The Legal Battle Behind Bond's Blofeld

James Bond Spectre Cast - H 2014

James Bond Spectre Cast - H 2014

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

You can't keep a supervillain down. After a 40-year hiatus, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the evil genius who battled James Bond through the 1960s and '70s, finally will return to the screen — maybe.

At a Dec. 4 live reveal at Pinewood Studios outside London, director Sam Mendes introduced the cast of the 24th 007 film. Daniel Craig was there, along with new castmembers Monica Bellucci, Lea Seydoux, Dave Bautista and Andrew Scott. But it was Christoph Waltz who got people talking. For months, the Oscar winner was rumored to be taking on the role first played by Donald Pleasence in 1967's You Only Live Twice. The announcement of the new film's title — Spectre — further fueled the speculation (SPECTRE was Blofeld's criminal organization).

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Where has Blofeld been? In court, mired in copyright litigation. The character originated in Longitude 78, a 1959 screenplay by Bond author Ian Fleming and screenwriter Kevin McClory. That script was intended to be the first 007 film, until producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman chose to shoot Dr. No. But Fleming liked Blofeld so much, he decided to turn Longitude 78 into a novel, retitled Thunderball. That's when McClory started filing lawsuits. In 1963, he settled with Fleming and the Bond producers for £35,000 ($1.02 million today) in damages and a producing credit on the Thunderball film. The deal also stipulated that rights to Thunderball and its characters would revert fully to McClory after 10 years, which is how he produced Warner Bros.' Never Say Never Again, 1983's veritable scene-for-scene remake of Thunderball, and nearly launched a competing 007 franchise with Sony in the 1990s until a court stopped them. Even after McClory's death in 2006, Blofeld remained in legal limbo until last year, when a new deal between MGM, the Bond people and McClory's heirs cleared the path for Waltz to portray Number 1.

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But why was Waltz introduced as playing "Oberhauser"? It's possible that MGM and the Bond producers, after a decades-long battle over Blofeld, have decided not to revive Bond's most iconic villain (or that the settlement required a different name). But you don't need to be a criminal mastermind to figure out Waltz's probable role. "The title certainly raises the specter of Blofeld's return," says litigator William Kane, who helped negotiate the 2013 settlement for McClory's heirs. "But that's a question for the filmmakers who have Q clearance."