The colorful story of an Irish seanachaí
Kevin McClory is best known for adapting Ian Fleming's James Bond character for the screen, for producing Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983) and for his David and Goliath legal battles with Ian Fleming, Cubby Broccoli and Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Born in 1926 to a theatrical family in Dublin’s bustling seaport town of Dun Laoghaire, McClory grew up on the stage travelling throughout Britain and Ireland as the youngest actor in his parents’ theatre company. Following an eventful stint with the Norwegian Merchant Navy during World War Two, McClory embarked on a film career that would see him work with everyone from John Huston, Carol Reed and Irving Kershner to Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier and Humphrey Bogart and ultimately see him adapt Ian Fleming’s James Bond for the screen. Before his collaboration with Ian Fleming, McClory was one of the most in demand young director-producers in Hollywood. The Irishman had made a name for himself on John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and on Huston's recommendation, producer Mike Todd hired Kevin for Around the World in Eighty Days. The epic film took three years to make with Kevin directing the picture in Paris, Kuwait, Karachi, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Hong Kong and Japan. When the film’s associate producer, Academy Award winning William Cameron Menzies (Gone With The Wind), developed cancer early on in the production, Kevin was promoted to replace him. The partnership was a great success and McClory quickly became Todd’s right hand man. In deference to the ailing Menzies, Todd asked Kevin to forgo his Associate Producer screen credit. Kevin agreed and in doing so passed up on one of the film’s five Oscars.With the success of Around The World in Eighty Days, McClory had his choice of projects but turned them all down. Kevin had been secretly seeing starlet Elizabeth Taylor for some time and following her divorce from Michael Wilding they were free to marry. Todd asked Kevin for an introduction and after a whirlwind courtship McClory was dumped. The heartbroken Dubliner couldn’t get far enough away from Hollywood and in May 1957 he led an expedition of 26 men and 5 vehicles in attempt to drive around the world. The team made it from Detroit to Detroit in 104 days. McClory filmed numerous advertisements for his sponsor Ford Motor Company along the way as well as a documentary of the expedition, ‘One Road’. On his return, McClory took a much needed break in Hawaii only to meet the honeymooning Taylor and Todd in the lobby of his hotel. The friends reconciled and McClory told Todd about two new films he was planning, a thoughtful artistic piece, The Boy and the Bridge and an unnamed underwater adventure story set in the Bahamas.
During World War Two Kevin McClory served as a radio officer in the Norwegian Merchant Navy. His tanker, the Stigsted, was torpedoed by German U-Boats on the 21st February 1943. McClory and the First Mate were the last to leave the ship. Leaping off the listing vessel, the pair plunged into the North Atlantic, eight hundred miles from anywhere. A near dead McClory was picked up by the captain’s dingy and a harrowing two ordeal began. The captain maintained order for ten days till drinking seawater drove the crew to madness and murder. After 14 days adrift the crew were spotted by a trawler and brought to the County Kerry port of Valencia. The captain had steered the boat the entire time and his hand had become so frostbitten that the tiller had to be cut from the boat. The day the surgeons arrived from Dublin to cut off his gangrenous leg, McClory lost the ability to speak. Through pen and paper, the frantic McClory persuaded the surgeons to save the limb. McClory was moved to a psychiatric hospital in England as a result of his speech loss. After six months his voice eventually returned but the doctors refused to discharge him. McClory escaped and spent the rest of the war serving with the British Navy.
McClory teamed up with John Steinbeck and Burgess Meredith to begin work on a story for the underwater film. While in the Bahamas, Kevin met British financier, Ivar Bryce, who wanted to get into the film business and was interested in funding The Boy And The Bridge. The two formed a production company, Xanadu. Kevin put the underwater story on the back burner and returned to London to begin work on the film.
As Kevin was editing The Boy and the Bridge , Bryce brought his close friend Ian Fleming to view an early rough cut. Fleming’s literary star was waning and he was having some trouble selling his James Bond books to film studios. Impressed by his background and his work on The Boy And The Bridge Fleming reached out to McClory for help.
Fleming asked McClory to read the books and choose the one he felt best lent itself to the screen and that Kevin and Bryce’s company, Xanadu would produce the first James Bond film. In May 1959, over lunch at Claridges, the Irishman told Fleming that none of the books were suited to the screen. McClory felt that the stories were sadistic and humourless but that the character of Bond ‘leapt off the page’ and with some significant modification could prove to be a strong enough character to build a screenplay around. Fleming pushed for Kevin to reread Diamonds Are Forever and Live And Let Die but McClory refused, dismissing the books as “juvenile, predictable ‘Boy’s Own’ stuff.” Fleming suggested they collaborate saying, “that when it comes to writing something for the screen, I haven’t got a single idea in my head.” McClory suggested they write a new story especially for the screen incorporating elements of his underwater film and an adapted James Bond character. The new Bond would be witty, charming and importantly, McClory insisted that they do away with the prohibition on Bond having romantic relations on the job.
