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Kevin McClory: James Bond filmmaker.
James Bond Screenwriter's Washington Connection

By Patricia E. Keegan


In the late afternoon sunshine I found him wearing a light golf jacket and a Monte Christi Panama, sitting under a large umbrella outside Tony and Joe's in the Washington Harbor. Amid all the noise and bustle, he sat quite still, his intense blue eyes staring at the river. It was my second meeting with the legendary Kevin McClory. His demeanor is rather like that of a disgruntled lion who could be fierce or gentle depending on his environment. Pushing his hat back on his head, he proclaimed, 'I have to be near the water, it gives me a sense of freedom.'


Freedom from bondage is just the beginning of the story of this extraordinary Irishman who has survived shipwrecks, torture, lawsuits and betrayal, who believes in the enormous gift of the imagination, and who holds children in high esteem 'because of their inherent honesty.'
A conversation with Kevin O'Donovan McClory is like no other. A true Irish Seanachai (storyteller), it's as though a silver screen drops before your eyes. He knows them all, he has worked with the luminaries-Sean Connery, as well as Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Mike Todd, Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor. (I'd read that he had fallen in love with her after she made scrambled eggs for him, but we didn't go there in this interview-perhaps for his autobiography in progress). He worked alongside John Huston on African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Beat the Devil, and Moby Dick.


It's no wonder his images are so vivid, Kevin McClory's ancestry goes back to the famous Bronte family. Elinor McClory was the mother of Patrick Prunty who changed his name to Bronte when he emigrated from Ireland to England in 1802. Patrick was the father of the talented Bronte sisters-Emily, Anne, and Charlotte, and of son Branwell, also a writer. Kevin's eldest son is named after Branwell.


Kevin's father, noted actor Thomas John O'Donovan McClory (stage name Desmond O'Donovan), was born in Bainbridge, County Down in 1900. His mother, Winifrede Nee Doran, writer, teacher and actress, was born in County Wexford. The family called themselves the O'Donovan's and ran 'fitups' which traveled throughout Ireland. He and his brother, Desmond, appeared as babies in their productions. In his dramatic debut on stage, his mother stuck a hatpin in his bottom to make him squeal.


We moved to the peace and quiet of Hisago, a Japanese restaurant where, over sushi and saki, I waited for the story to continue. I wanted to get to the roots of what goes into creating such enormous success. How does this man, with his gifted imagination, see and experience, through his work, all the excitement the world could ever offer.


I was a dreamer, he told me. 'I was dyslectic, and I did not fit into the structure of school.' But his dyslexia was never a problem, other than in school, and it enabled him to 'see and write visually for films.' Drawn to the adventure of life on the high seas, he left school to join the Norwegian Marines early in World War II. He became a radio officer at age 17.

On February 21, 1943 at 12:10 p.m. the oil tanker M/T Stigstad was torpedoed in the Atlantic, and he and fellow crewmembers scrambled into the Captain's dingy. Armed with a single nail, McClory engraved a message on the sole of his boot which had burst with the pressure of his swollen, frost-bitten feet. The party was picked up 15 days later off the coast of Kerry in Ireland. They had drifted 730 miles, and during the ordeal eight men died. They were starving when found, the crew of the Welsh trawler that rescued them were shocked by what they saw. The men were emaciated, covered in boils and pustules, and their mouths were black. The captain had not taken his hand off the tiller for 15 days, so the tiller had to be sawn from the boat as they lifted him out. Kevin was suffering from severe shock and exposure and spent nine months in the hospital, having completely lost his speech. He was left with a stammer and with a new reverence for life. Undaunted, and rising to the challenge of overcoming the residuals of fear, he left the hospital to return to the sea he loved serving in the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Pacific theaters of war.


When the war was over, McClory held a variety of jobs before landing one as a film technician at Shepperton Studios in England. He worked on films such as Cry They Beloved Country, The Third Man, and Cockleshell Heroes. He then came to Hollywood to work with director John Huston, with whom he developed a close friendship.


