Sean Connery: Bond and Beyond

Sean Connery

In a primer for the New York Times on the seven films featuring Sean Connery as the first and, in the eyes of most, best James Bond, Thomas Vinciguerra notes that Connery once referred to the role that made him an international star as “a cross, a privilege, a joke, a challenge. And as bloody intrusive as a nightmare.” Nearly every tribute and remembrance that has appeared since Connery passed away on Saturday—he’d turned ninety in August—emphasizes the richness of a filmography that extends far beyond the character Ian Fleming created in a series of novels and short stories beginning in 1953, Agent 007 of Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “But for an enduring, vodka martini-soaked franchise built on one man’s tightly wound toughness, womanizing charisma, tongue-in-cheek one-liners and exquisite tastes,” writes Vinciguerra, “Connery was the Fleming word made cinematic flesh.”

Thomas Sean Connery, born to a Catholic factory worker and a Protestant cleaning woman, spent the first nights of his life sleeping in the bottom drawer of a cupboard in a modest flat in Edinburgh. By the time he was eight, he was rising before the sun to deliver milk before school and then working in a bakery in the evenings. At thirteen, he left school for a series of odd jobs—mixing cement, laying bricks, driving trucks, polishing coffins. At sixteen, he joined the Royal Navy and got himself a couple of tattoos, one of them reading “Scotland Forever.” In his late teens, he started working out and posing for students at the Edinburgh College of Art. “On the one hand,” wrote Geoffrey Macnab in a piece on these early years for Sight & Sound in 1992, “Connery’s image is of a dour, reserved man with a Calvinist attitude towards work who achieved success through sheer toil. On the other, he is an exhibitionist who became famous by offering his body as a fetish object.”

It was at a bodybuilding competition in London in 1953 that Connery caught wind of auditions for a production of South Pacific. He scored a small role in the chorus and caught the bug. An American actor in the cast, Robert Henderson, advised him to read Stanislavski on acting as well as the complete works of Shakespeare and Shaw, Ibsen and Wilde, and Joyce and Proust. He began to land more significant roles on the stage and his first small parts on the screen. The breakthrough came in 1957, when Jack Palance had to back out of a live BBC broadcast of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight and Connery stepped in to take the lead. Later that year, he worked for the first time with director Terence Young on a forgettable feature, Action of the Tiger.

When Young signed on to direct the first Bond movie, Dr. No (1962), he lobbied producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman hard on behalf of Connery. Broccoli and Saltzman were thinking more along the lines of a Cary Grant or a David Niven for the role, and Ian Fleming agreed that Connery seemed a little too rough around the edges. But Broccoli’s wife, Dana, and Fleming’s girlfriend, Blanche Blackwell, assured the men that Connery seethed with sexual charisma. Young taught Connery to combine that charisma with sophistication, teaching him how to wear the right clothes, how to select, order, and then eat and drink the proper dishes, wines, and of course, the martinis, “shaken, not stirred.”

Sheila O’Malley has pulled up Oriana Fallaci’s 1965 interview with Connery in which he found himself having to insist that he was “not in the least ashamed of the Bond movies. They’re amusing, intelligent, each one is more exacting than the last, each one is of better quality than the last.” And they were a lot of work. If he “hadn’t acted Shakespeare, Pirandello, Euripides, in short, what is classed as serious theater, I should never have managed to play James Bond. It’s not so easy, that role. It’s a role for a professional.” In the New York Times, Aljean Harmetz quotes Sidney Lumet, with whom Connery worked on five films. “Nonprofessionals just didn’t realize what superb high-comedy acting that Bond role was,” said Lumet. “It was like what they used to say about Cary Grant. ‘Oh,’ they’d say, ‘he’s just got charm.’ Well, first of all, charm is actually not all that easy a quality to come by. And what they overlooked in both Cary Grant and Sean was their enormous skill.”

Another 1965 interview, this one for Playboy, would shadow the rest of Connery’s life and career. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” he said. “An openhanded slap is justified—if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.” When Barbara Walters asked him about these comments in 1987, he doubled down. And Connery’s first wife, the actress Diane Cilento, recalled his physically abusing her in her 2006 autobiography, My Nine Lives.

In an excellent, tough-but-fair remembrance at, Matt Zoller Seitz writes that “Connery’s brutish persona offscreen will be forever fused to his image as a leading man: patriarchal, reactionary, a lad, a boss; a self-satisfied asshole, often a bully; the best friend, the big brother, the mentor; the taskmaster and shit-stirrer; a man who considers fists an extension of words; and, virtually without exception, the type of person who rarely questions himself, and does not take kindly to being questioned.”

Keith Phipps, writing for GQ, finds that Connery was “ideally cast” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), “in which the abuse and sexual domination beneath the surface of so many Hitchcock films comes bubbling to the surface. In role after role, he brought out the hardness and meanness at the core of his characters and, yes, it was acting, but it also echoed the man we knew Connery to be.” Marnie appeared after the second Bond movie, From Russia with Love (1963), and Connery took the role in part to avoid being typecast as the suave spy.

