now; neither Kiel nor the United Artists people will say anything definite. "Now it's a question of doing more subtle things -- to have a real romance rather than a comic bk one," he says. "Certainly "i'm capable of that in real life."
No Jaws spinoffs, either. "I can't do any more work with steel teeth . . . Just like a girl. A girl who says yes to everybody, she'll get typecast."
In his current publicity photo, a bright color 8 x 10, Kiel shows his own teeth. He is dressed like a broad-shouldered stockbroker -- brown blazer, tan slacks, and a discreet brown print tie -- but his stance is an unenthusistic concession to monsterhood, the lips back, the hands grabbing the air. Kiel stands over the stack of photos, one shoulder lower than the other in the oddly tilted way he has of carrying his bigness. "Be ne when the time comes when it will be just no," says. CAPTION: Picture 1, Richard Kiel as Jaws with Blanche Ravalec in "Moonraker": "I knew in my heart that people could like me, and it was just a matter of finding a way to take advantage of it. So along came this stone-faced killer with the mechanical steel teeth."; Picture 2, Richard Kiel with 8-month-old son, Bennett.; Picture 3, The kiel family. Photos by Stephen Kelley for the Washington Post.