Casino Royale must have looked an appetising prospect when it went into pre-production in 1965. The Saltzman/Broccoli Bond movies had established the playboy spy as a bankable commodity, and when producer Charles Feldman signed up comic genius Peter Sellers for his film version of Fleming's novel, he doubtless thought he had a licence to print money. Rather than breaking box-office records, however, Feldman's $12 million movie would devour its budget, fail to recoup its costs and destroy careers, including his own.
But Casino Royale was cursed even before Feldman optioned it in the early '60s. CBS, who had made a US TV movie of it in 1954, passed the option on to actor-director Gregory Ratoff. He signed to make a big-screen version for Fox in 1960 - only to die before a frame was shot.
As for Feldman, his problems began the day he hired Sellers - at the time one of the biggest movie stars in the world. The impact of his performances in Dr Strangelove, in addition to the commercial success of the Pink Panther movies, elevated Sellers to a position of rare power for a comic actor. Feldman knew from experience that Sellers was a draw - the actor had helped make a hit of the producer's giddy comedy What's New Pussycat? - so he agreed to pay the former Goon a then-unheard-of $1m to play accountant and Bond imposter Evelyn Tremble.
No sooner had he agreed terms than Sellers fell out with Feldman and began to act irrationally. He insisted that the producer hire his friend, TV director Joe McGrath, and refused to appear on set with co-star Orson Welles. Many concluded that the already eccentric Sellers had gone mad, especially after he came to blows with McGrath and then fled the set - never to return.
The impact of his performances in Dr Strangelove, in addition to the commercial success of the Pink Panther movies, elevated Sellers to a position of rare power for a comic actor
Peter Sellers' walkout seemed to spell the end of Casino Royale. But rather than capitulating, Charles Feldman reverted to his original plan and set about making a truly immense movie. Out went McGrath and original writer Wolf Mankowitz; in came a string of different directors - Val Guest, John Huston, Richard Talmadge, Robert Parrish, Ken Hughes - and a raft of screenwriters that included co-stars Woody Allen and David Niven, Hollywood legend Billy Wilder and groundbreaking novelist Terry Southern .
The end result has to be one of the strangest films ever made by a Hollywood studio. The combination of Sellers' walkout and Feldman's extravagance deprived Casino Royale of anything approaching structure and transformed it into a series of unconnected sketches. Worst of all, here was a comedy almost totally devoid of laughs.
It was to be Feldman's swansong: he died of stomach cancer within a year of the film's 1967 premiere. The paranoid Peter Sellers had predicted as much. "Feldman is going to die!" he once ranted, "and the reason he'll die is so he can blame me! He'll say, 'Sellers killed me!' He'll do it to spite me!"
Charles Feldman (producer): I love the movies, always have. I like money too, but only because it lets me make the movies I want to make.
Orson Welles (actor, Le Chiffre): The movies need people like Charles Feldman: rich, jolly, generous men who're happy writing cheques.
Val Guest (director): Charlie found out that, when he bought the book, all he got was the title. Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had already used everything in the book except the baccarat game, so the whole thing had to be structured around that.
Woody Allen (actor, Jimmy Bond/Dr Noah): I was offered a lot of money and a small part. My manager said, "Why not? It could become a big movie." So I went to London. I was on a good salary and expense account. But they didn't film me for six months! I stayed in London at their expense for six months! That's only one example of how utterly wasteful the project was.
I once saw him on one phone to Peter Sellers, on a second to United Artists and on a third to the Italian government
Bryan Forbes (first-choice director): Charlie came into my life brandishing a copy of Casino Royale. He told me he wanted to have five James Bond and would guarantee me an all-star cast. "You can write it wherever you want. Do you like the south of France?" Gifts started to arrive - silk scarves, theatre tickets. Charlie was talking Monopoly money to secure my services. Every time I expressed doubts, he sweetened the deal.
Peter Sellers (actor, Evelyn Tremble): People will swim through shit if you put a few bob in it.
Woody Allen: Charlie was a genius. I once saw him on one phone to Peter Sellers, on a second to United Artists and on a third to the Italian government. He was a big-time charming con man and I never trusted him for a second.
Bryan Forbes: I said 'yes' to Charlie and then thought about the basic idiocies of the script. Five Bonds! That meant departing from the novel. I called one of Charlie's assistants who went into a fit on the phone. But I stuck to my guns.
Wolf Mankowitz (screenwriter): Peter Sellers was a treacherous lunatic. My advice to Feldman was not in any circumstances to get involved with Sellers. But Sellers was at his peak. I told Charlie that Sellers would fuck it all up.
Joseph McGrath (director): Feldman was glad to get Peter at any price. He'd put up the money for Sellers' insurance on What's New Pussycat? - after his heart attack, nobody would cover him.
Wolf Mankowitz: Charlie gave Sellers a Rolls Royce on the first day of shooting as a come-on.
Peter Sellers: I was offered $1 million to play Bond. I said, "You must be out of your bloody minds - what about Sean Connery?" Feldman said, "Yes, I know, but I have this book and I'm going to make it." I said, "I certainly can't play Bond!"
Wolf Mankowitz: Charlie Feldman offered Peter more and more money to play 007. In the end, the fee was so large Peter would have been mad to turn it down.
Peter Sellers: I wanted to play James Bond the way Tony Hancock would play him. But Ian Fleming's people would never have allowed it.
Wolf Mankowitz: In the end, Peter didn't play Bond. He played Evelyn Tremble. "Who's Evelyn Tremble?" everyone asked. Nobody knew. But then we didn't know who Sellers was either.
Charles Feldman: The only way to make a film with Peter is to let him direct, write and produce it as well as star in it.
