Liz Smith: Reminding Liz of Sharks

thunderball3THIS IS where they shot the film ‘Thunderball’ … a James Bond movie. Sean Connery. My favorite, actually,” says the fictional hero Alex Hawke, created by thriller writer Ted Bell.

hawkeI FOUND a paperback book, circa 2003, titled Hawke in a house I visited recently in the Bahamas.

I just couldn’t resist the yellowing thriller and started reading. It was all eerily familiar although I knew I hadn’t read it before.

In the early pages, there is a quote that our British hero, Hawke, makes to a pal. Hawke is the offspring of a famous ancient pirate. He has a map of buried treasure and in the ensuing tale, goes on to drink a lot, love beautiful women a lot, foil Cuban insurrection plot and search for a Russian nuclear submarine which evil men have decided to unleash on the U.S.A.

At one point, Hawke takes several villains out in his boat to a grotto where one swims underwater, amid a lot of threatening sharks and comes up inside a beautiful water-free dome, rising above the sea. Says Hawke, before he dives, to his evil companions: “You only need the mask and snorkel until we’re through the underwater entrance. Once we surface inside, there’s plenty of air … the poison coral is what you need to watch out for. Here, put these gloves on!”

Suffice to say, in the story, Hawke swims down, through a narrow entrance and up inside where, in the 60s they actually filmed the 007 movie. Hawke’s comrades, frightened to death, protest fear of sharks but go with him. “Terror was plain on their faces.”

Then Hawke threatened to leave them inside as the tide water would raise them up to the jagged coral ceiling and they’d run out of air in the dark. Of course, they give in and give up their secrets and he swims them out.

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stripTHIS FICTIONAL tale scores with me. In the year they were filming “Thunderball” — 1965 — I went to the Bahamas and reported on the technical underwater filming for the James Bond movie for Sports Illustrated magazine. I also interviewed the star himself. I was ushered into a dressing room where the incredibly sexy, young Sean Connery was being given a massage.

Illuminating, that! And fun! I don’t remember anything about what I asked or he answered. But I still hear the drone of his Scots burr and then he sat up, the tiny towel slipping off his loins. He was as unselfconscious as a beautiful animal and he bid me good-bye, flexing his “Scotland Forever” tattoos.

But the producers were avid for even more publicity and sent me off with their dive crew and shark handlers to show how the stunts were accomplished. The following appeared in my memoir Natural Blonde:

“It was on this trip that we were taken from our mother boat and put in a dinghy to go to a small island sticking up in the middle of the Caribbean. “Now,” said our movie dive-master, “we all fall backwards out of the dinghy and swim down to a hole. It’s about five feet on the side here and we swim through it, holding our breath. We’ll come up inside the island into a cave with air.”

“I protested. Not even for the article could I do that. I didn’t swim well enough. ‘You don’t have to,’ said the master. ‘We’ll drag you.’

I said, ‘No, I’m too scared.’

‘Okay,’ said the tough guy. ‘We’ll swim in and see the ‘Thunderball’ location and you will be left here in the dinghy. But there are big sharks around. Big enough to bite this dinghy in two when they see a pretty little thing sitting in it – alone.’

“I quickly changed my mind, held my breath, fell over the side and was whisked down to the “entrance.” Here, these wise guys had affixed a four-foot dead shark stuck on a spear with its wicked jaw wide open at the hole we were to swim through. I didn’t faint. It is difficult to faint underwater. But the sporting life wasn’t for sissies and I
refused to give the guys the pleasure of seeing me react.

“We came up inside the cave into a paradise of light. This place was later in the movie in a scene where 007 is doing his damnedest. I felt thrilled to have been there, too. Me and Sean Connery.”

AND, come to think of it, the stunt men didn’t have me snorkel down, we just dove underwater and they guided me past the dead shark and didn’t mention poison coral either.

But the whole experience was so terrifying that I never thought to write about it as fiction.

Ted Bell did it for me!

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This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 3/27/13

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