Countdown to ‘Skyfall’ – A history of the James Bond film franchise Part 9

Skyfall marks the 23rd official Bond film.  But there were other TV and movie productions involving 007 and they actually pre-date the 1962 release of Dr. No.

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Back in 1954, the American TV show Climax! showed an episode that was taken from the novel Casino Royale.  It starred American actor Barry Nelson as “Jimmy Bond”.  Peter Lorre portrayed “Le Chiffre”. It cost CBS the princely sum of $1,000 for the rights to adapt Fleming’s novel.  Four years later, the network asked Fleming to write more episodes and he agreed, but nothing came to fruition.  However, it was this beginning that led Fleming to try to write a script for the screen, a script that ultimately became Thunderball.

Ursula Andress, who appeared in the official 007 production 'Dr. No,' played a role in the 1967 parody 'Casino Royale'
Ursula Andress, who appeared in the official 007 production ‘Dr. No,’ played a role in the 1967 parody ‘Casino Royale’

After the TV episode appeared, producer Gregory Ratoff paid more money to own the film rights to Casino Royale in perpetuity.  He died in 1960 and his widow sold the rights later to another producer, Joseph K. Feldman.  He wanted to team up with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and his partner, Harry Saltzman to make the film version of the novel, but the duo had just done Thunderball with Kevin McClory and had no desire to work with another producer.  Instead they went ahead with their own plans to make You Only Live Twice.  Realizing that he could not make a film that would compete against an Eon production version of the hero, with Sean Connery in the lead role, he tried first to sign Connery to do his picture.

When that failed, he instead decided to make the movie into a satire.  The screenplay used elements of the novel but made a large number of alterations.  One of which was the introduction of a number of secret agents being given designation as James Bond, to confuse the enemy.  SMERSH was a label for a Russian anti-spy organization known as SMERt SHpionam, which is Russian for “death to spies”.  In fact, in the novel, the Russian agent who kills “Le Chiffre” carves Russian characters marking Bond as a spy into his hand.

Kim Basinger in 'Never Say Never Again'
Kim Basinger in ‘Never Say Never Again’

The film starred David Niven as the main Bond character, with Orson Welles as Le Chiffre.  Other James Bonds included Ursula Andress as “Vesper Lynd”, Barbara Bouchet as Bond’s secretary “Miss Moneypenny”, Peter Sellers as “Evelyn Tremble” who was a master of baccarat, Joanna Pettet as Bond’s daughter with Mata Hari, “Mata Bond”, Daliah Lavi as “The Detainer” and Terrence Cooper as “Coop”.  Woody Allen played Bond’s nephew “Jimmy”, who also happened to be head of SMERSH.

The film was a success at the box office, raking in over $41 million on a budget of $12 million.  It failed, however, with the critics.  Roger Ebert called it “possibly the most indulgent film ever made.”  It didn’t help that Sellers was feuding with Welles and in fact, their scenes together were actually filmed without both men being on set at the same time.  Each filmed his part for their scenes together with a double standing in for the other.

Meanwhile, Kevin McClory wanted to make another Bond film, since he felt he owned at least some rights to the character and eventually he won the right to make another film based on the original Thunderball script. But he had to wait for at least ten years after the 1965 release of Thunderball.

Ultimately he managed to get Sean Connery to go back on a vow he’d made in 1971 to “never again” portray Bond and signed him to make the new film.  The title came from the wife of Connery and Never Say Never Again was born.  Irvin Kershner agreed to direct and Klaus Maria Brandauer was cast in the role of principal villain, “Maximilian Largo”.  Kim Basinger got the role of “Domino Petachi”, the girl who is the mistress of Largo and ultimately betrays him after she learns that he was behind the death of her brother.  Barbara Carrera is “Fatima Blush”, an assassin who works for Largo.  Berney Casey became the first black man to play CIA agent “Felix Leiter” and the very funny Rowan Atkinson provided a bit of comic relief as a British Foreign Service officer in the Bahamas.

Orson Welles played Le Chiffre in the 1967 James Bond parody, 'Casino Royale'
Orson Welles played Le Chiffre in the 1967 James Bond parody, ‘Casino Royale’

The production ran over budget but the film was successful with both critics and at the box office, grossing $160 million.  It would be the last Bond film for Connery, at least thus far.  It would also mark the end of any non-Eon productions of Bond films, as after the release of Never Say Never Again, they ultimately acquired the rights to all of Fleming’s works.

Skyfall will be released just before the 50th anniversary of the release of Dr. No, but it is definitely a celebration of 50 years of the James Bond franchise.  While most of us probably won’t be around, hopefully in 2062, the centennial of the franchise will be celebrated with another actor in the role of Bond, and audiences all over the world will flock to theaters to watch the secret agent who has managed to endure half a century thus far.

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