Sean Connery

Sean Connery: Bond and superstar

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Sean Connery in “The Offence”; the film proved to be a turning point in his career, putting him firmly on the road to celluloid immortality.

He reprised his role as the super spy for the final time in the 1983 “Never Say Never Again” .

He Played an aging Robin Hood opposite the ever-elegant Audrey Hepburn in the unlikely hit “Robin and Marian” (1976).

He could steal the show with his inimitable comic technique as he did in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, where he played Harrison Ford’s father.

Sean Connery (1930-2020) was much more than just James Bond. He was a consummate artist who played a wide range of characters and established himself as one of the finest actors of his generation.

HE seemed like a demented ogre, massive and dangerous, looming over his hapless, emotionally battered wife. Talking through clenched teeth, his body about to burst forth in uncontrollable violence as insanity takes over completely, he growls: “I’ll make you happy, you said. You bloody didn’t.” The pitiless brutality, anger and madness in that little domestic scene is the terrifying and disturbing portrayal of an honest but flawed man’s dark descent into insanity. This balding, middle-aged, slightly overweight man whom Sean Connery played with frightening authenticity in Sydney Lumet’s The Offence (1973) proved to be a turning point in the actor’s career.

It was hard to visualise that this same man had played the dapper, deadly British spy James Bond in the film just before this for the sixth time, the colossal hit Diamonds are Forever (1971). But he had had enough of the role. At the height of his popularity as Bond, with multimillion-dollar contracts for two more films awaiting his signature, he walked away and sought to shatter the typecast by playing a role like the one in The Offence. His abilities were never in doubt, but Lumet’s film put him firmly on the road to celluloid immortality. He had cast away James Bond just like the toupee he had been wearing for the part and was now ready for any role of his choosing.

But for many, Connery will always be the first and the definitive James Bond. His passing away on October 31 brought to an end an era he defined by his overtly masculine presence, impeccable style, prodigious talent and magnificently expressive eyebrows. He was 90 and is survived by his wife, Micheline Roquebrune, and son, Jason. Bond may have catapulted Connery into international stardom, but he was much more than that. He was a consummate artist who played a wide range of characters and established himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. As a superstar, he was second to none.

Born Thomas Sean Connery on August 25, 1930, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Connery spent his childhood in abject poverty. As an infant, his crib was the bottom drawer of a wardrobe, and before he was 10, he was already an important earner for his family. In the mornings he would deliver milk and in the evenings he worked as an assistant to a butcher. School meant little to him in his situation. He joined the navy when he was around 16, learnt to box and was honourably discharged by the time he was 19 after being diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. By that time, he was an able-bodied young man, standing 6’2”, with irresistible dark gypsy features. He flitted from job to job, working as a coal delivery man, a road construction worker, and a French polisher. At the same time, he took up bodybuilding in a serious way, which facilitated his first foray into the world of acting. Initially, he served as a muscular prop standing in the background and from there went on to get bigger roles.

His stage career may not have been much of a success, but it paid the bills and paved the way for bit parts in television series. One of his notable roles during this period of obscurity was that of the over-the-hill boxer Mountain McClintock in the play Requiem for a Heavyweight for the BBC’s Saturday Night Theatre in 1957. This was the same role that Anthony Quinn would immortalise in the film version five years later, with the character renamed Mountain Rivera. Connery was no Quinn, but he was still good enough to be noticed and remembered. The performance did not yield immediate results as far as his acting career was concerned. He played whatever part came his way, including one of the villains in a 1959 Tarzan film who died ingloriously with an arrow pierced through his stomach.

The Bond years

After languishing in celluloid obscurity for several years, he got his big break when the producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli saw in him the James Bond of their vision. Interestingly, after Saltzman and Broccoli selected him to play Bond in the first movie of the franchise, Dr. No (1962), and sent some footage of Connery to United Artists, the production house got back to them with a terse cable that said: “SEE IF YOU CAN DO BETTER.” Even Connery’s good friend Michael Caine was surprised at the choice. “I was sure they’d give it to Rex Harrison because he was your living image of upper-crust good-living,” Caine had said. But Saltzman and Broccoli had already made up their minds. They just loved the way Connery moved. United Artists’ precept was ignored, and almost from the very moment in the film when Bond introduces himself in a bored, deadpan tone, almost imperceptibly raising an eyebrow, a cigarette dangling laconically from his sardonic lips as “Bond, James Bond”, Connery as Bond became a worldwide sensation. If the author Ian Fleming created the character, Connery created the cult.

There have been other stars—Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig—who interpreted the role of Bond in their own way and to huge box-office success, but Connery remained the benchmark to judge all future Bonds. He was after all the first, the one who set the standard. He was also, arguably, the finest actor to play Bond. Connery was to play Bond seven times to huge popular acclaim. After Dr. No came From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967).

After playing the role in five consecutive films, Connery sought something different, and the part went to the Australian actor George Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). Although the film was a hit, it was Connery that the public wanted as Bond again, and in 1971, he returned for the sixth time, in Diamonds are Forever. It would be another 12 years before a middle-aged Connery would reprise his role as the super spy for the final time, in Never Say Never Again (1983). It was a monster hit, earning $10,958,157 in the first four days itself, a record at that time for Bond films. Connery, then 52, showed that he could still teach the newer, younger audience a thing or two about old-school machismo.

