In June 1989, I was a struggling freelance writer living in Marion, Iowa, one year removed from receiving a masters degree in film studies from the University of Iowa. Early one Saturday morning, one of my professors, Charles F. “Rick” Altman, called to tell me that renowned James Bond screenwriter Richard Maibaum was in Iowa City for the weekend.
Altman said that Maibaum was willing to be interviewed if I could meet with him that morning. I cleared my (empty) schedule, borrowed a car and drove to Iowa City.
Maibaum was a charming, gracious and truly fascinating man. I recorded the interview and quickly wrote up an article in hopes of getting it published in conjunction with the imminent release of the Bond film Licence to Kill, which Maibaum had co-written. Maibaum, however, had asked to see the article before I attempted to sell it. After reading it, he asked me not to publish it, as he felt that he’d said a few things about people that might prove embarrassing should he run into them at Hollywood events. Disappointed as I was, I honored his wishes.
When Richard Maibaum died two years later, I figured there still might be interest in the article when the next Bond film was released. Well, the next Bond didn’t arrive until 1995, easily the greatest elapsed time between entries. By then, my circumstances had completely changed. I was handling a full course load in library school, working a part-time job, and taking care of my seven-month-old son half time to save money on daycare costs. Trying to find a buyer for the article didn’t even appear on my list of priorities. As a result, the finished article just hung around, migrating between various floppies and hard drives, for 23 years. Well, its time has finally come. Other than a few very minor (mostly stylistic) changes, the following article remains as it was written in June 1989. I hope you enjoy it!
If you ask the average person who the brains behind the creation of James Bond was they are likely to tell you, correctly, that it was English novelist Ian Fleming. If you sought to discover who was responsible for the conception of Bond as the globe-trotting, womanizing, witty, master-spy depicted in the screen series, however, the clues would lead to Richard Maibaum.
Who is Richard Maibaum? Any aficionado of the Bond series can tell you. Maibaum is the screenwriter who has crafted, either solely or in collaboration, 13 of the 16 so-called “official” Bond adventures produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and released through United Artists.
Maibaum’s credentials are nearly the equal to those of 007. A New York native, Maibaum has been a scholar – he attended the University of Iowa (BA 1931, MA 1932), a Broadway playwright, an actor in the New York Shakespearean Repertory Company, a Hollywood screenwriter at MGM, a lieutenant colonel in the Army during WWII, where he ultimately served as director of the Combat Films Division, a writer-producer at Paramount (his credits include The Big Clock and The Great Gatsby), and an executive producer at MGM-TV.
The ongoing success of the Bond films, however, will forever link Maibaum to the screen’s smoothest superspy. Recently, a few weeks before the opening of the sixteenth Bond saga Licence to Kill, Maibaum was in Iowa City to receive an award from the University of Iowa’s Alumni Association. During a break in his schedule, I had the opportunity to sit and talk with him about the James Bond series and his role in it. Dressed in tan jacket and slacks and brown loafers, he settled his athletic body comfortably into a chair in the lobby of the Downtown Holiday Inn. Silky white hair caps a rugged face; brown plastic frames with thick lenses do not obscure his alert, clear eyes. His well-modulated voice and general appearance belie his 80 years.
During the fifties, Maibaum was first approached by producer “Cubby” Broccoli – for whose Warwick Productions Maibaum had scripted several action pictures – concerning adapting the Ian Fleming spy thrillers for the big screen. Financing, film rights, and censorship problems, however, put the project on hold. By the early-sixties the social climate had changed and Broccoli had formed a partnership with Harry Saltzman, who owned the rights to the novels. Maibaum was called in and started work in earnest to fashion Fleming’s literary hero into a screen star.
“Fleming was a genius, a fine novelist and a marvelous personality,” Maibaum said, “he was really writing about himself, he thought he was James Bond.” But Maibaum points out that what comes off as believable on the printed page did not translate to the screen quite so easily. “Take Goldfinger for instance. (Villain Auric) Goldfinger’s plan to rob all the gold from Fort Knox is just nonsense. Somehow we had to cope with ghosting him through the illogicalities.
“Also, a lot of Fleming’s writing is just nice writing,” Maibaum continued. “We had to clarify, simplify, and most of all, we had to add the humorous side to his writing, a side of which he was not quite aware.”
