Amid the waning wake of excitement over last month’s release of the James Bond movie Casino Royale, we now note, rather belatedly but with sorrow, the loss of a controversial and flamboyant Irishman, Kevin McClory--the co-writer of an earlier Bond flick, Thunderball (1965)--who died on November 20.
Bond devotees know the circumstances of McClory’s knotty association with this profitable franchise. In 1958, McClory, who had previously worked on The African Queen, Around the World in 80 Days, and other Hollywood box-office draws, collaborated with Bond creator Ian Fleming, wealthy Fleming friend Ivar Bryce, and noted British screenwriter Jack Whittingham on several drafts of potential big- and small-screen adaptations of Fleming’s suave Agent 007. “There were grandiose plans to hire Alfred Hitchcock to direct and Richard Burton to play Bond,” according to The Times of London. But following the less-than-steller 1959 release of The Boy and the Bridge, a film McClory had directed and co-written, Fleming apparently lost interest in their collaboration. Instead, recalls the UK Independent, “in ill-health with heart trouble and [feeling] very much a spent force,” the author went back to his home in Jamaica to compose what would be his ninth Bond adventure. Fleming remarked to an old friend of his from British Naval Intelligence that he was “terribly stuck with James Bond. What was easy at 40 is very difficult at 50. I used to believe--sufficiently--in Bonds and blondes and bombs. Now the keys creak as I type and I fear the zest may have gone. Part of the trouble is having a wife and child. They knock the ruthlessness out of one. I shall definitely kill off Bond with my next book--better a poor bang than a rich whimper!”
Groping about for inspiration, Fleming fastened on the screen treatment he’d been toiling over with McClory and Whittingham, and from it wrote Thunderball. A critical miscalculation, as it turned out. “Before the publication of Thunderball on 27 March 1961 in London by Jonathan Cape,” The Independent explains, “Kevin McClory obtained an advance proof copy of the novel. As soon as he realised that Fleming had plagiarised their collaborative screenplay, he sent a warning letter to the publishers that if they published the book as it stood he would take legal action. Receiving no answer, McClory sued. McClory was out to stop Jonathan Cape from representing Thunderball as the sole work of Fleming.”
The case proceeded to trial in November 1963, but was settled after only nine days, with Fleming (who would die from a heart attack less than a year later) agreeing to pay McClory damages of £35,000, as well as his court costs of £52,000. Most importantly, however, the settlement stipulated that future editions of the novel were to be credited as “based on a screen treatment by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham, and Ian Fleming.” “Due to the lawsuit,” explains Wikipedia, “Thunderball was pushed back as the first official Bond film in Harry Saltzman’s and Albert R. Broccoli’s series”--instead, Dr. No was released in 1962. “Broccoli and Saltzman’s production company EON Productions later made a deal with McClory for Thunderball to be made into a film in 1965, consequently allowing McClory sole producing credit for the adaptation. McClory additionally retained the rights to remake the film after ten years had elapsed.” And he chose to exercise those rights. In 1976, McClory announced intentions to make a Bond film tentatively titled Warhead, but that was stalled by more legal hassles. The project eventually fell into the hands of U.S. producer Jack Schwartzman, who in 1983 remade Thunderball as Never Say Never Again, which brought Sean Connery back into the Bond role (after having been replaced at EON by Roger Moore). For 007 fans, that proved to be a rich year: Moore’s Octopussy was also released in 1983.
“For almost two decades,” The Times notes, “McClory continued to annoy Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the holders of the ‘official’ Bond franchise, by trying to make rogue 007 movies based on his rights in Thunderball. All were shot down in the law courts until 1997 when Sony, the media group, backed McClory’s plans, leading to a multimillion-dollar lawsuit with MGM, the Bond copyright holder.”
Tragically, all these legal battles swallowed up the riches McClory had won from Thunderball (which reportedly grossed $141.2 million worldwide). They also “caused him to be ostracised by the film industry,” says The Times.