Contributed by: The James Bond Movie Encyclopedia by Steven Jay Rubin

(May 9, 1912–June 18, 1963): Mexican leading man who, despite a terminal illness, portrayed the exuberant Turkish spymaster Ali Kerim Bey in From Russia with Love. Armendariz was perfectly cast as the charming bigger-than-life operative, delivering lines as crisply as a sword point while giving the film an exotic flavor in the manner of classic character actors like Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, and Basil Rathbone. Armendariz had just finished playing the evil caliph in the King Brothers’ 1963 production Captain Sinbad (coincidentally, that character was named El Kerim) when director Terence Young signed him to play Kerim Bey.

Because he wanted to improve his family’s financial situation, Armendariz told no one that he had cancer of the lymph glands when he came aboard the Bond film. During the final weeks of location shooting in Istanbul, however, Armendariz began to develop a bad limp, and Young finally discovered the truth. His imminent incapacity forced the producers to make some hasty decisions. Could they finish the film with Armendariz, or would they have to find a new actor and reshoot the role?

Young visited Armendariz at his London hotel and asked him about his own plans. The stricken actor mentioned his wife and her need for financial security. “Help me,” he asked. “I think I can give you two more weeks. Can you finish with me in that time? I would like to get the money and finish the picture.”[1]

Young, who felt he couldn’t do the film without Armendariz, convinced the producers that he could shoot all the remaining Pinewood Studio sequences with Armendariz in the time the dying actor could give them. A meeting was called, and art director Syd Cain and his assistant Michael White were told to begin construction immediately on everything that would require Armendariz, including the sprawling gypsy camp.

Young and cinematographer Ted Moore planned to film all of Armendariz’s close-ups by shooting onto the actor over a stand-in’s shoulder. Weeks later, Sean Connery would finish his scenes with Terence Young playing Ali Kerim Bey. The atmosphere was heavy at Pinewood Studios during those last weeks of May 1963. For everyone involved in the production, it was as if From Russia with Love had taken on a new seriousness.

On Sunday June 9, 1963, Terence Young held a going-away party for Armendariz at his London townhouse. Most of the production cast and crew was there, and Ian Fleming, himself dying of heart disease, arrived in the late afternoon. The two stricken men had met for the first time in Istanbul and had taken a considerable liking to one another. They spent much of the afternoon on a couch in Young’s living room, discussing Armendariz’s good friend the late Ernest Hemingway. Armendariz mentioned that he had gone to Cuba to visit Hemingway in 1961 before coming to Europe for a part in Francis of Assisi for director Michael Curtiz. He remembered that final meeting well, telling Fleming, “On the morning that my boat left for Europe, Ernest came down to my little launch to see me off. We embraced and said farewell. It was sad, because I knew he was dying. As the boat started off, Ernest ran back, jumped into the boat, almost fell in the sea, and put his arms around me, yelling, ‘Don’t leave! Don’t leave me!’ He told me that he wouldn’t suffer through a long illness. He didn’t want to be a vegetable for the rest of his life. He could hardly control himself. But, eventually, with a number of people trying to help him, Ernest left the boat and returned to shore. That was the last time I saw him. Two weeks later, he went to Idaho and shot himself.” [2]

After Armendariz had finished his story, Fleming, who was terribly impressed, turned to him and said, “You know [Hemingway’s] right; you can never be a vegetable in this life. You’ve got to go at the right moment.” Armendariz nodded, tapped an ash from his long cigar, and said, “You’re right, Ian.”

On June 18, 1963, nine days later, Pedro Armendariz, lying deathly ill in a hospital bed at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, sent his wife out to have lunch, took a .357 Colt Magnum that he had smuggled in his luggage, and shot himself through the heart with an armor-piercing bullet. Ian Fleming would not last much longer either, dying in August 1964.

Pedro Armendariz was born in Mexico City, raised in the suburb of Churubusco (which was later incorporated into the city itself and became famous for its Churubusco film studio). He eventually moved to Laredo, Texas. After studying at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he returned to Mexico City. Armendariz was discovered by director Miguel Zacarías, who cast him in the drama Rosario (1935). After making a number of important, career-building films in Mexico, Armendariz made his US film debut as a police lieutenant in director John Ford’s The Fugitive (1947). Ford loved his work and continued to cast him in such classic westerns as Fort Apache (1948), as former Confederate cavalryman Sergeant Beaufort, and 3 Godfathers (1948), both opposite John Wayne. It is believed that Armendariz was one of ninety-one people, along with fellow actors John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, who contracted cancer as a result of exposure to radioactivity from atomic bomb testing while working on the film The Conqueror (1956).

[1] Terence Young, interview by Steven Jay Rubin, London, June 25, 1977.

[2] Ibid.


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