Whittingham joined McClory and Fleming for a script conference before working exclusively with McClory on the new character after Fleming withdrew from the project due to his commitments to the Sunday Times. As well as collaborating with Whittingham, McClory was overseeing the pre-production. He employed the legendary german dive master Hans Hass and together they undertook countless dives to find suitable underwater locations for the film. McClory started putting a cast together, meeting with Burl Ives for the part of Largo, Trevor Howard for Bond and Cary Grant for an unspecified role. McClory’s old friend John Huston was approached to direct. Whittingham and McClory’s vision for Bond put the character on a new scale and the potential quickly became clear to all. Studios started lining up. Kevin began negotiations with Sam Goldwyn. Terms were agreed and all Goldwyn needed was a copy of Fleming's assignment to Xanadu to seal the deal. Unbeknownst to McClory, the old friends Fleming and Bryce were conspiring against him. Fleming and Bryce had set up talks with Flemings agents, MCA (now Universal Studios) with the intention of selling them the film rights in Thunderball. Kevin wrote to Bryce asking for a copy of the Fleming contract. Bryce obfuscated and lied, winding down the clock until Kevin’s option expired.
With Kevin’s option out of the way Fleming and Bryce were left with one more problem. Kevin was a joint author in Thunderball and they couldn’t sell it without his consent. Byce argued that McClory was merely an employee of Xanadu and as such had no legal interest in the property. McClory fought back but Fleming would raise the stakes when he attempted to publish a novel based on the screenplay. Kevin and Jack sued. Sean Connery would tell Rolling Stone many years later, “ With all of Fleming’s connections - Eton, Sandhurst, naval intelligence, all that - everyone figured McClory, an Irishman in an English court, didn’t have a chance. But never underestimate Kevin McClory.”
Following McClory’s first day on the stand, Fleming and Bryce asked to settle. The terms were heavily in the Irishman’s favour. Fleming was to publicly acknowledge the joint authorship and he and Bryce had to convey to Kevin any interest they had in the screenplay Thunderball and in all the other scripts and treatments they made while creating the new Bond. Fleming would retain literary rights in the novel but would have to include a special notice in every copy of the book drawing attention to Kevin and Jack’s authorship.
Years later it would emerge that Fleming had committed a further deception. In 1961 he had sold the film rights in some of his novels to producer Harry Saltzman. Included in the deal was Kevin’s Thunderball screenplay. Armed with Fleming’s novels and the template for the new cinematic Bond, Saltzman teamed up with Warrick Pictures boss, Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli. The pair hired writer Richard Maibaum to rewrite Thunderball. When it became evident to Saltzman and Broccoli that Fleming did not own Thunderball they scrapped the plan and using Thunderball as a guide they asked Maibaum to rewrite Dr. No for the screen. Dr. No was a hit and the greatest franchise in the history of film was born.
Cubby and Kevin were old friends from the time when Cubby had hired Kevin as location manager for Cockleshell Heroes. Negotiations began on Thunderball and a deal was quickly reached. McClory would licence his Bond rights to Broccoli for ten years and any rights Broccoli and Saltzman had in Thunderball and the related scripts would be conveyed to McClory. The film would be made under the Eon banner with McClory producing. The collaboration proved to one of the most successful in the history of film. Thunderball was and remains the most successful film of the franchise as well as being one of the most successful films of all time. What would come to be known as the ‘Billion Dollar Bond’ was so popular that cinemas opened twenty four hours a day across the globe to cope with demand. Newspapers reported that ‘Thunderball was not just the film of Christmas 1965, Thunderball was Christmas, 1965’. Following the success of his film, McClory settled into family life, living between his equally beloved Ireland and Nassau. In late October 1975, as the term of his licence to Broccoli was coming to an end, Kevin let his friend know that he would making his next Bond film. Broccoli was shocked and argued that Kevin had no rights to make Bond films.
In 1976 it emerged that Broccoli was to use much of Kevin’s property including SPECTRE and Blofeld in his next film The Spy Who Loved Me. With the ten year licence expired, McClory sued forcing Broccoli to remove the offending material.
Together with Sean Connery and celebrated spy writer, Len Deighton, McClory wrote a new Bond film, Warhead. The trio developed a screenplay involving mechanical sharks, an attack on the Statue of Liberty and the attempt to set off a nuclear device under Manhattan. Through the Fleming Trustees, Eon funded a protracted legal action aimed at preventing McClory exercising his rights but their attempts were roundly rejected by the British courts. The Trustees appealed the decision and the matter went to the British Supreme Court. The three judge panel held that the trustees had no reasonable chance of preventing McClory from making his film and affirmed Kevin’s right to make films using the character James Bond. With his rights now unassailable, McClory made a deal with American producer Jack Schwartzman to make Never Say Never Again. Broccoli was set to release his latest Bond, Octopussy, the same year. Connery was to take on Moore and a media frenzy erupted over this ‘Battle of the Bonds’. Despite Octopussy’s more favorable release date, it was no match for Never Say Never Again which was a box office smash and remains the better reviewed of the two films.
Following the stress of the legal battles with the Trustees, MGM and EON and the success of Never Say Never Again, McClory withdrew from public life to spend time with his family. He emerged in the mid-nineties to team up with Sony Pictures to make Warhead 2000 AD. MGM sued in order to prevent Warhead from going into production before settling with Sony and abandoning the claim. Kevin’s rights to make films using the character James Bond were unaffected.
Kevin McClory died in Dublin in November 2006, a mile from where he was born.
Copyright Morgan Fullam 2012
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