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Sean Connery (1930–2020), James Bond star and Oscar winner

by Linnea Crowther

Sean Connery was an actor who became a superstar for his portrayal of James Bond in “Dr. No” and six other films in the classic spy series.

Connery’s legacy

So iconic was Sean Connery’s portrayal of the famous gentleman spy James Bond that 1960s audiences didn’t always even know the actor by his name. He was simply Bond, as the first to play the character on the big screen, leaving big shoes to fill for the actors who would follow.

Connery was Bond in the first five film adaptations of author Ian Fleming’s (1908 – 1964) enduring character: “Dr. No” (1962), “From Russia With Love” (1963), “Goldfinger” (1964), “Thunderball” (1965), and “You Only Live Twice” (1967). He returned for two more Bond outings in later years: “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971) and “Never Say Never Again” (1983).

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How Connery embodied Bond

The ruggedly handsome Scotsman wasn’t exactly what all of Fleming’s readers had pictured in their minds as they read his books. He wasn’t who Cubby Broccoli (1909 – 1996) and Harry Saltzman (1915 – 1994), the producers of “Dr. No,” pictured either. They wanted Cary Grant (1904 – 1986), whose debonair and refined British good looks seemed the essence of Bond. But Grant didn’t want to commit to a series of films – and Connery, though he was none too thrilled about the idea of a series either, was willing.

Connery reportedly showed up to his meeting with the producers looking scruffy and rumpled, quite the opposite of anyone’s vision of Bond. But his physical presence, one that has been called magnetic more than once, sealed the deal. And as it turned out, Connery cleaned up extremely well when the time came to don a suit and embody Bond.

Contemporary reviewers weren’t sure, when “Dr. No” arrived, whether they liked Connery for the part or not. The Guardian thought Connery, “though he very nearly looks right, sounds all wrong (with his slightly Irish, slightly American accent).” The Daily Telegraph asserted, “Sean Connery plays this prize phoney as convincingly as any actor could who does not stand 6ft 6in in his socks.”

Of the contemporary British reviewers, Penelope Gilliatt (1932 – 1993) at the Observer was the most on-board with Connery: “Sean Connery plays Bond, lean and lecherous. It sounds like a piece of miscasting, but he does it with the right sophisticated self-will and takes a good deal of the greed out of the character.”

Early life

All in all, not bad reviews for a man with no formal training, who didn’t begin acting until he was in his twenties. He tried a lot of other things first: He was a milkman, a sailor, a lifeguard, an artist’s model, even a coffin polisher. He was a bodybuilder who competed in a Mr. Universe competition, and he was a talented footballer who was offered a contract with Manchester United.

But he was also pulling in some extra money helping out backstage at Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre. The job led to an interest in appearing on the other side of the curtain. He auditioned for, and won, a small role in a production of “South Pacific.” The experience led to larger stage roles where he worked on his acting chops and made connections, and acting started seeming like a better bet than sports. Connery eventually found his way to the movies, with his first credited role in 1957’s “No Road Back.”

Other early films include Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959), “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” (1959), and “The Frightened City” (1961). And then he found his way to Broccoli and Saltzman, and two legends – Bond and Connery – were made.

The Rise of Bond

“Dr. No” was a moderate success, but James Bond wasn’t yet the household name he’d become – neither was Connery – and a Bond film wasn’t a guaranteed blockbuster. That would begin to change when “From Russia With Love” was released the following year. Fans and critics liked it, and it did well at the box office.

“From Russia With Love” would come to be seen by many as the best of the Bond films, even more than half a century later. It was Connery’s own favorite, as well as the favorite of Daniel Craig, the most recent actor to play Bond. The film was stylish, sexy, and exciting, all with tongue firmly in cheek, a formula that was repeated many times over the years but achieved a certain height in 1963.

Others would argue that Connery’s next outing as Bond was the best of all time. “Goldfinger” was the first Bond film to include the wide variety of gadgets that would become the spy’s trademark, and critics and fans loved its glitzy style. The stage was set for “Thunderball” and “You Only Live Twice” to be massive hits, and they were, both smashing previous box office receipts. And then Connery bowed out.

Stepping away from the role

Connery, as he told it, never loved Bond. In fact, he told Playboy he was “fed up to here with the whole Bond bit” and the Guardian reported him as saying he had “always hated” Bond. The role had brought him fame, but it also wedged him into a tight, typecast box. Fleming had written a dozen Bond novels before his death, and as “You Only Live Twice” hit the big screen, Kingsley Amis (1922 – 1995) was taking over the character to write the first of what would become dozens more. The idea of playing Bond over and over forever must have begun to seem more like a sentence than a job.

