The longevity of comedy spies

Cast of Get Smart on a TV Guide cover

A reader said the following on Twitter: “If Rowan Atkinson can play Johnny English at 63 surely Craig can continue for several more films.”

The reader is referring, of course, to 007 star Daniel Craig, 50. He has said Bond 25 will be his final Bond effort. But The Mirror had a story last week saying Eon Productions boss Barbara Broccoli hasn’t given up on luring him for future installments.

First, to what the reader pointed out. Rowan Atkinson has been in Johnny English (2003), when he was 48; Johnny English Reborn (2011), when he was 56; and Johnny English Strikes Again, coming out this fall.

The blog’s guess: Audience expectations are different for comedy spies than for other fictional spies. Comedy spies may have fight scenes, but that’s not why an audience seeks them out.

Consider Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart in Get Smart. Adams served in the military during World War II and became a comic after the war. Get Smart originally was developed with comic actor Tom Poston in mind for the role. But ABC took a pass.

NBC expressed because it had Adams under contract. Writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry retooled their script to work in Adams comedy bits (“Would you believe?….”).

Adams already was 42 when Get Smart began. It ran for five seasons (four on NBC, one on CBS). Then, Smart returned in the 1980 theatrical film The Nude Bomb, when Adams was 57. Then there was the 1989 TV movie Get Smart, Again! when he was 66. Finally, there was a brief Get Smart series revival (seven episodes) in 1995 with Max now the Chief. The series ran its course a couple of months before Adams turned 72.

Over that 30-year span, Adams was Maxwell Smart in the mind of many viewers. Get Smart began as a James Bond parody. But it was so popular, the Western comedy series F-Troop had an episode with actor Pat Harrington doing a Maxwell Smart parody named B Wise. In other words, it was a parody of a parody.

A 2008 film version with Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart did OK business, but no sequel was ordered up.

Never Say Never Again’s 35th: Battle of the Bonds round 2

Never Say Never Again's poster

Never Say Never Again’s poster

Adapted from a June 2013 post. An epilogue is added at the end.

Never Say Never Again marks its 35th anniversary in October. The James Bond film originally was intended to go directly up against Octopussy, the 13th film in the 007 film series made by Eon Productions, that came out in June 1983.

Sean Connery, after a 12-year absence from the role, was going to make a James Bond movie his way. Warner Bros. and producer Jack Schwartzman had made the actor the proverbial offer he couldn’t refuse. He was not only star, but had approval over various creative aspects. He had much of the power of a producer without the responsibilities.

Schwartzman, an attorney turned film producer, took charge of a long effort to make an non-Eon 007 film. Kevin McClory, who controlled the film rights to Thunderball, had been trying to mount a new production since the mid-1970s with no success. Schwartzman became the producer, with McClory getting an executive producer credit and both men “presenting” Never Say Never Again.

McClory, at one point, had attemped a broader new 007 adventure. Never Say Never Again was only supposed to be a remake of Thunderball. Lorenzo Semple Jr., who had scripted non-serious (the pilot for the Adam West Batman series) and serious (Three Days of the Condor) was hired as writer. Irvin Kershner, who had directed The Empire Strikes Back, was brought on as director. As an added bonus, Kershner had a history of working with Connery on the 1966 movie A Fine Madness.

“As far as I’m concerned, there never was a Bond picture before,” Kershner said in quotes carried in the movie’s press kit. “There is a certain psychological righness to the characters as (Ian) Fleming saw them. He understood people very well. He was an observer of life and that’s what makes him a good writer. I tried to maintain that quality in the film. I wanted the people to be true.”

By the Way

Starlog magazine devoted a cover to the “Battle of the Bonds” in 1983.

Not mentioned in the press kit was the fact that Connery, who had script approval, objected to Semple’s effort. As a result, at Connery’s urging, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were hired to rewrite but didn’t get a credit.

The end result was a storyline that veered from a version of Largo who’s clearly off his rocker to goofy gags involving the likes of British diplomat Nigel Small-Fawcett (Rowan Atkinson). Perhaps Connery really meant it when, in 1971, he called Tom Mankiewicz’s lighthearted Diamonds Are Forever script the best of the Eon series up to that point.

Also present in Never was an over-the-top SPECTRE assassin, Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), a far wilder version of Thunderball’s Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). In Thunderball, Bond tells Domino (Claudine Auger) her brother has been killed in a dramatic scene on a beach. In Never, he tells Domino (Kim Basinger) in the middle of a tango in a campy scene with loud music playing on the soundtrack.

