Oct 21, 2009

R.I.P. Joseph Wiseman

The Associated Press reports (via Yahoo) that Joseph Wiseman, the actor who played Dr. No, has passed away at the age of 91. I've always felt that Wiseman is too often overlooked for his lasting contribution to the James Bond legacy. He was later overshadowed by flashier villains like Gert Frobe's Auric Goldfinger and Donald Pleasence's Ernst Stavro Blofeld, but with Dr. Julius No, Wiseman established not only the quintessential screen Bond villain, but also the cinematic supervillain. Aside from a couple of antiheroes in early foreign silents like Fantomas or Dr. Mabuse, prior to 1962's Dr. No supervillains as we know them today were relegated mostly to taking on comic book heroes in serials. But after Dr. No, they were suddenly everywhere. Not only spies faced them (in droves) during the Sixties, but cops, detectives, cartoon characters and eventually even Homer Simpson. Who is state policeman Steve McGarrett's arch-rival on Hawaii Five-O, Wo Fat, if not another guise of Dr. No? True, Ian Fleming's half-Chinese doctor owed a considerable debt to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, but it was Fleming's notion of blending the last century's xenophobic "Oriental menace" with contemporary espionage that captured the imaginations of 1960s cinemagoers. In fact, the success of Dr. No led directly to a cinematic revival of Fu Manchu, absent from movie screens since the Thirties, re-tooled for the Bond-Age while keeping a period setting. The actor who played the Sixties incarnation of Fu, and became most associated with the role, was a distant cousin of Ian Fleming's who the author recommended play Dr. No in the film: Christopher Lee. (This was the era, remember, of Caucasian actors playing Asian roles.) Lee went on to memorably portray another Bond villain, Francisco Scaramanga, and the first cinematic Bond baddie role went to Wiseman, who clearly made the part his own. His clipped delivery (painstakingly–and thankfully–avoiding a cliched Charlie Chan-style Western version of a Chinese accent), careful posture, emotionless face and deliberate mannerisms literally defined "Bond villain" for all time–and all those actors who played 007's later, more famous adversaries owe him a debt.

Surprisingly, and unlike a lot of other Bond villains, Wiseman didn't go on to act in many other spy roles. Such appearances were few and limited to semi-spyish TV series like T.H.E. Cat, MacGyver and The Equalizer. But his single appearance in a James Bond film left an indelible mark on the genre, for which he should always be remembered.


Elliot James said...

Wiseman was a tremendously skilled actor who brought honor to his craft. You don't see many of his league working these days. I loved his "mustache Pete" performance in The Valachi Papers.

Delmo said...

He was great in "The Untouchables".