The first time moviegoers saw Bond supervillain Ernst Blofeld's face was in "You Only Live Twice," where he was played by Donald Pleasance. Credit: MGM
It’s been 30 years since James Bond supervillain Ernst Blofeld terrorized movie screens. Predictably, you can blame a lawsuit.
For 50 years a legal battle has ensued with screenwriter Kevin McClory, who died in 2006. But word has come that his estate has settled with Bond studio MGM and production house Danjaq. This means — but does not ensure — that in the 24th Bond film, to be released in late 2015, Daniel Craig may get his own shot at fighting Blofeld (or whoever actor may portray him).
Though he appeared in six of the movies (seven if you count the non-canonical "Never Say Never Again"), Blofeld — head of the mysterious and powerful criminal circuit SPECTRE — was only in three of Ian Fleming’s novels. The book that introduced him, “Thunderball,” was not an original but rather a novelization of a script Fleming had written with others in the 1950s, in a failed early attempt to bring Bond to the screen. Fleming and McClory created him in tandem, and as early as 1961, when the book was published, McClory sued Fleming for not giving him proper credit.
The lawsuit was resolved out of court, and Blofeld — who changed physical appearances (and actors) but, at least in the films, usually kept the tight-fitting gray suit and yen for cat-stroking — wormed his way into the Bond-iverse. He was the baddie of the books “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” and “You Only Live Twice,” in which he was killed. Fleming conceived him as a hulking presence, modeled after Mussolini.
The films ignored this physical description. His first screen appearances were in “From Russia With Love” and “Thunderball,” in which he was tantalizingly obscured. His face was finally revealed, with a nasty-cool scar, in “You Only Live Twice,” where he was played by Donald Pleasance. He was not killed, as in the book, and appeared again, played by Telly Savalas, in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”; by Charles Gray, now with hair, in “Diamonds Are Forever”; and finally, his face again obscured (and once more bald) in “For Your Eyes Only,” where Roger Moore’s Bond drops him into a chimney stack via a helicopter. (He dies — presumably.)
Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, McClory tried to circumvent his settlement to launch his own Bond franchise, which would duel with the existing one over at Eon Productions. He even managed to get Sean Connery, who had sworn off the role (then reneged for a one-off, “Diamonds Are Forever”), to get involved. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s that McClory and conspirators were able to get one off the ground, but he was only legally allowed to do a version of “Thunderball.”
So, in 1983, the world got another “Thunderball,” starring the actor who had starred in the original. In “Never Say Never Again,” Connery, 53 and with an even less convincing hairpiece than in the ‘60s, once again battled a villain named Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) while romancing a blonde hottie (Kim Basinger). And Blofeld returned, now looking like Lenin and played by no less than Max Von Sydow. Most of the supporting characters were present, albeit recast, but of course none of the film franchise fixtures (the theme, the gun barrel opening, etc.) could be carried over.
"Never Say Never Again" went head-to-head with that year’s official Bond film, “Octopussy." (Well, not head-to-head: "Octopussy" was a summer release, while "Never Say Never Again" was dropped in the fall.) The result was a big fat anti-climax: both films did about the same business. Still, it wound up being the only independently produced Bond film by McClory. Amusingly, McClory tried to make other 007 films, but was still only allowed to again remake “Thunderball.” That didn’t stop him, and the world could very well have received not two but several “Thunderball” films.
Because of this — and thanks to the legal battles — “Never Say Never Again” is not considered part of the Bond canon, and was not included in the complete Bond box set that came out last year.
That was the last the world saw of Blofeld, unless you count “Austin Powers”’ Dr. Evil, who was made up like Pleasance’s “You Only Live Twice” incarnation.
This new settlement may change that. Or maybe it won't. Perhaps we'll have to wait for another few films until the relaunched franchise to get to him. Or maybe he'll dominate the next film, to be directed by “Skyfall” helmsman Sam Mendes. Feel free to hold your breath.