(May 27, 1905–March 1, 1988): American lawyer, newspaperman, author, and former pro football player, a friend of Ian Fleming and a partner in Ivar Bryce’s Xanadu Productions, who contributed early story elements to the late-1950s James Bond film adaptation project that eventually became the novel Thunderball. A former legal advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cuneo wrote a memorandum to Bryce, dated May 28, 1959, that was, in effect, the project’s first story outline.
In it, a Russian agent poses as a US Army sergeant working on board a celebrity-filled USO airliner that is constantly flying to top-secret US bases. James Bond discovers that the Russians plan to detonate atomic bombs on those same bases.
When the sergeant transfers to the Caribbean USO, Bond follows, disguised as a British entertainer. In Nassau, he discovers that a mysterious power is commanding a fleet of Bahamian fishing boats, all of which are equipped with watertight underwater hatches just like those used by the Italian navy during World War II. Atomic bombs are to be delivered by Russian submarines to these fishing boats and hoisted through their watertight trapdoors by frogmen.
Cuneo finished the outline by detailing an underwater battle between the enemy frogmen and Bond’s unit that takes place during an outdoor USO concert in Nassau. Cuneo centered his outline around the heavy use of both American and British celebrities, an idea given to him by producer Kevin McClory, who had featured a number of celebrity cameos in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). Cuneo also felt that the American government would be willing to cooperate by allowing a British camera crew to film at certain US installations, perhaps even aboard their new aircraft carrier the USS Independence.
Bryce showed Cuneo’s outline to Fleming, who scribbled his own pointed comments. His two biggest criticisms concerned the lack of a Bond heroine, and the use of the Russians as the principal villains.
Following Cuneo’s initial outline, Fleming created a film treatment in which the Russians are replaced by the Mafia in the A-bomb conspiracy. The latter is headed by a capo named Cuneo, whose principal lieutenant is a huge bear of a man named Largo. The role of Largo was written for American actor Burl Ives, who had already expressed interest in the project—and had recently won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part in The Big Country (1958).
Largo and his handpicked team break into an American atomic base in Britain and steal an A-bomb. They transfer the bomb to a helicopter, which transports it to a tramp steamer anchored in the English Channel. The steamer passes the bomb to a Sunderland flying boat, which then speeds across the Atlantic and deposits its cargo in the water near Largo’s huge yacht, the Virginia, where a complement of divers transfer it through the yacht’s watertight underwater hatch.
Much of the early action in Fleming’s treatment takes place at a public house in the British countryside, where Bond tracks Largo and meets a British agent named Domino Smith, who has infiltrated the Mafia gang. Screenwriter Jack Whittingham would later alter many of these story elements, and the Mafia villains would be replaced by Fleming’s own SPECTRE organization.