When the death of Richard Kiel was announced on 11th September, the story made news headlines around the world, and generous obituaries were published in major newspapers. This is testament to the respect and affection people around the world felt for the actor, and a measure of the extent to which Jaws, James Bond's steel-toothed adversary in the films The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), had pervaded cultural space.
Much of the responsibility for this must lie in Richard Kiel's interpretation of the role. He imbued the character with the perfect combination of menace, humour and humanity – remarkably without uttering a single word until his final scene as Jaws in Moonraker. As Kiel said on the BBC Radio 4 programme, The Reunion, recorded days before his death, “I said if I were to play the part, I want to give the character some human characteristics, like perseverance, frustration.”
The popularity of Jaws also stems, inevitably, from his physical attributes and macabre method of dispatching his victims. The flash of metal teeth as Jaws grimaces in pleasure at the prospect of a killing. The ease with which he bites through a metal cable, almost as if it were, say, liquorice. The view of Jaws advancing down a side street in outlandish carnival costume towards Manuela, Bond's Rio assistant, who is rooted on the spot in fear. His indestructibility in his relentless pursuit of Bond. These are moments that stay with audiences long after the films have ended, and make Jaws so memorable. It helps, too, that Jaws has the same name as an equally (or more) famous shark. In contrast, Sandor and Chang, Jaws' fellow henchmen in The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker respectively, have largely been forgotten among all but keen Bond fans.
Jaws was a product of the The Spy Who Loved Me's scriptwriters (director Lewis Gilbert suggests in his autobiography that Jaws was the creation of Richard Maibaum, rather than Christopher Wood). However, while the character doesn't appear in Ian Fleming's original novel (published in 1962), the scriptwriters may well have drawn inspiration from the novel. When the book's heroine, Vivienne Michel, first encounters Horror, one of the two criminals intending to murder Vivienne and burn down the motel she's managing, she recalls that “when he spoke there was a glint of grey silvery metal from his front teeth and I supposed they had been cheaply capped with steel.” Horror doesn't use his teeth to kill, but it's possible that Jaws was born from this description, as well as traits or memes of other characters, most plausibly Dracula's penchant for biting necks.
Jaws has had life after Moonraker, thanks to his continued popularity. For example, the character was resurrected for the 007 Legends computer game (2012) and was one of three henchmen from the film series (the others being Nick Nack and Oddjob) to appear in the animated series, James Bond Jr (1991-2). The three characters, incidentally, also appear together during the 'Minions Anonymous' scene in the credits of the film, Inspector Gadget (1999). Richard Kiel is featured as the 'Famous Bad Guy with Silver Teeth'. The Eon series itself surely alluded to Jaws in The World Is Not Enough (1999), with the character of Bullion, Valentin Zukovsky's gold-toothed bodyguard played by Goldie.
Jaws was additionally referenced in a number of television commercials starring Richard Kiel. In one, for the Sampo Visa Mini credit card, Kiel is in a supermarket approaching the check-outs counters. His menacing size and scowl on his face frightens the check-out girl, but when Kiel takes out his credit card (the number of which ends '007'), she relaxes and smiles, revealing metal braces on her teeth.
In another advert, for Shredded Wheat, Richard Kiel sits at a table in a restaurant and proceeds to bite off the tines of a fork and a fragment from a dinner plate before ordering three shredded wheat (a diner at a neighbouring table is incredulous that Kiel would eat three shredded wheat).
The James Bond films have produced characters that have become as well established in popular culture as James Bond, and enjoy cultural recognition in their own right. Jaws is one of them, owed principally to Richard Kiel's unforgettable, terrifying, and sympathetic, characterisation.