The Worst James Bond Character Ever Was Inspired by a Series of Car Commercials


Even the most die-hard 007 fans know that James Bond movies don’t always hit. There’s the yellow face of You Only Live Twice, the pigeon double-take in Moonraker, the surfing in Die Another Day. But never has the franchise done worse than when a certain Louisiana police officer bumbles into the otherwise solid Live and Let Die.

Yes, I’m talking about Sheriff J.W. Pepper, a loudmouth distraction who sort of makes sense in the American-set Live and Let Die, but then he somehow also shows up in Thailand to further drag down The Man With the Golden Gun.

Modern viewers meeting the character for the first time today will likely be confused by Pepper’s shtick. But to the viewers of the early 1970s, Pepper not only hit as a funny joke, but he was very much in line with Bond’s history of pop culture Johnny-come-latelyisms.

Ya’ll Drive Safe Now, Heah?

Before he hassled Roger Moore’s James Bond, the character that inspired Sheriff J.W. hocked Dodge cars in American TV commercials. To help promote their muscle car, the Challenger R/T, and to associate the car with a rebellious spirit, Dodge cast character actor Joe Higgins as the big, cocky Southern-fried Sheriff for a commercial that ran in 1970.

One commercial finds the Sheriff (as yet unnamed) pulling over a young man for driving a “racing car” within city limits. In the argument that follows, the Sheriff points out all the qualities that make the Challenger similar to a racing car, while the young man points out the qualities that make the vehicle a consumer product.

The clip was a hit, so Dodge kept bringing back Higgins for more ads. In later clips, the Sheriff gained the name J.W. Higgins (named for the actor) and a sidekick in the form of Deputy Buford. Higgins moved onto print ads as well, selling all manner of Dodge vehicles while warning readers to drive safe with his catch-phrase, “Y’all drive safe now, yeah?”

Even after the campaign ended, Sheriff Higgins remained in the public consciousness. The state of California hired Higgins to play his slobbering Southern sheriff character in a series of public safety ads, including one that featured the Sheriff alongside then-governor Ronald Reagan.

But none of that really explains how Sheriff J.W. Pepper, played by Cool Hand Luke actor Clifton James, ended up in Bond movies.

Too Fast, Too Inferior

“You got a set of wheels that won’t quit, boy,” says J.W. Pepper in Live and Let Die, which feels a lot like something J.W. Higgins would say. But then, Pepper has to go one step further while speaking to his quarry Adam (Tommy Lane), a henchman of the crime boss Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto). “If they’s yours that is,” he says to the Black man. It doesn’t stop there, with more racist insults, including calling Adam “boy.”

Disgusting? For certain. But not actually inappropriate given the genre. Live and Let Die borrows heavily from Blaxploitation films, such as Superfly, Shaft, and Foxy Brown. Those films often deal in broad caricatures, taking unintelligent and racist cops from the real world to risible extremes on film.

While Live and Let Die doesn’t nail the tone of Blaxploitation flicks, with its white protagonist who allows a Black woman (Gloria Hendry as Rosie Carver) to die after he beds her and fights to rescue a white woman (Jane Seymour as Solitaire) from the clutches of the Black villain Kananga, Sheriff J.W. Pepper and his gaggle of Southern fried buffoons in blue do.

That doesn’t explain why Pepper would return for the follow-up film The Man With the Golden Gun, which does not take place in the American South, but in the East. As Bond and his assistant Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) follow the assassin Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) to Bangkok, 007 jumps into a car being test-driven by none other than J.W. Pepper.

Why did Pepper decide to vacation in Thailand? Why does he decide to go car shopping while on his vacation? These questions get no answers, other than the one provided by Live and Let Die and The Man With the Golden Gun screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz. “I love writing dumb sheriffs,” Mankiewicz explained in a bonus feature on the Live and Let Die DVD. “When you’re writing a screenplay, sometimes characters just take off with you.” Pepper even followed Mankiewicz to his Superman II script, in which Clifton James plays an unnamed bumpkin sheriff.

Be that as it may, the popularity of J.W. Higgins points to another reason for Pepper’s appearances, an issue that has dogged the franchise for decades.

Bond Lags Behind

“My dear girl, there are some things that just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Perignon ’53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit,” James Bond (Sean Connery) says in 1964’s Goldfinger. “That’s just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!” Although Bond’s didacticism is nothing new, the reference clangs, even long before Paul McCartney and Wings wrote the hit song for Live and Let Die.

But this cultural faux-pas is a good indication of how Bond usually treats trends. It always arrives too late, emulating something made popular elsewhere. 1973’s Live and Let Die tries to borrow the popularity of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Shaft, both from 1971. Moonraker followed The Spy Who Loved Me in 1979 to capitalize on the success of Star Wars (1977), bumping the originally planned For Your Eyes Only to 1981. At the start of GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond engages in that ’90s craze of bungee jumping. At the start of the gritty Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s Bond shows off his parkour skills.

As these examples show, the Bond franchise isn’t an innovator. It is, like its main character, inherently conservative, at best reacting and trying to copy whatever’s hot at the time, if not, like Bond dogging the Beatles, disparaging it.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this tendency, as long as no one tries to pretend that Bond is cutting edge. After all, sometimes this copying results in fantastic sequences, like the beginning of Casino Royale. And sometimes it gives us goofier moments, like when Moore’s Bond battles hockey players in For Your Eyes Only.

And then, sometimes, it gives us a painfully unfunny racist sheriff, in an attempt to capture some of that sweet car commercial heat.

The post The Worst James Bond Character Ever Was Inspired by a Series of Car Commercials appeared first on Den of Geek.

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