This year is the centenary of the birth of Albert R Broccoli. "Cubby", as he was nicknamed, was the producer who ushered the James Bond movies into existence: the flamboyant Italian-American who brought Ian Fleming's quintessentially British spy to life on screen, and his centenary is being marked in some style with special screenings and events.
Most of us will know Broccoli from the legend on the Bond movies, "Albert R Broccoli Presents" However, his own story remains relatively poorly chronicled. His autobiography When The Snow Melts was published in 1998, two years after his death. (The title comes from an old Calabrian saying: "when the snow melts, you see the dog shit"). It revealed little-known details of Broccoli's immensely colourful and surprising life story.
On a sunny March morning, I visit Broccoli's heirs: his daughter Barbara Broccoli and stepson Michael G Wilson. They're at the helm of EON, the production company that Broccoli and Harry Saltzman founded in 1961, and that has been making Bond movies ever since. The discreetly luxurious EON offices are close to Hyde Park. Perhaps this is Cubby Broccoli's most unlikely achievement. An Italian-American who shared his name with the vegetable that his ancestors used to grow; a boy born to an immigrant family in a New York tenement and whose father worked on construction sites before becoming a small-time farmer; he managed to put down roots in Mayfair.
Barbara Broccoli makes her childhood sound like something out of a Martin Scorsese movie, describing huge family meals and carnival-esque holidays. "He [Cubby] had an Italian background, so we had all the things that go along with that – he loved to cook, to have lots of people around and he loved children. He was someone who believed that he was very, very lucky. He had grown up on a farm during the Depression."
As a teenager working in the fields, the young Cubby spotted Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis in the sky when Lindbergh was at the start of his groundbreaking solo flight across the Atlantic. Lindbergh waved at him. This incident inspired Broccoli. "Believe in yourself, aim at the big horizon," he told himself.
Michael G Wilson was 17 years old when his mother, Dana Wilson, married Broccoli. He tells a strange story about how, when he was a young law student visiting home, Broccoli invited him to come to Fort Knox. Wilson had his passport in his back pocket but didn't even have his coat on when he was whisked away to work as an assistant on the shoot of Goldfinger. This began a very close working relationship with the producer that would see Wilson becoming as intimately involved with the Bond series as Broccoli was.
Cubby, the high-roller, ex-Hollywood agent and close friend of Howard Hughes, cut an incongruous figure when he arrived in austerity-era Britain in 1948 to attend a car rally. "Where's the King's Arms?" he asked a passer-by when he was trying to track down a pub where he had an important meeting. "Oh, around the Queen's arse," he was told – a sardonic reply that delighted him.
His daughter recalls that he was booked into the Savoy on that first trip. "He came into Grill to have breakfast. This lovely waiter came to the table and said, 'what would you like, sir?' He said, 'I'll have bacon and eggs and a pot of coffee.'" The waiter had to explain patiently that, thanks to rationing, that wouldn't be possible. A few days later, the waiter turned up at his table, saying he had a surprise. Underneath a big silver lid, he unveiled two boiled eggs. Broccoli asked the waiter how he got them. "Oh, I brought them from home," the waiter said.
The film producer was so touched that he immediately became a champion of all things British. Every movie Broccoli made was in Britain. He relished the lifestyle: the horse racing, the gambling clubs (where his friends included Jimmy Goldsmith, John Aspinall and Lord Lucan) and the social scene in 1960s London.
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As Barbara Broccoli points out, it was no coincidence that an American (Broccoli) and a Canadian (Saltzman) were the ones successfully to bring James Bond to screen. They had none of the hang-ups about class that British producers might have brought to the 007 stories.
"Had they (Bond films) been done by people who were from Britain, maybe the class-ism in the books would have been much more a feature in the films. Probably, Sean Connery wouldn't have been cast," she says.
Bond productions were "family" affairs in which the key personnel were very closely knit. The one exception was Connery, who had a well-chronicled feud with the producer in which money loomed large. "All the other Bonds, he (Cubby) had an excellent relationship with. They were always close friends and they remained that way," Wilson states. There was a rapprochement of sorts toward the end of Broccoli's life when he and Connery spoke. "They acknowledged that what they had done together was very special," Barbara Broccoli adds.
Wilson and Barbara Broccoli insist that Cubby wasn't a ruthless or vengeful man. He was tough, though. He would never succumb to studio pressure to take the Bond franchise in directions that he felt were unsuitable. Broccoli endured a long-running legal tussle with opportunistic producer Kevin McClory. In the late 50s, McClory and British writer Jack Whittingham had worked with Fleming on a treatment for what they intended to be the first Bond movie. McClory alleged that Fleming had drawn on that treatment when he later wrote the novel of Thunderball. Fleming, in failing health and keen to avoid a legal spat, gave McClory the film rights to Thunderball.
Rather than start a rogue Bond series, McClory worked with Broccoli and Saltzman on their film of the story, but wouldn't leave it at that. He eventually remade Thunderball as Never Say Never Again.
"It was a situation that he inherited and ended up battling his whole life," Barbara Broccoli recalls of the stand-off with McClory, who died in 2006.
"Every decade, McClory would surface and say he was going to make another film of Thunderball," Wilson says. "That was something that had to be dealt with. After Cubby died, McClory was still at it. But I don't think he [Cubby] let those things get to him."
For more than 30 years, Broccoli devoted almost all his efforts to making Bond movies. In his pre-Bond days, Broccoli had made war films, black comedies, costume dramas and even a biopic, The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960), starring Peter Finch. The film was denied proper distribution in the US because Broccoli refused to cut a line that the American censors and arbiters of taste felt was beyond the pale. This was when the QC Carson asked Wilde if he had kissed a valet. "Good heavens, no. He was too ugly," Wilde quipped: the jury didn't laugh. It was a pivotal moment in the Wilde case and Broccoli realised that the film wouldn't make sense without it.
At the time, the commercial failure of the film threatened to ruin Broccoli. In the event, he achieved redemption through Bond. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang aside, Broccoli did nothing else but make Bond movies for the rest of his career.
Was he frustrated at having to confine himself to 007? His daughter and stepson insist not. "He was happy to make the Bond films. He loved it. He said that he had a tiger by the tail and that he couldn't let it go," remembers Wilson.
Cubby Broccoli: 'From The Red Beret To Bond' runs from 8 to 30 April at BFI Southbank (www.bfi.org.uk)
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