“MY NAME IS PAYNE, JOHN PAYNE!”
Before there was Sean Connery there was almost John Payne
Ian Lancaster Fleming was a British writer, journalist, and intelligence officer best known for his series of secret agent novels. During the Second World War he served with British Naval Intelligence. His wartime service and later career as a journalist provided much of the background, depth, and details for his best-selling books.
James Bond is a character created by Ian Fleming in 1953. He is the protagonist of the James Bond series of books, films, comic books, video games, audio books, radio shows, and comic strips. The character is a Secret Service agent with the code number 007 residing in London but operating internationally. Like his fellow countrymen Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan, James Bond is known globally on such a scale that it is possible to stop anyone, anywhere, say his name and that person will have an idea of who you are speaking about.
MOONRAKER is the third novel about James Bond written by Ian Fleming. It was published in 1955. Film producer Alexander Korda read a proof copy of the second James Bond novel LIVE AND LET DIE (1954). He informed Fleming that he was excited by the book but did not think it made a good basis for a movie. Fleming informed him that his next book was based on an idea for a screenplay. British industrialist Hugo Drax intends to build the Moonraker – a prototype missile supposedly to defend the United Kingdom. Instead Drax is an ex-Nazi working for the Soviets who plans to build the rocket, load it with a nuclear warhead, and fire it at London. The story is set entirely in England, which Fleming believed made it more filmable.
John Howard Payne was an American film actor mainly remembered for his role in the film MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). However, my favorite of his movies is TRIPOLI (1950) where he plays a United States Marine officer given a secret mission in 1805 Libya. In both films his co-star was Maureen O’Hara.
Bond Historian James David Patrick credits John Payne as the first person in Hollywood to see James Bond as a bankable film property. In 1955, Payne took out an option on Fleming’s novel MOONRAKER. The option had him pay $1,000.00 a month for nine months while he tried to get a studio interested in making a Bond film. However, the actor eventually let the option lapse for two reasons. First, Payne discovered he could not option the rights for the rest of the Bond series. Second, the studios he approached all found the material too “titillating” for movie audiences.
And so despite his best efforts, John Payne lost his opportunity to become the first cinematic James Bond. Now as you can see, he was certainly handsome and athletic enough to play the superspy. He was also enough of a star to have the drawing power to make the movie a hit. But I have to wonder if being American he had intended to change Bond’s background to make him American. CBS did the same thing for their CLIMAX! anthology series adaptation of CASINO ROYALE (1954). In it, Barry Nelson plays American agent Jimmy Bond while Michael Pate plays British agent Clarence Leiter. That may have been the way Payne intended to go. However, he was operating without a screenplay trying to get studios interested using just the novel. In the book James Bond is British and the novel itself is very British dealing with cheating at cards and a plot to destroy London – all set entirely in England. Not a story you can easily transform into American. Perhaps Payne intended to play Bond as English and was going to supply a suitable accent. Unfortunately, we will never know. Somewhere there may be an alternate universe where John Payne is the first cinematic James Bond, and the movie series began in 1956.
It’s interesting that the studios of 1955 felt that James Bond was too titillating and/or erotic for movie goers. But then again, the top three moneymakers for 1956 were:
- THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
- AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
Despite GIANT being a big soap opera there was nothing particularly titillating about this bunch so maybe the studios knew what they were talking about. Maybe we needed to wait seven more years before James Bond could appear on the big screen.