But the interesting thing about Connery’s Bond was that he was not just a macho action man. Although darker and more violent than Fleming’s creation, Connery’s representation was also subtle, with an underlying sense of comic irony. At one level, it may even seem that Bond was mocking his own image. Lumet, with whom Connery did five movies, once said of his acting as Bond: “Non-professionals just didn’t realise what superb high-comedy acting that Bond role was.”

Connery’s Bond was also the hero at a time when unapologetic chauvinism on the screen was not unfashionable. “Angry young men” of literature such as Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne were creating unrepentant angry young men in the pages of books and for the stage: for example, the scornful, misogynistic Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (published and staged in 1956 and made into a movie starring Richard Burton in 1969), or the philandering, rebellious young Arthur Seaton in Sillitoe’s first novel, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (published in 1958 and made into a film starring Albert Finney in 1960). In the given cultural scenario, nobody defined over-the-top masculine chauvinism more blatantly (sometimes, quite embarrassingly) than Connery’s Bond. In You only Live Twice, when the Japanese character Tanaka informs him that the women in the spa (in the scene) were fascinated by his chest hair, Connery’s Bond quips with a smirk: “Japanese proverb say bird never make nest in bare tree.”

Neither Connery nor his Bond was particularly known for political correctness. In an interview Connery gave in the 1960s in the midst of Bond mania, he said: “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman, although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.” Even some 20 years later, when the world had changed, Connery remained steadfast in his point of view. “I haven’t changed my opinion,” he told Barbara Walters in an interview in 1987. Finally, after another 20 years, Connery put an end to the controversy by saying: “My view is I don’t believe that any level of abuse against women is ever justified under any circumstances. Full stop.” Perhaps because it was Connery who made those comments, the public never made too much of them. Other stars would not have gotten away with it so easily.

Struggle against getting typecast

After the success of the first Bond, it would have been easy for Connery to have gotten typecast. However, the actor in him could never be satisfied with stardom alone. In 1962, when he signed a five-year contract to star as James Bond, he was allowed to make one non-Bond movie a year. Connery’s choice of films during that period demonstrated his need to expand his creative boundaries and challenge himself. In between the Bond movies, he played the scheming Anthony Richmond in The Woman of Straw (1964), the considerate and intuitive husband to Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated classic Marnie (1964), the rebellious Joe Roberts in Lumet’s war drama The Hill (1965), and the gifted but psychologically disturbed poet Samson Shillitoe in A Fine Madness (1966). He also did a Western, Shalako (1969) with the French siren Brigitte Bardot. When Connery walked out of the Bond franchise after Diamonds are Forever, it shocked moviegoers of the time as the screen character was at the height of his popularity. However, it was only after he quit Bond that Connery came into his own as a multifaceted actor.

Collaborations with Sidney Lumet

His first post-Bond movie, Lumet’s dark neo-noir crime drama The Offence, was a calculated risk that paid off. It was not a role bankable leading men of Hollywood would have chosen, but it established Connery as an acting powerhouse as well as a huge box-office draw. This was his third movie with Lumet. After making The Hill, he acted in The Anderson Tapes (1971) and went on to act in two more Lumet films: Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and the comedy Family Business (1989), where he played the loveable rogue Jessie McMullen trying to tempt his grandson into a life of crime.

Connery was one of a rare breed of actors whose star never showed any signs of setting. In the 1970s, he went on to act in such classics as John Huston’s The Man who would be King (1975) and Richard Lester’s Cuba (1979). He played an aging Robin Hood opposite the ever-elegant Audrey Hepburn in the unlikely hit Robin and Marian (1976) and Raisuli, the Arab chief of a group of insurrectionists, in the epic adventure movie The Wind and the Lion (1975) opposite Candice Bergen.

As he grew older, besides playing the lead, he comfortably shifted into doing important supporting roles. Just as he was brilliant as Father William of Baskerville, the detective priest in The Name of the Rose (1986)—for which he won a BAFTA (the British Academy for Film and Television Arts) for Best Actor—he was equally great in his supporting role as Jim Malone in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1989). As Malone, he was tough, funny, sentimental and fiercely loyal. No one but Connery, with his gigantic frame and a sly humorous glint behind those honest eyes, could have done justice to the role. He won his first and only Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor) for it.

Even in his sixties, he continued to deliver hit movies such as The Hunt for Red October (1990), Rising Sun (1993) and The Rock (1996). He could hold his own in action movies with contemporary stars such as Wesley Snipes and Alec Baldwin, and he could also steal the show with his inimitable comic technique as he did in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in which he played Harrison Ford’s father. That same year, the 59-year-old Connery was voted “The Sexiest Man Alive” in People magazine, making him the oldest “Sexiest Man Alive” ever.

For all his fame and the accolades he received (an Oscar, a BAFTA, two Golden Globes, the Cecil B. DeMille Award and the AFI (American Film Institute) Life Achievement Award), he often took a pragmatic and professional approach to accepting roles. He did not immediately agree to acting in Dr. No as he was also contemplating a long-term contract for a television series at that time. The years of deprivation had taught him the value of money, and throughout his life he was careful in his investments and was never reckless. He even used to joke about his alleged money-mindedness. While accepting his Oscar, he said: “I had decided—if I had the good fortune to win—to give it [the Oscar statuette] to my wife… but this evening I discovered backstage that there was $15,000, and now I’m not so sure.” From a nine-year-old boy earning money for his family in the slums of Edinburgh to being knighted and hailed as one of the greatest cinema stars of all time, the proud Scotsman had indeed come a long way.