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Kevin McClory

Co-author of the 'Thunderball' screenplay who sued Ian Fleming

Thursday 07 December 2006 01:00 GMT

Kevin O'Donovan McClory, screenwriter and film producer: born Dublin 8 June 1926; twice married (two sons, two daughters); died London 20 November 2006.

To devotees of James Bond history, the name Kevin McClory will be forever associated with Thunderball - the Ian Fleming novel, the court case surrounding it, and the film - and his myriad abortive attempts, countered by litigation, to launch an alternative James Bond film franchise.

Born in Dublin in 1926, Kevin O'Donovan McClory was a descendant of the literary Brontë family through his grandmother Alice McClory. His parents were both actors on the Irish stage, which fired Kevin's early desire to become an actor, but this ambition was hampered by severe dyslexia at school, and was finally blocked by a nervous stammer that was caused by a traumatic incident during the Second World War; in 1943, when serving in the Merchant Navy, Kevin McClory's ship was torpedoed while in the North Atlantic. He drifted over 700 miles in a lifeboat in freezing conditions with other crew members for 14 days, before being picked up off the coast of Ireland as one of the few remaining survivors.

In 1946, his desire still strong to be in show business and now with a greater appreciation of life, McClory talked his way into a £4-a-week job as a boom operator and "tea boy" at Shepperton Studios. Keen to be noticed, McClory worked in various capacities on classic British films including Anna Karenina (1948) and The Cockleshell Heroes (1955). It was during this early period at Shepperton that he formed a lifelong friendship with the director John Huston, another larger-than-life Irishman.

McClory was Huston's assistant on pictures like The African Queen (1951) and Moulin Rouge (1952), before graduating to Assistant Director on Huston's version of the Herman Melville classic Moby Dick (1956), starring Gregory Peck. This was McClory's stepping stone to becoming jack-of-all-trades on the mammoth production Around the World in 80 Days (1956), with him as the producer Mike Todd's assistant, as Assistant Producer and as Assistant Director.

McClory wanted more control over his own creative destiny and decided to write, produce and direct The Boy and the Bridge (1959). In the Bahamas, he met the wealthy Englishman Ivar Bryce, who formed Xanadu Productions with McClory to finance his first solo production. Bryce was a very close friend of the James Bond author Ian Fleming, and it wasn't long before, at Bryce's suggestion, McClory read several of Fleming's novels with a view to filming one of them.

The young and enthusiastic Irishman realised that these books had great potential. And great earning potential. However, McClory thought very much in visual terms, a hangover from his childhood dyslexia, and believed that he, Fleming and Bryce should collaborate on an original, more cinematic screenplay. To this triumvirate, he introduced Jack Whittingham, then ranked among the top 10 screenwriters in the UK, whose work had been received with great critical and public acclaim in Ealing Studios films including Mandy (1952) and The Divided Heart (1954).

Whittingham wrote a first-draft screenplay that eventually Ian Fleming would title Thunderball. The Bondwagon was about to start rolling, with the big bucks and the fame only a stone's throw away, or so McClory believed. Unfortunately for him, The Boy and the Bridge performed very badly at the box office and sank without a trace. Bryce and Fleming's initial enthusiasm for the young Irishman's handling the production of their first James Bond film project suddenly faded. Having expected the profits from The Boy and the Bridge to part-finance the Thunderball film, both Bryce and Fleming got cold feet and walked away from the project, leaving McClory high and dry.

When Ian Fleming sat at his typewriter at his Jamaican home, Goldeneye, in January 1961 to write his ninth Bond novel, he was in ill-health with heart trouble and felt very much a spent force. Writing to William Plomer, an old friend from his days with Naval Intelligence, who always proof-read and pre-edited his Bond novels, Fleming complained 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!

Perhaps it was no surprise, then, that a tired writer would turn to a convenient formed idea. Why let it go to waste? So Fleming based his ninth novel, Thunderball, on the collaborative screenplay, without any idea of including any credit for McClory's input and Whittingham's screen treatment. It would prove to be a costly error in judgement.

Before the publication of Thunderball on 27 March 1961 in London by Jonathan Cape, 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.

At a hearing, a judge decided that, since the accused had insufficient time to mount a defence, and publication of Thunderball was already so well advanced it couldn't be stopped, McClory and Whittingham's application would be refused. A little over two weeks after the failed book injunction, Ian Fleming suffered a major heart attack during the regular Tuesday-morning conference at The Sunday Times. He was rushed to the London Clinic, where he remained for a month.

The ensuing case that began on 20 November 1963 at the High Court in London was heavily covered in the media. Newspaper headlines screamed, "James Bond in a Thunderball clash!" Whittingham found it necessary to withdraw as co-plaintiff due to escalating costs, but, although in extreme ill-health, he returned loyally every day to support McClory. After nine days in court both Ivar Bryce and Ian Fleming decided to settle. McClory demanded £55,000.

In the final outcome, McClory was awarded £35,000 and his court costs paid (totalling £52,000), plus the film and television rights to all the existing Thunderball screen treatments. However, even though he had won the case, he was unhappy with the financial result and never paid his lawyer's costs. He also did nothing to help Whittingham meet his crippling court costs.

Fleming had two further serious heart attacks during the trial. On 12 August 1964, he suffered a final, fatal heart attack, aged 56, and died in the Kent and Canterbury Hospital.

Thunderball was eventually made into a film in 1965 by the producers Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli & Harry Saltzman, who "presented' the film for their company EON Productions. McClory was billed as producer on the film and Thunderball credited as being "Based on an original story by Kevin McClory, Jack Whittingham & Ian Fleming". The film grossed $141.2m worldwide. Whittingham died of a heart attack in Malta in 1973, his contribution to the cinematic legacy of James Bond all but forgotten and unrecognised.

In 1983 Kevin McClory acted as executive producer on Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball, for which Sean Connery returned after 12 years to star as James Bond, going head-to-head with Roger Moore as Bond in Octopussy. The film grossed an estimated £137.5m worldwide.

One of McClory's closest friends during the late Fifties and Sixties was Jeremy Vaughn, who also knew Ian Fleming well as his neighbour in Jamaica. He told Robert Sellers, author of the upcoming The Battle for Bond, that

Kevin was a smooth operator, an attractive character, but not a particularly pleasant one, certainly compared to his brother, Desmond, who was one of the kindest people you could ever meet. If a friend was in trouble, Desmond would always be there. Kevin would just tell you to piss off, if you weren't any good to him.

He's been very cruel to a number of people over the years who thought they were his friends. The overdriving thing with Kevin was that he just wanted to be a celebrity, he wanted to be famous . . . He probably had some semi-professional technical interest in making a film, but he really wanted the glamour.

McClory continued to be involved in legal wrangles over the years. In the 1990s, he announced plans to make Warhead 2000 AD, another adaptation of the Thunderball story, which was to have been made by Sony, with Timothy Dalton in the lead role, but this was eventually scrapped.

"It was Kevin's burning ambition, these [Bond] movies," Vaughn said,

but I don't think he gave a damn who he walked over and what he did in order to get there. Kevin had a project in life and that project was Kevin McClory.

Graham Rye

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