‘Sean’s Warmth’

Speaking of music, composer Michel Legrand was recruited by none other than star Sean Connery, according to Jon Burlingame’s 2012 book, The Music of James Bond. According to the book, Legrand felt burned out after working on the movie Yentl. “Sean’s warmth and enthusiasm persuaded me,” Legrand is quoted by Burlingame. Legrand’s score is a sore point with fans, who still give Connery a pass for his role in bringing Legrand to the film.

Understandably, fans prefer to focus on Connery’s performance in front of the camera, rather than decisions he made behind it. The actor, who turned 52 before the start of production in 1982, looked fitter than his Eon finale, Diamonds Are Forever.

A survey of Her Majesty’s Secret Servant editors some years ago (the survey is now offline) reflects admiration for his acting while mostly downplaying his decision making behind the scenes.

At the box office, Never Say Never Again did fine while trailing 1983’s Eon entry, Octopussy, $55.4 million to $67.9 million in the U.S. The Schwartzman production had been delayed by four months compared with Octopussy.

Years later, Connery was seen on a CBS News show, saying that Never had “a really incompetent producer.” For Schwartzman, things didn’t end happily. He died in 1994 at the age of 61 of pancreatic cancer.

Connery remained a star until he retired from acting in the early 2000s. Eon and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer eventually gained control of the rights to Never Say Never Again.

Cover to Bondage No. 12, 1983

2018 epilogue: Like Octopussy, Never Say Never Again polarizes fans. Maybe more so.

Bond fans who never warmed to Roger Moore say the movie is just fine and superior to many of the 007 offerings of Eon Productions during this era. Evidently, Nigel Small-Fawcett’s goofiness is better than the goofiness of, say, Eon’s Sheriff J.W. Pepper.

During this time, there was a U.S.-based 007 fan publication, Bondage. You got the idea whose side Bondage was taking with the “Battle of the Bonds.” Issue No. 12’s cover had a publicity still of Connery from Never Say Never Again.

“Sean Connery returns in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN,” read the cover blurb. “Plus Octopussy.” The publication devoted a second cover to Never Say Never Again in 1984.  (The Book Bond website ran a 2014 story showing all the covers from 1974 to 1989.)

Meanwhile, to this day, pro-Eon fans still curse the name of Kevin McClory. I’ve seen comments from 007 fans on message boards who abhor Never Say Never Again simply because it’s not an Eon product.

For me, Connery is my favorite Bond actor. But looking back, I suspect Connery discovered being a (de facto) Bond producer is a lot harder than it looks.

There have been fan efforts of re-editing parts of the movie, including one with an Eon gunbarrel logo (putting Connery’s head on top of Timothy Dalton’s body) and overlaying John Barry scores from the Eon series.

Decades after its release, Never Say Never Again still gets a rise out of fans, regardless of their opinion.

MI6 Confidential #11 available now!

Our friend and colleague Hugh Maddocks over at MI6 Confidential has just informed us that a new issue — number 11! — has arrived and is available for ordering.

This time around, the full-color magazine focuses on one of the most troubled productions in the 007 series — From Russia with Love. It showcases rarely seen photographs from the set and charts how director Terence Young managed to hold it all together through near-misses, accidents, cancelled locations and delays. Keeping with the ‘Bond On Set’ theme, the magazine also go behind the scenes of the ice palace car chase and hovercraft stunts from Die Another Day with all-access photographs and firsthand accounts from those who made it possible.

This issue’s features:

  • Bond On Set – Rare images from the set and an exhaustive account of the From Russia With Love production history
  • Jeffery Deaver explains his successful Carte Blanche recipe in an exclusive interview
  • On Thin Ice – Behind the scenes of Die Another Day with stunt driver George Cottle
  • GoldenEye 007 Reloaded – An exclusive interview with the producer of this year’s Bond game for Xbox 360 and PS3
  • Dr. No Showcase – Breathing new life into the classic 1963 comic
  • Composing Blood Stone – Richard Jacques talks one on one about creating the Bond sound
  • The Bond Connection – Rowan Atkinson and director Oliver Parker talk Johnny English Reborn
  • The Last Word – Richard Kiel recalls his three run-ins with James Bond

The new issue is shipping worldwide. To order online, go to the MI6 Confidential website.

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