Wolf Mankowitz: Sellers wanted different directors; he wanted to piss around with the script. He knew nothing about anything except doing funny faces and funny voices.
Joseph McGrath: Peter asked me if I'd be interested in directing a film he'd agreed to star in. I said, "I'd be delighted to." And that's where the trouble started.
Wolf Mankowitz: By Casino Royale, Peter Sellers was pretty well round the bend and couldn't function properly. He'd change the order of shooting. He'd be 'unavailable' or constantly change his timing, making it hard to splice material together.
Sellers was frightened of the scale of Orson - his legend, literally his weight and immensity.
Orson Welles: Sellers wasn't terribly bright, but he came on as the great actor.
Joseph McGrath: One of the problems that blew the film apart was that Orson and I got along really well. And Sellers got really annoyed. "I didn't think you and Orson would take sides against me." I said, "I'm not - but Orson thinks we can come up with some funny stuff." Sellers replied, "I'll only attempt to come up with funny stuff so long as he's not here." He was frightened of the scale of Orson - his legend, literally his weight and immensity.
Wolf Mankowitz: I'll never forget the occasion Orson and I, two rather large fellows, were in the lift. The door opened and Sellers was there. Sellers wasn't talking to Orson, and he was none too keen on me either. He wouldn't go down in the lift with us - said it wasn't safe. Orson was pissed off. "What the fuck is he talking about?" "I think he means the combined weight, Orson." "What the fuck does he weigh? Skinny as a shrimp. Looks like a shrimp, come to think of it."
Joseph McGrath: Orson didn't have the same attitude about his career as Peter did. Peter was what he did. Orson thought, I'll be here for four weeks, let's enjoy ourselves. Peter's thing was: My career is on the line.
Wolf Mankowitz: Peter was terrified of playing with Orson and converted this into an aversion for him.
Joseph McGrath: Orson would come onto the set at 9am prompt, sit down at the baccarat table and say, "So, Joe, where's our thin friend today?"
Orson Welles: Sellers was very proud of how thin he was. Apparently, he'd taken a lot of pills to help shift the weight. If you listened to him talking, you'd think it was the greatest achievement of his career.
Wolf Mankowitz: Sellers claimed Orson was surrounded by a dark aura and said it would not be healthy for him to be close to Orson. He was incredibly superstitious. He was obsessed with horoscopes, tarot cards and colours.
Peter Sellers: Green has been a superstition of mine for a long time. And purple. Vittorio De Sica told me, "My dear Peter, purple is the colour of death." And certain shades of green. The hard, acidy green is bad. I pick up strange vibrations from it. It disturbs me.
Wolf Mankowitz: Sellers was completely obsessed with royalty. He was always going on about Princess Margaret. His biggest thrill was to present people to her.
Orson Welles: The fact that Princess Margaret was stopping by every day at my house was unknown to Sellers. One day she came to the set to have lunch with Peter, or so he claimed. He couldn't wait to tell the cast and crew who he was dining with. Then she walked past him and said, "Hello, Orson, I haven't seen you for days!" That was the real end. That's when we couldn't speak lines to each other. "Orson, I haven't seen you for days!" absolutely killed him. He went white as a sheet, because he was going to present me!
Joseph McGrath: Peter and I had a fist fight in his caravan. He threw a punch and I hit him back. We got separated by Gerry Crampton, the stunt coordinator. "I love you both. I don't know who to thump first," Gerry said. Sellers and I started laughing and crying, but I said, "There's no point going on, because somebody's going to hit somebody again." And he did.
Peter Sellers: If I find myself surrounded by stupid people, I get rid of them.
Joseph McGrath: After I was fired - at Peter's request - Sellers phoned and said, "Come back! Feldman's going to give you a Rolls Royce." I said, "I don't want one." Two years later, I was in LA and Jerry Bressler, who got a credit on Casino Royale as an executive producer, pulled up in a white Coriniche. "Are you Joe McGrath?" he said. "I'm driving your Rolls Royce!"
Peter Sellers: In the end, Peter did one of his celebrated walkouts.
Ken Hughes (director): Peter stated that he was not prepared to complete the movie. Casino Royale came to a ghastly halt. Charles Feldman was left with a few scenes shot with Sellers but no movie. He had to consider closing down. But big money was involved and he decided to go ahead.
Joseph McGrath: It's hard to finish a film when you lose your star.
Ken Hughes: At a panic script meeting, it was decided that since they no longer had Sellers, they'd have to improvise. The writers were working like crazy trying to save the day. Feldman hired everyone in sight: Woody Allen, David Niven, John Huston. It was total chaos. Units were shooting in three studios. I was shooting at Shepperton, another unit was shooting at MGM. And none of us saw a completed script. I had to call the director at MGM to find out what he was shooting so I'd know how it dovetailed into what I was shooting.
Orson Welles: At the end of it, Charlie Feldman hired John Huston to direct and John moved everybody to Ireland because he wanted to go fox hunting.
Ken Hughes: The end result speaks for itself - a mish-mash that came into being because the star had walked out.
Wolf Mankowitz: The film doesn't make any sense. Because of Sellers it was cut, re-cut, screwed around with a thousand different ways.
Joseph McGrath: Peter told me years later, "I don't have a lot of friends, but I can trust you. Because we've been through hell together. You've actually faced me and thrown a punch at me. I know you won't put up with any shit.
Peter Sellers: I am not a funny man. I don't have a strong comedy personality. But even without that, you can be successful if the material is funny.
Woody Allen: I never bothered to see Casino Royale. I knew it would be horrible. The set was a madhouse. I knew then that the only way to make a film is to control it completely.
Peter Sellers: The making of that film would make an interesting film in itself.
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