After Goldfinger (1964), Connery played a British officer sent to a prison camp for deserters in Sidney Lumet’s Second World War drama The Hill (1965), which Glenn Erickson has called “one of the roughest, most credibly brutal dramas ever about the downside of army discipline.” The Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang observes that there was nearly always “a steely, sinister edge to Connery’s screen presence, a hint of sadism beneath all his beauty, wit, and physical grace. Not enough filmmakers tapped into that darkness over the years, though Lumet was, again, an exception: In 1973’s The Offence, Connery played a detective who brutally confronts a child predator for reasons that become ever more disturbingly murky in one of the actor’s darkest, most frightening performances. It’s not too many people’s favorite Sean Connery, I imagine, but it’s one that deserves to be remembered.”

Some will naturally prefer the lighter side of Connery, such as the one decked out in a red loincloth and thigh-high boots in John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974), a very seventies vision of a dystopian future that’s become something of a cult favorite. In the New York Times, Noel Murray and Scott Tobias suggest that “if you can accept that a lot of the silliness in Zardoz is purposeful, it’s surprisingly easy to fall under Boorman’s strange spell, and to appreciate Connery’s fearless performance as a rebellious warrior whose terrifying rawness shakes up a utopian society of timid intellectuals.”

In John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Connery and his good friend Michael Caine play former British Army officers who wander into an abandoned swath of Afghanistan where the locals take Connery’s Daniel Dravot for a god. “It’s both an epic romp filled with thrills, spills, and derring-do, and a tongue-in-cheek take on the empire’s less-than-moral misadventures in foreign lands,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “Connery lets you see how the good fortune his con-artist colonialist has stumbled on warps him, and eventually sends him to a tragic end.”

Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976) is a lovely yet almost mournful romantic swoon in which Connery’s aging Robin Hood reunites with his long lost love, Maid Marian, played by Audrey Hepburn, returning to the screen for the first time since 1967’s Wait Until Dark. For Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri, this entire period of Connery’s career “now feels like his wilderness years, as if the manly ideal he represented in the 1960s had been overtaken by a more sinister and uncertain climate, leaving him behind his times.” But in the 1980s, “the man came back, an elder statesman finally embracing his age, and actually showing some versatility.”

In 1997, Mark Cousins filmed an interview with Connery for the BBC and asked him if his comeback might be credited to a new agent. “No,” smiled Connery slyly, “otherwise you would have filmed him.” The 1980s saw Connery winning a Bafta for his performance as William von Baskerville, a medieval friar-turned-detective in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1986), and an Oscar for his portrayal of Jim Malone, the Irish-American cop who tells Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness just what it’s going to take to nab Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987). Connery then won over a fresh wave of fans playing Harrison Ford’s father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). “Steven Spielberg’s decision to cast Connery as Professor Henry Jones in the third Indiana Jones movie might have come off as a stunt if the veteran actor hadn’t been such a perfect fit—instead, it comes off like a coup,” writes David Fear.

The hits kept coming in the 1990s. Connery played a Soviet naval captain—with a Scottish-tainted accent, of course—in John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990); a British publisher in Moscow who finds himself working for the Secret Intelligence Service and falling for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Katya Orlova in Fred Schepisi’s 1990 adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, The Russia House; and SAS Captain John Patrick Mason, the only person to have ever escaped Alcatraz, in Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996). The plot of The Rock “hinges on an outrageous villainous plot, a ludicrous heroic mission, and a protagonist whose stature is downright mythic,” writes Nick Schager at the Daily Beast. “To that end, it’s the perfect late-career role for Connery.”

In the Hollywood Reporter, Bay looks back on nervously shooting his second movie with a legend. At one point, he told Connery that Disney was getting all over his case for running two days over schedule. So Connery helped him arrange a meeting. “In classic Sean Connery style,” writes Bay, “he belts out in his Scottish brogue: ‘This boy is doing a good job, and you’re living in your Disney Fucking Ivory Tower and we need more fucking money!!’ Without missing a beat, they responded. ‘OK. How much?’”

Brian Koppelman, the cocreator of Showtime’s Billions, tells another story about his and cowriter David Levien’s involvement in a movie that Connery would have starred in if the director hadn’t infuriated him. What comes through first is just how seriously hard Connery worked on drafts and rewrites before he would approve a screenplay. Second, the man was funny. A few months after Connery bailed on the project, Levien paid him a call in the Bahamas. “When the director’s name comes up,” writes Koppelman, “Mr. Connery gives us one last great line, ‘Ah, him, that guy, he’s a bucket of smoke.’” This was 2004. Two years later, as he received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Connery announced that he was retiring from acting. “He’s gone now,” writes Keith Phipps, “leaving only the performances behind, a collection of classic turns we can watch with a love that’s both unsettling and undeniable.”

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