Huston turned down Mike Todd's offer to direct Around the World in 80 Days, but he recommended Kevin McClory for the job. McClory welcomed the challenge and opportunity and, after several months in nine countries, McClory and producer Mike Todd completed the film which won six Oscars, including Best Picture in 1956. With his name in lights, McClory had earned the freedom to choose whatever he wanted to do. He chose more travel adventure.
In 1957 he was made leader of the 'World's Highways Expedition' by Ford Motor Company. He led a convoy of six vehicles and 26 men through 104 adventure packed days around the world, producing and directing a documentary film for Ford's 'One Road.' The journey took them through Europe, Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. A ship took them to San Francisco, and from there they drove back to Detroit.


In 1957 Nobel author John Steinbeck invited McClory to the Bahamas to work on an underwater film based on the discovery of Spanish treasure at Gorda Cay. In a letter to McClory dated Dec. 8, 1957, Steinbeck said, 'I need not tell you that in recent years my interest in films has diminished to the vanishing point because of the lack of originality among film makers. Your proposal attracted me because it was bold and new.' McClory planned to film with Steinbeck using Todd-AO, the wide screen format of 'Around the World in 80 Days,' but the project was not completed.


He went back to London where he co-wrote, produced and directed 'The Boy and the Bridge,' a sensitive story about a lost boy. His film was selected as the United Kingdom entry at the Venice Film Festival. When he speaks about this film, one senses a stronger enthusiasm for the subject than for the Bond films.


In 1958 McClory met a man whom he describes as a frustrated journalist and author-Ian Fleming. Fleming had written seven novels around the literary character James Bond, but had not succeeded in turning any into films. McClory declined Fleming's suggestion that he adapt one of his books, suggesting instead that they collaborate in writing a James Bond story specifically for film. They took Bond into the underwater world of the Bahamas, and in collaboration with screenwriter Jack Whittingham, produced the screenplay, 'Thunderball,' in 1960.
With 'Thunderball,' McClory laid the foundation for the tremendously successful Bond series that followed. 'Thunderball' remains the most successful of the James Bond series which has grossed over $2.75 billion.


Fleming, meanwhile, having found an idea for a new novel, without the consent of McClory or Whittingham, wrote the novel Thunderball based on the screenplay. McClory sued him, and the case came to trial in 1963 in London. After 10 days in court Ian Fleming capitulated. A court order was made to the effect that Fleming assign McClory all his rights to the various James Bond screenplays they had jointly written, and the film rights in the novel 'Thunderball' in which Fleming was to acknowledge joint authorship of the story.


In 1983 Kevin McClory was instrumental in bringing Sean Connery back to play his final Bond role in 'Never Say Never Again,' which McClory produced. Last year, McClory and his company, Spectre Associates Inc., contracted with Sony Pictures Entertainment, licensing the Hollywood studio to make two more James Bond films, with an option for two further films. With Sony's Columbia Pictures, Kevin McClory is looking forward to producing the new Bond films, with a new James Bond, yet to be announced.


Meanwhile, MGM/UA, who were unsuccessful in London courts in stopping distribution of 'Never Say Never Again,' are again attempting to prevent production of the new Bond films with Sony. Undaunted, Kevin McClory, always ready to rise to the challenge, is supremely confident that he will win. 'They are driven by greed,' he says. 'Unfortunately, the Bond movies have made so much money that these legal actions have become endemic, but for me, it's just a temporary nuisance.' After defending his copyrights for nearly 40 years, McClory says, 'I chose the brilliant Irish Attorney Frank O'Toole of the Washington firm of Sidley & Austin because of their rare, unparalleled 100 year history of integrity.'


Twice married with four children, he is a proud father as he describes each of his children, Branwell, Siobhan, Saoirse and Sean T., individually, with special affection. The adoring grandfather says his primary reason for maintaining his Watergate apartment is so his children and grandchildren can visit. Nomadic, he commutes between his house in the Bahamas, Connemara, Ireland, and visits to Washington.


The indomitable Kevin McClory, who has reached for the stars and flashed his sword at windmills, is currently working on two screenplays, one set in the outback of Australia, the other in Ireland. An expert in the art of winning, this man, using his imagination and courage, will likely continue to have fame and fortune on his side.


The sushi and saki had disappeared, but as I left the restaurant I knew that within this amazing man there were still volumes to be told.