Michael John Stears

Michael John Stears (1934 to 1999) was born in Uxbridge and grew up in Hoylake Crescent, Ickenham. Michael was known as 'the Dean of Special Effects'.

John Stears
The winner of two Academy Awards, for his work on Thunderball and Star Wars, John Stears was one of the film industry's top men for special visual effects and many of his innovations are incorporated into the work of today's film-makers.

He served as the real-life incarnation of the ingenious 'Q' in the early James Bond films, creating gadgets and vehicles including the Aston Martin featured in Goldfinger which has been described as "the most famous car in the world".

For Star Wars he worked with the production designer John Barry to conceive the unforgettable robots C3PO and R2-D2, and among his other memorable achievements were the flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the model work for the British film about the Titanic, A Night to Remember, and the explosive demolition work in The Guns of Navarone.

The early years

Stears was born in Uxbridge in 1934. He grew up in the family home at 126 Hoylake Crescent, Ickenham, and went to school at Ickenham County School. He later studied at Harrow College of Art and Southall Technical School before working as a draughtsman with the Air Ministry.

He served as a dispatch rider during his National Service, then joined a firm of architects where he was able to utilise his passion for model-making by constructing scale models of building projects for clients. The firm also specialised in model aircraft, and when Rank's special effects expert Bill Warrington saw some of Stears' work he commissioned him to build model aircraft for Lewis Gilbert's screen version of the life of the pilot Douglas Bader, Reach for the Sky (1956).

In 1958, Stears created the model boat for A Night To Remember, the film about the sinking of the Titanic, which was filmed locally at Ruislip Lido. He also built the model boats and planes used in Carve Her Name With Pride (1958), and Sink the Bismarck!(1960).

Now he had a reputation impressive enough to allow him to freelance, Stears was hired to build and destroy gun miniatures for J. Lee Thompson's exciting transcription of the Alistair MacLean adventure tale The Guns of Navarone(1961), then he created effects for two Disney films, In Search of the Castaways(1962) and the fantasy Three Lives of Thomasina (1962).

The Bond years

Stears was then asked to work on the first James Bond film, Dr No. His work on the film's finale, the destruction of the villains' Jamaican hideout still impresses today. Aware of the importance of his contribution to the film's success, producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman made Stears head of their special effects department for the next Bond production, From Russia With Love (1963).

For this film he both created and flew the first remote-controlled helicopter used in a film, and constructed the bizarre knife-toed boots for the Soviet spy Rosa Klebb. Still only 29 years old, Stears confessed later that he was having the time of his life and he described his job as "not really work but the chance to play ...using other people's money!"

The next Bond film, Goldfinger(1964), included three of Stears' favourite creations, the lethal laser ray which nearly bisects Bond, the steel-rimmed bowler employed as a deadly frisbee by the villain Oddjob, and the famous Aston Martin. In the book, Fleming's hero drives a DB3, but Stears wanted to use the not yet available DB5, a sleekly photogenic model. He persuaded the manufacturers to provide him with a prototype, which the effects wizard fitted with bullet-proof windows, a fog maker, revolving number plates, a rear oil slick dispenser, forward-firing machine guns and a passenger ejector seat.

Stears said: "I was never certain we would make the seat work, but in the end we did the stunt in one take."

For the fourth Bond film, Thunderball, (1965) Stears created effects including a rocket-firing motorcycle, an underwater flying saucer, large-scale models of a Vulcan bomber and a life-size replica of the villain's yacht which he blew to pieces. His work on the film brought him his first Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

His old friend Lewis Gilbert directed the next Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), which included a flying machine that gobbles up a space capsule in outer space, after which Stears had a break from Bond when he worked on Broccoli's production Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) with its flying car.

When he was asked to pick a favourite Bond film, Stears said the one he most enjoyed working on was On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), partly because he admired its star George Lazenby, who insisted on performing many of his own stunts. It was the start of a lifelong friendship between the two men, both mechanically minded motorbike enthusiasts. For the film, the most challenging moment came when Stears had to set off an avalanche on cue.

In 1970 Stears set up his own company, and worked on such films as Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man!(1973) and Douglas Hickox's (1973) in which a ham actor (played by Vincent Theatre of Blood (1973) in which a ham actor (played by Vincent Price) murders hostile critics by recreating death scenes from Shakespeare's plays. He returned to Bond for a final time to create effects including Scaramanga's flying car in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), which featured Roger Moore as Bond.

The Star Wars years

Michael John Stears
In 1976 Stears had a call from George Lucas, who had been a great admirer of the Bond films and wanted to know if he was interested in creating mechanical and electrical effects for a film he had written - working title Star Wars. It was the opportunity to create things that had never been attempted before and Stears enthusiastically accepted.

In Star Wars Episode IV: a New Hope Stears' creative talents dreamed up and delivered such innovations as Luke Skywalker's land-speeder, the Jedi Knights' light sabres, and robots R2-D2 and C3-PO. He created a host of gadgets and special effects, including the final explosive destruction of the Death Star space station.

The phenomenal box office hit brought Stears his second Oscar and also an industry Saturn Award for Best Special Effects.

Other work in the film industry

Stears worked with Sean Connery, on Peter Hyams's Outland (1981), set on at a remote mining colony on the Jupiter moon of Io in the distant future, where space marshal Connery finds himself fighting a lone battle against wholesale corruption, for which he received a Saturn award nomination.

Subsequent films included The Bounty (1984), an intriguingly unconventional depiction of the famous mutiny, with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. Stears was asked to work as a special consultant on a thriller which aptly featured a special effects expert as its hero, FX: Murder by Illusion, in which Bryan Brown played an effects man hired to make a faked assassination appear real, only to find that he is himself the victim of a Mafia plot and has to bring all his ingenuity into play to defend himself. A modest success at the time of its release, it is now considered a cult movie.

In 1993, after producing effects for the Charlie Sheen vehicle NavySEALS, he retired to California with his wife Brenda, and their two daughters. In his retirement he continued to indulge his passion for building and flying large scale model aircraft, and every Sunday would ride his 1927 McEvoy motor bike, complete with sidecar built by himself, down to Malibu with his neighbour and good friend George Lazenby where they would join around 200 other bike enthusiasts at a beach-front cafe.

Other interests

For most of his married life he had lived in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, where he reared cattle and where his wife ran the Livy Borzoi Kennels, breeding Borzoi show dogs. John was a founder member and one time Chairman of the British Sighthound Field Association. He used his mechanical design skills to develop an electric lure (a bunch of plastic bags) tied to a rope or line that is operated by an electric motor. The lure is still in use to this day at events around the country.

Page last updated: 18 May 2023