The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Richard Kiel, who played lovable giant ‘Jaws’ in ‘James Bond’ films, is dead at 74

Richard Kiel as Jaws in “The Spy Who Loved Me” in 1977. (Archive/Courtesy of United Artists Corporation)

James Bond villains are often long on viciousness and short on charm.

Then there was “Jaws.”

Somehow, the giant man with steel teeth assigned by forgettable bad guys to dispatch Roger Moore often proved more compelling than Moore himself.

Now, Richard Kiel, 7 feet 2 inches — the metal-mouthed assassin with a heart of gold in “The Spy Who Loved Me” and “Moonraker” — is dead at 74. He died on Wednesday in St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, the Los Angeles Times reported. The cause of death was not given.

Kiel was supposed to be Lex Luthor to Moore’s Superman. He was more like the Coyote to Moore’s Roadrunner — a Frankenstein’s monster who never drowned the girl in the well.

This was by design — Kiel’s design.

I didn’t really want to do it as it was a monster part,” Kiel told Den of Geek in 2009. He told a producer: “If I were to play the role I’d give him some human characteristics, perseverance, frustration, those kind of things.”

This strategy was successful beyond anyone’s imagining. Like post-Civil War 19th century presidents, Bond villains are masks in a pageant with obscure grudges against 007. Can anyone remember why Goldfinger dipped women in gold or why Dr. No was so negative?

Kiel chewed his way out of this stereotype. His epic, bumbling confrontations with Bond on trains, on planes and in space are the few moments of hilarity in a 23-film franchise. And he was the only bad guy brought back by popular demand.

I had convinced the producer that Jaws should have some characteristics that were human to counteract the steel teeth,” Kiel said. “I guess I overdid it – I became too likeable to kill off.”

Born in Detroit in 1939, Kiel grew tall as the result of acromegaly, a hormonal condition that causes gigantism. At 14, he was 6 feet 7 inches tall.

“When I was 12 my father got slightly concerned because I started to wear all his clothes,” he told People in 1979

After a move to California, his great height led him to a short-lived career as a bouncer. Even at the door, his friendliness was a weapon.

“Instead of trying to be mean and tough,” he explained, “I’d be jovial and crazy and I would go … ‘Now you don’t want any trouble do you?’ And they sobered up real quick.”

Eventually, he landed television roles built to suit his size — a character named “Bare Knuckles” in “Klondike,” a monster on “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” and a role as an alien in the “Twilight Zone” classic “To Serve Man.”

“The Spy Who Loved Me” came in 1977. Moore’s campy Bond — a departure from Sean Connery’s too-cool-for-school 007 — was tailor-made for a cartoonish nemesis such as Jaws.

Sure, Jaws terrorized women and killed people by biting them Dracula-style. But he often gave over to the ridiculous.

Kiel took punches from Moore that had no effect. A construction site fell on him, and he survived. He drove a boat off of a waterfall, and he survived. He ripped the hood off of a car with his bare hands. He stopped a bullet with his metal teeth. He bit through locks and wires. He bit a shark to death.

Bond even recruited him from the dark side at the end of “Moonraker” in 1979.

In fact, Kiel credited Moore with his success.

“He’s a good friend,” Kiel said. “And he allowed my character to steal scenes and become fun.”

After Jaws, Kiel tried to go against type. He wrote a screenplay. He was a proud born-again Christian and, a recovering alcoholic, spoke about addiction. He appeared in Adam Sandler’s “Happy Gilmore.” And, oddly, he co-authored a book about a 19th-century abolitionist called “Kentucky Lion: The True Story of  Cassius Clay.”

“If I wanted to be a trial attorney, I could have been,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1979. “If I wanted to be a real estate magnate, I could have been that, too.”

Kiel is survived by his wife, who is 5 foot 1, and four children.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of the St. Agnes Medical Center.