Maibaum claims that the casting of Sean Connery as the original 007 was one of the chief reasons the series was so successful. He explained that Fleming’s Bond “is supposed to be a sophisticate: educated, cultured, a gourmet, and having all the skills of the English gentleman – none of which Sean Connery really was. So it was kind of a joke.” He said that the audience wasn’t really aware of this contrary casting, only that somehow they liked this “mug” playing that kind of character.
Maibaum points out that the Bond films didn’t just turn an unknown Scottish actor into a megastar but set the standard for a particular type of picture. “Don’t forget that in Dr. No and From Russia with Lovethe audience had not seen this kind of action-adventure picture. They had that working for them, too,” Maibaum said.
As is the case among many Bond fanatics, the early series entries featuring Connery draw the highest praise from Maibaum, as well. He considers From Russia with Love and Goldfinger as the two best films. “Those two set the pattern,” he said. He particularly likes the former because he thinks it achieves the most satisfying blend of emotional elements and stunt sequences.
Maibaum describes Connery’s work in the series as simply “marvelous” and was sorry to see him pull out in the late-sixties. “It’s a shame. I consider the script of On Her Majesty’s Secret Serviceas the best I’ve done in the series, perhaps because it was the fullest and most realized novel. The characterizations were more realistic and the odd thing is that I stuck very close to the book and it all seemed to work.
“If Sean had done the role in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service it would have been far the best of the Bond pictures and (would’ve) been one of the biggest blockbusters of all time,” Maibaum claims. He took a deep breath and sighed. “Even so I like it very much – I think Gabriele Ferzetti was fantastic (as a villain) – and it’s one of my favorite pictures.”
Apparently, Australian model George Lazenby, who starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service as the first post-Connery Bond, looked right for the part, but did not have enough experience to adequately assume the role. “I liked him very much, but he was very unprofessional,” assessed Maibaum.
After Connery returned for Diamonds Are Forever, then departed once again, he was replaced by an actor of considerably greater staying power: Roger Moore. The seventies-era films got considerably high-tech and credibility was occasionally strained (Moonraker for instance is one which Maibaum volunteers he had nothing to do with). Moore, perhaps in self-defense, began playing the role increasingly broadly.
After Moonraker, Maibaum says that Broccoli called the team together and agreed that they had to “pull down the balloon a little bit and come down to Earth.” Maibaum said that they tried to change the tone with the next film, For Your Eyes Only, and the results were obvious. Nevertheless, Moore’s “fooling around spoofing” had become chronic and held throughout the remainder of his series entries, according to Maibaum.
“You can’t spoof a spoof,” Maibaum contends. “From the beginning ours was not a parody, but it was a rather humorous version of the story. Those adventures don’t happen, they’re in the realm of fantasy. So if the actor doesn’t take it seriously the audience sure won’t.” Still, he defends Moore by saying what a charming and skilled man he is and by admitting that his pictures “grossed tremendously.”
At the quarter century mark, the series was revitalized by the casting of Timothy Dalton as 007 and Caroline Bliss as Miss Moneypenny in 1987’s The Living Daylights. Maibaum approves of the new Bond, “I like Timothy Dalton very much. In a way he hearkens back to Sean Connery’s interpretation.”
Maibaum’s task has become more difficult in recent years because the films now outnumber Fleming’s novels. Licence to Kill is an original screenplay by Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson, though he says it does include incidents taken from the Fleming novel Live and Let Die, as well as the Fleming short story The Hildebrand Rarity.
The stunt sequences in each new Bond film still manage to amaze the public. You might expect that inspiration for further Bond daring-do would be at a premium. “Where your inspiration comes from is the amount of money you make every week,” Maibaum chuckled. Actually, he says, anybody in Broccoli’s production crew is likely to suggest an idea to the writers, especially the stuntmen who know it gives them an added chance to shine.
The Bond films have indeed set the industry standard and now must face competition from producers who have learned their lessons well. In a summer dominated by big-budget action pictures like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lethal Weapon 2 and Batman, will Licence to Kill grab a giant’s share of the movie-going public? Maibaum declined to make a prediction, but offered, “All I know is that this one coming up is a very powerful picture, very powerful. The action is absolutely sensational.”
After 13 James Bond scripts over 27 years Maibaum denies that, like Ian Fleming, he believes he is writing about himself. Instead, he says, “my real name is Walter Mitty.” Obviously, there is plenty of Mitty in Richard Maibaum – and a little Bond, James Bond.