The first time I had to speak in class I was scared to death

29th November 2002 at 00:00
But I had everyone in stitches and Mr Greely was impressed with my ability to hold an audience

It was Mr Greely, my English master at Baldwin Park high school, California, who set me on the road to becoming an actor. He helped me to turn a deficit into an asset. He realised how bored I was learning about dangling participles, conjugating verbs and diagramming sentences and recruited me into his public speaking class, which he introduced as an alternative to English grammar.

I was 14 and 6ft 9in tall, and Mr Greely was about 5ft 4in. There were about 25 of us in class and he held our attention with humour; he never confronted us. He chose not to notice when another tall guy, Arthur Oaks, who was 6ft 4in, and I slipped out of class. John Greely was thin, middle-aged and wore casual clothes. He was quite hip. I remember him wearing Hawaiian shirts in class sometimes.

I learned to read early and did well in junior school, but I'd got into a mode of not having to work hard because I was so far ahead. This was a disadvantage when I reached high school because I found it hard to shift gear. I spent a lot of time thinking about the girl sitting in front of me and about hot rod cars.

Mr Greely soon realised that too much water had gone under the bridge for me to catch up. But instead of getting me expelled, he encouraged me to prove myself in other directions. I joined his speech classes and, the next year, journalism classes. We would be given a topic that we probably knew nothing about and had to speak extemporaneously for five minutes. I was very shy - more than most because of my height - and the first time I had to talk I was scared to death. I can't remember the topic but I do remember that I had the whole class, including Mr Greely, in stitches, and he was impressed with my ability to hold an audience.

Journalism classes were fun, too. We had to write stories for the weekly school newspaper and prepare its year book. I learned how to create headlines and to write a good story. It was all good training for when I later began to write screenplays and, more recently, books.

I was small for my age until I was about 12 when I suddenly started growing fast; I had stretch marks because my skin couldn't keep up with my bones. Eventually, I grew to be 7ft 2in.

Luckily, by the time I got to Baldwin Park, I was already quite big. Freshmen had to turn up a day before the rest of the school and there was a tradition that seniors would lie in wait for newcomers and take them into the mountains and "haze" them. Hazing meant stripping them naked, putting gobs of lipstick on them and leaving them by the road in a desolate area where passing motorists were hesitant to pick up strangers, let alone naked youths wearing lipstick.

When a carload of seniors pulled up as I walked along the road on my first day, I was wary. They took one look at my 6ft 8in, 275lb frame, and hesitated. "Are you a freshman?" one asked. "Do I look like a freshman?" I responded, and luckily they drove off.

My size proved to be a valuable asset in my future career. I got a job as a bouncer in a Hollywood nightclub and then moved to the San Fernando Valley, hoping to get into movies. I was working as a salesman when a call came. "Is this the big guy?" asked an unknown voice. "How tall are you and how much do you weigh?" I told him and the caller asked: "How would you like to work in a TV show?" "How much does it pay?" I responded. "A hundred bucks a day," said the voice. I got the part of a "heavy" in Klondike and that was the beginning of my acting career, which led 20 years ago to my most famous role, as Jaws in the Bond movies.

Before I became well known as Jaws, I ran into Mr Greely and was glad to be able to thank him for getting me started in show business.

Actor Richard Kiel was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1939 Born in Detroit, Michigan, USA

1953-57 Baldwin Park high, California

1960 First acting job in TVshow, Klondike

1977 First screen appearance as Jaws in James Bond film, The Spy Who Loved Me

1981 Stars in So Fine, with Ryan O'Neal

1991 Stars in, co-writes and co-produces The Giant of Thunder Mountain

March 2002 Autobiography Making it Big in the Movies published

October 2002-April 2003 Bond, James Bond exhibition, London's Science Museum, includes metal teeth worn as Jaws

November 2002 Die Another Day premiere; book signing in London, Paris and Hamburg

2003 Publication of first biographical novel, Cassius Clay

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