Saltzman was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada but ran away from home at the age of 15, according to daughter Hilary Saltzman in the Ian Fleming Foundation documentary Harry Saltzman: Showman. About the age of 17 he joined a circus and traveled with them for some years. By the beginning of World War II in 1939 he was serving in the Canadian Army in France. His career in the war may have included some intelligence work .
After the war, Saltzman ended up in Paris, where he met a refugee from Romania whom he married, Jaquie. He worked as a talent scout for European productions on stage, television and in film. He accumulated a huge number of entertainment business contacts and became the person to turn to when someone had a talent or production problem. Despite his ambition, those were lean years for the Saltzman family, according to son Steven. Saltzman gradually got more successful at producing stage plays. He moved the family of four to Britain in the mid-fifties where he started Woodfall Productions, again produced theater, and then entered the film business, producing The Iron Petticoat (1956), the cinematic adaptation of a play. "The landmark film introduces a new genre, the kitchen sink movie", and thereafter other critically acclaimed social realism dramas such as 1959's Look Back in Anger and 1960's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Saltzman began casting around for something which would be more profitable than these modestly successful but high quality films.
In early 1961, excited by reading the James Bond novel Goldfinger, he made a bid to land film rights to the character. Saltzman co-founded Danjaq, LLC with Albert R. Broccoli in 1962. It was a holding company responsible for the copyright and trademarks of James Bond on screen, and the parent company of EON Productions, which they also set up as a film production company for the Bond films. The moniker Danjaq is a combination of Broccoli's and Saltzman's wives' first names, Dana and Jaquie.
In 1975 after unrelated financial difficulties, Saltzman sold his 50% stake in Danjaq to United Artists Corporation. Concurrently, his beloved wife Jaquie was diagnosed with terminal cancer; his health also declined and he became depressed, sold the English country mansion where he loved to hold production meetings in the rooftop pool, and moved to Florida. As related by friend Roger Moore, Jaquie died while The Spy Who Loved Me was shooting, which places her passing in late 1976 or early 1977. Saltzman all but retired from the movie business thereafter. He was persuaded back from retirement to produce Nijinsky in 1980 and the 1988 British-Italian-Yugoslavian co-production Time of the Gypsies.
Something of a gambler, Saltzman was at best only modestly successful as a businessman and producer, but had a talent for thinking both big and outside the box in very creative ways. After best selling writer Ian Fleming had been told his novels would never make good films in 1957 (ironically by the ex-partner of his soon to be future partner Oscar winner Irving Allen) Saltzman bet large in a moment of enthusiasm in early 1961 and paid $50,000.00 (high for the times) for a mere six month option of the film rights to the Bond character. Always confident, Saltzman was certain he could put together a deal within the deadline. As spring became summer, he'd been unable to obtain financing, an agreement with production company, or a distributor for the proposed project as he was essentially an outsider mostly unknown in film circles despite his modest success as an independent producer.
Meanwhile, David Picker, then a vice-president (and eventual president) of United Artists also got interested in the film rights about the same time Salzman made the option deal with Fleming after he was (also) introduced to the novel Goldfinger by his cousin Nancy's husband, and soon began strategic studies on which novel might best be adapted first and other such preparatory work anticipating negotiations for the rights. At a luncheon soon after, he was told they weren't available by a credible source, but didn't know of Saltzman's pending deadline, and assumed the long term rights were the topic and so suspended United Artists work. That these studies and events occurred is documented in an internal memo dated 5/5/61 discussing Thunderball as a potential project and confirmed in interviews with Picker in the documentary The Making of Dr. No.
Working from Great Britain in 1957, American producer Albert Broccoli, widely regarded as one of the most successful independent producers in the industry, had decided the novels would make an excellent film project series. From New York he soon arranged an early 1958 meeting between partner Allen and Ian Fleming in London while nursing his ailing second wife through a terminal illness. Only, Allen—who had the big Hollywood name and was controlling partner in Warwick films, in the event snubbed Fleming in their meeting at the prestigious Les Ambassadors Club in London when Allen proclaimed (according to interviews on various documentaries on Bond special edition DVDs) that Fleming's novels weren't "good enough for television," all unbeknownst to Broccoli who knew only the partnership hadn't gotten the rights.
In 1960, Warwick Films undertook to produce and self-distribute the self-funded, high risk biographical drama Oscar Wilde which dealt with the topic of homosexuality, and hence was unable to advertise in the United States because of censorship which thereby doomed the partners to take a loss. This began a chain of events leading to dissolution of the company in bankruptcy in 1961 and the increased tensions between the two partners, already in disagreement over James Bond lead, to a sundering of their partnership as well and freed Broccoli to revisit his decision that the Bond novels would make a good film series, only now to be told by the publishers the rights were unavailable.
In an ironic twist worthy of fiction, screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, while having a working dinner in New York on another script with Broccoli, had a discussion over his disappointment about Oscar Wilde, Warwick, et al. and his interest in the Bond rights. Mankowitz knew Saltzman casually from Broadway productions the two had been involved with and knew Saltzman held the rights to Bond, so he immediately offered to introduce the two men and arranged a meeting between the two the very next morning. In a double historic irony, Mankowitz put the two together and was hired to work on the script for what became film history— Doctor No, but alarmed by early rushes demanded to have his name withdrawn from the script. In addition, his meeting with Broccoli had essentially been about scrapping the Arabian Nights project he'd been writing for Broccoli which is how what Broccoli wanted to do and Bond came into the discussion at all.
Saltzman, always an enthusiast, refused to sell any of the film rights but instead proposed the two form a partnership, joining the novice producer with the well connected and almost always successful industry insider. Broccoli wanting to do Bond very much, and now that Allen was out of the picture, accepted. In that manner, he joined forces with "Cubby" Broccoli in 1962 to create the holding company, Danjaq, LLC, and production company EON Productions and almost immediately began recruiting talent known to Broccoli from Warwick Productions such as production designer Ken Adams, teamed writers Richard Maibaum and Mankowitz, etc. The project was soon launched and the nascent production team was considering the best novel to adapt and introduce the character. With the rights to Casino Royale having gone to an early television adaptation they began tossing ideas around. Within a week the two were asking for a meeting with United Artists and with a handshake and a short meeting, had received a million dollars in senior financing, as recounted by Saltzman. Around this time it was decided that for their first film in the James Bond series, Dr. No. Saltzman would remain Broccoli's partner up to the ninth film in the series, 1974's The Man with the Golden Gun.
Other notable productions include The IPCRESS File (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Call Me Bwana (1963) starring Bob Hope. Call Me Bwana is the only film to be produced by EON Productions outside of the James Bond franchise.
Saltzman hated both the theme songs for Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger. The former was used because John Barry managed to convince "Cubby" Broccoli to use it and the latter because, although Saltzman didn't want it, he didn't have time to find a replacement. Saltzman also came close to rejecting Paul McCartney's submission for Live and Let Die. McCartney asked producer George Martin to approach the producers about the song. Saltzman surprised Martin by asking who they could get to sing it, suggesting only black female vocalists. Martin pointed out that if he did not take McCartney as the singer he did not get the song.. Saltzman compromised by having McCartney do the title version and B.J. Arnau do a "soul" version in the "Fillet of Soul" nightclub.
Harry Saltzman is survived by 2 children Hilary and Steven Saltzman and 4 grandchildren, Alexandre and Jacqueline de La Bouillerie and Hannah and Jacob Saltzman.
Saltzman had eclectic tastes, and a love for the theatre and bringing stageplays to the big screen. Many of his non-Bond films received critical acclaim, but were financially less successful than many.