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In Memoriam of Thunderball's Big John McLaughlin (1927-2020)

By: Jon Auty
Big John McLaughlin Thunderball
FSWL contributor Jon Auty remember Big John McLaughlin who passed away peacefully in his sleep at his daughter’s home on 20th April 2020. Big John worked on many James Bond films including Dr No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and Never Say Never Again (1983) starring Sean Connery. Plus, Licence to Kill (1989) starring Timothy Dalton.

Big John McLaughlin - Deep Sea Diver, Stunt Diver, Marine Engineer, Underwater Cinematographer, Marine Mammal Trainer, Guardian of the Sea, Coast Guard Certified Master Diver, Demolitions Instructor, Deep Water Salvage for the U.S. Navy…the list goes on and on. It is impossible to categorise him for the thing he is probably best known for: Hollywood underwater stuntman. His business card says it best: “License to Thrill.”

Big John was born in Charleston, South Carolina on January 27, 1927. At a young age he knew that he wanted to be a Navy diver. Very early on, hanging around the docks, he found out that if he untangled the propellers on the fish boats, he could get a bucket of fish to eat. Listening to the stories told around the docks inspired him to make the Sea his home. At the age of 12 he became a certified diver and later became a lifeguard.

World War II broke out and he joined the U.S. Navy, serving as a machinist, as well as honing his skills as a diver. After the war, John became an oil rig diver in the Gulf in the 1950's. The rigs at this time would shut down when the weather was bad. At these time Big John found himself in Miami and the Florida Keys. On one of the rests and recreation trips, he ran into some divers from a company called Drivers Training Academy of Miami, which was federal, and state funded at that time. His interest was piqued, and he became one of their top instructors and later their company engineer.

It was while traveling from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale that he met Courtney Brown and struck up a lifelong friendship with him. Courtney was involved in doing stunt work for movies and documentaries. It was around 1959 that McLaughlin became involved in the Sea Hunt series. It was felt that he looked enough like Lloyd Bridges he could be used in the water close ups.

It was Ivan Tors, producer of Sea Hunt, that gave him McLaughlin his screen name. Since there was already a John McLaughlin in the Screen Actors Guild, McLaughlin legally changed his name to “Big John.” It was also during this period that he met Ricou Browning, who was filming some of the underwater sequences.his was clear back in the early 60’s and 70’s, when this technology was still cutting edge, Lloyd Bridges made the comment one day "Big John is a real likeable guy and one of the most complete divers ever. He is trained in absolutely everything. And I learned a lot about diving from him.” He continued his stunt work throughout the series and became good friends with Ricou and Courtney. At this time, he also met Commander Doug Fane and became a long-time friend of his, as well. A lot of the Sea Hunt episodes were inspired by the adventures of Commander Fane in the South Pacific during the war.

During the 1960’s and the 1970’s, Big John, alongside Film Director, Ricou Browning, made the James Bond series, “Shaken, Not Stirred”. His favourite film was Thunderball, where he was a stunt double for 34 different people.

He also worked as a stunt double for Goldfinger, The Spy Who Loved Me and Never Say Never Again.

Big John McLaughlin in action during the filming of Thunderball in the Bahamas 1965
Big John McLaughlin in action during the filming of Thunderball in the Bahamas 1965.

Big John McLaughlin in action during the filming of The Spy Who Loved Me in the Bahamas 1977
Big John McLaughlin in action during the filming of The Spy Who Loved Me in the Bahamas 1977.

In addition to the Bond films, McLaughlin worked on some 30 other films, some of which included; Day of the Dolphin, Namu the Killer Whale, Around the World Under the Sea, Cocoon, Police Academy V, and Mako: The Jaws of Death. Big John was also involved with hit television shows. He worked on the TV series Flipper, Gentle Ben, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and 12 other shows.

In 1998, John was named “Diver of the Year” by divers and equipment managers. He has taught many movie stars to dive including Sean Connery, Tom Cruise, and Brooke Shields. Big John’s passion for the environment moved him to make a public outcry about the coral at Fort Lauderdale which being destroyed by ship anchors. His words fell on deaf ears, but Big John could not be stopped. Ten years and an act of Congress later, the coral preserving-anchoring patterns were finally put into place. Big John played a vital role in saving these reefs for future generations of divers to enjoy.

Big John McLaughlin with Sean Connery during the filming of Never Say Never Again in the Bahamas 1983
Big John McLaughlin with Sean Connery during the filming of Never Say Never Again in the Bahamas 1983.

In later years Big John married the late Dorothy “Dottie” McLaughlin, long time ISHOF (International Swimming Hall of Fame) employee.

Video from Big John McLaughlin's Lifetime Achievemenet Award in 2014:

Our deepest condolences go out to Big John's family and friends, in particular his daughter Yvonne McLaughlin Coleman‎.

For more information about Big John McLaughlin, check out the special page dedicated to him from Fort Lauderdale Observer.



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