Born in Berlin, Germany, Van der Zyl’s father, a rabbi, packed up the family when she was 4 and fled to London as the Nazis came to power. There, she fell in with the local dramatics society. At 11 she was asked to help dub a German movie into English — naturally, she provided the English voice for a little girl. “By the end,” she said much later, “I knew I wanted to be an actress.” She did become an actress — but was rarely seen on the screen even though she had movie-star looks.
Instead, she provided voices for multiple characters, most notably in the James Bond films from Dr. No (1962) to Moonraker (1979). When Eon Productions was filming Dr. No, they didn’t like what “Bond Girl” Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) sounded like, with her Swiss-German accent which, they thought, Americans would have difficulty understanding. Van der Zyl was paid 25 pounds to give Andress “a mid-Atlantic accent” — and was so good at it that the studio also had her dub Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), MI6 boss John Strangways’ secretary Mary Trueblood (Dolores Keator), and several other female parts. The only actresses in the film she didn’t do the voices for were M’s secretary Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) and double agent Miss Taro (Zena Marshall). “I had a natural talent and became known in the industry for my re-voicing skills,” she said in an interview. “The voice has got to be part of the acting. I was there to do a job and took pride in my work, using breathing techniques, singing, and acting.”
In For Your Ears Only, her 2013 biography, Van der Zyl said she asked Dr. No director Terence Young if there was an on-screen a part for her in the next film slated for production, From Russia With Love. “He said, ‘No, I’m afraid you wouldn’t stop the traffic, Nikki.’ However, the good-looking young man in the corner came up to me and said in a loud voice, ‘I’d stop the traffic for you any day.’ That voice belonged to Sean Connery.” On the Goldfinger set, Van der Zyl worked as a dialogue coach for Gert Fröbe (the villain, Goldfinger). “Gert delivered the [‘No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!’] line fairly dramatically at first, but I told him that it would be more effective if he said it in a throwaway manner, which he does in the film.” She also dubbed the voices in that film for the gold-painted Bond Girl Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) and the dancer Bonita (Nadja Regin), who tries to lure Bond into a trap. And through it all, unlike today, none of her work on the films was credited. After Moonraker she trained as a barrister (lawyer), but still worked on occasional films, still almost always uncredited. But she got acknowledgment from her peers. “It is to Nikki’s credit that her performances have never been questioned,” said sound editor Norman Wanstall, who won an Oscar for Goldfinger, “and her greatest reward is to witness the disbelief of those informed that Ursula Andress’ voice is not her own.” Van der Zyl died March 6 after a stroke, at 85.