In January 1976, film producer Kevin McClory took out a full-page ad in Variety that made an audacious claim. A new James Bond movie, James Bond of the Secret Service, was about to enter production under the supervision of Paradise Films.
It was not to star Roger Moore, the current Bond who had appeared in two films and was due for several more; nowhere did the ad mention EON, the longstanding production company of all the Bond films. It was as though someone were daring the Bond caretakers to take notice of a bootleg 007 project.
The ad was a calculated move taken by McClory, who had no involvement with EON but believed he had the legal right to make a Bond film as a result of events that had happened well over a decade prior. McClory’s aim was to write his own chapter in Bond history, with his secret weapon being the man who had originated the role onscreen and whose presence still loomed large over the franchise.
Although the ad didn’t mention it, McClory’s plan was to restore Sean Connery behind the wheel of the Aston Martin, an ambition that would eventually decide once and for all which Bond moviegoers preferred.
Against the wishes of Bond creator Ian Fleming, Connery had been cast as the secret agent in 1962’s Dr. No. Projecting an air of charming menace, Connery’s performance was an immediate hit, winning over the author and kicking off one of the most durable Hollywood film franchises in history.
There would be four more films—From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), and You Only Live Twice (1967)—before the actor, bored with taking second place to the series’s increasing fetish for gadgets, left. EON recast with George Lazenby for one film, 1969's On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, before enticing Connery back for one last appearance in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Earning $1.2 million, Connery felt Diamonds helped excise the character from his career while adding to the funds of his charitable efforts.
That film was, as far as Connery was concerned, the end. But in 1975, McClory approached Connery with an intriguing story: In the early 1960s, McClory and Fleming had sat down to hash out potential story ideas for the burgeoning Bond film franchise. Fleming eventually used some of those ideas for the novel Thunderball, which was adapted into a 1965 Connery vehicle.
McClory argued in court that certain rights to Thunderball were owed to him; in an effort to get that film made, EON agreed, but mandated that McClory not attempt to use any of the elements of the story he helped conceive for a 10-year period. Thunderball was produced, and McClory was silent—for exactly 10 years.
When he was legally able, he began to pursue his rogue Bond project. Legally, it could only be a loose remake of Thunderball, but that was of little consequence. McClory knew the plot was secondary to a return by Connery to the role that had made him famous.
Connery was surprisingly open to the idea. For one, he understood his name above a Bond marquee meant at least as much as Moore was earning: a reported $4 million per picture. For another, he wouldn’t have to deal with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, the producer of the Bond films and a man with whom he had had numerous business disagreements during his first tenure as the spy.
Still, Connery didn’t fully commit to a return. Instead, he worked with McClory and writer Len Deighton on a script under titles like Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service. When pressed for details, McClory told press his revamped version of Thunderball would feature mechanical sharks and an assault on Wall Street via the New York sewer system, with Orson Welles as the villain. His Bond, he said, would be like “Star Wars underwater.”
When EON got wind of their efforts, the latitude they had displayed 10 years prior had evaporated. Bond was now firmly a pop culture cash machine, and they took to the courts to resist McClory’s efforts. In joint action with distributor United Artists and the Fleming estate, EON successfully scared off Paramount, which was collaborating with McClory on the project.
As the 1970s came to a close, Connery was showing signs of becoming frustrated by the legal wrangling.
McClory’s salvation came in the form of Jack Schwartzman, a onetime tax attorney who wasn’t cowed by the litigation surrounding the project. So long as they colored inside the lines, sticking to the elements found in the Thunderball narrative, Schwartzman didn’t see any problem. He obtained the film rights from McClory, who was tired of the fighting and remained only loosely involved with the project; Connery was signed for a robust $5 million, with profit participation adding to his reward later on. Broccoli dropped most of his legal assault after Schwartzman promised him a share of the movie's grosses and to delay release by several months in order to avoid competing head-to-head with EON's Octopussy.
Never Say Never Again—a title suggested by Connery’s amused wife—began shooting in the fall of 1982 at London’s Elstree Studios, just a few miles down the road from where Roger Moore was shooting his Bond entry, Octopussy. The two reportedly had dinner together and compared shooting schedules; Moore would later say he never had a chance to catch Connery’s return onscreen.
Despite Connery’s early enthusiasm, script troubles and philosophical disagreements with director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) made for a stressful production. While promoting its release, Connery told press, “There was so much incompetence, ineptitude, and dissention” during the making of the film that “it could have disintegrated.”
While it wasn’t everything Connery had hoped for, Never Say Never Again performed very admirably when it opened in theaters October 7, 1983. The film grossed $55.4 million domestically, making it the 14th most successful film of the year. But the inevitable comparison to Moore’s Octopussy, which opened four months earlier, colored perception: Moore’s entry made $67.9 million, putting it in sixth place for the year.
Moore would play Bond just once more before retiring from the role in 1985. Connery made an unlikely return in 2005, lending his voice to a Bond video game. It would be as far as he was willing to go. Producers of 2012’s Skyfall didn’t even bother asking him about their idea to have him play a supporting role in the film as the Bond family’s onetime groundskeeper.
Schwartzman wouldn’t give up so easily. Insisting he somehow had the right to deliver another bootleg Bond in the 1980s, he tried to coerce Connery into a follow-up.
Connery was unmoved. “I’d be too old,” he told press in 1984.
But at 53, a reporter observed, he was three years younger than Moore. “He’s also too old,” Connery said.
Sean Connery, by Michael Feeney Callan