So Connery walked, leaving Eon Productions to find someone else to play Bond in 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” The role went to George Lazenby, but he only wanted to do a single Bond picture. A few other actors were considered for “Diamonds Are Forever,” but the men with the money wanted Connery, and they got him – though it took quite a bit of that money to entice him to return. But with “Diamonds” behind him, Connery was quite sure he was done with Bond. He’d never play him again, he said.

He had starred in other movies during his Bond years – perhaps most notable was Alfred Hitchcock’s (1899 – 1980) thriller “Marnie” (1964), and others included the critically acclaimed box office flop “The Hill” (1965) and the cult classic British Western film “Shalako” (1969), a concerted attempt to branch out from typecasting.

Notable roles of the ‘70s and ‘80s

Connery continued this effort throughout the ’70s, taking on varied roles in films including “The Wind and the Lion” (1975), “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975), and “Robin and Marian,” for which he received positive reviews playing a romantic lead opposite Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993). In “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974), he was the first actor to be cast, playing Col. Arbuthnot. He played an Army man again in “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) and a thief in “The Great Train Robbery” (1978).

Connery had continued to work throughout the ’70s after his exit from the Bond franchise, but his greatest successes – and a return to his breakout role – were awaiting him in the 1980s. It started with “Outland” (1981), a space western that gained Connery his first nomination for a screen acting award. He didn’t win the Saturn Award for Best Actor, losing to Harrison Ford for his work in the “Indiana Jones” franchise (which Connery himself would join a few years down the road), but greater recognition was yet to come.

In 1981, Connery appeared as Agamemnon in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy classic “Time Bandits.” His casting was prompted by a joke written into the screenplay by Michael Palin, who, it was revealed in the movie’s DVD extras, jotted in the script at Agamemnon’s first appearance: “The mask is pulled off at the end of the fight to reveal none other than Sean Connery – or at least an actor of equal but cheaper stature.” Connery surprised the Monty Python cast members by being game for the role, and his ’80s success continued. Next up: back to Bond.

Connery Learns Never to Say Never

Recall that Connery had vowed, after “Diamonds Are Forever,” that he was absolutely, positively, done with Bond. He’d never play the role again, he said. But when work began on a retooling of “Thunderball,” done outside of the Eon Productions Bond franchise that had Fleming’s official blessing and had come to annoy Connery greatly over the years, he found his way to it. Initially he was helping tinker with a script, never intending to appear on the other side of the camera.

Then he was offered a paycheck with a lot of zeros and a percentage of the profits, and playing Bond at age 52 began to seem a lot more attractive. Connery took the role, and his wife, Micheline, offered a title suggestion, playing on his earlier vow. “Never Say Never Again” was a go.

To some, “Never Say Never Again” isn’t part of the Bond cinematic canon, not coming from Eon Productions as most other Bond films have. But to others, the fact that it’s got James Bond – and Connery playing him, no less – makes it canon and a classic, and never mind the legal wrangling that went on behind the scenes.

Its non-Eon status meant that Connery went up against an “official” Bond film, “Octupussy,” released just a few months earlier in 1983 and starring Roger Moore (1927 – 2017), who had succeeded Connery in the Bond role after “Diamonds.” In a head-to-head match, Connery seemed to win out: “Never Say Never Again” had a bigger opening weekend than “Octopussy” and gained better reviews. Connery was, according to the Times, “still outclassing every other exponent of the role,” and according to the Guardian, he was “the best Bond in the business.”

It’s an opinion that’s still widely held. Of the six actors to play Bond, Connery is considered by most to be the best. As reviewer Roger Ebert (1942 – 2013) put it, “The other Bonds were not wrong in the role (even Lazenby has his defenders), but they were not Connery, and that was their cross to bear.” His status as the first big-screen Bond surely didn’t hurt that reckoning, but the physical presence and animal magnetism that got him the role in the first place had a lot to do with it, too.

Bond became an international icon under Connery’s watch. The novels had been popular in the UK but hadn’t gained a lot of ground in the US. They were genre novels, but as films, they quickly caught broad attention outside the audience for spy adventure books. They couldn’t have done it with a less perfect actor for the role, and Connery boosted the character’s success as much as the franchise boosted his own career. By the time the American Film Institute created its “100 Years… 100 Heroes & Villains” list in 2003, Bond was such an indelible part of the cultural landscape that the character was named the third greatest movie hero of all time.

To the Oscars and Beyond

As popular as “Never Say Never Again” was, Connery’s experience with it wasn’t ideal. Its non-canon status may have seemed charmingly roguish to the general public, but to those involved, it was more like years of legal battles to get it to the big screen. Financial problems and infighting had plagued the production, and to top it off, Connery’s wrist had been broken while filming. Fed up, he took a few years off from the movies. When he came back, it was with a bang.

First up for Connery in the post-post-Bond era was “Highlander” (1986) in which he played an Egyptian immortal with a Spanish name and his unmistakable Scottish accent entirely intact. Though it wasn’t a huge success in theaters, the film has become a cult classic and one of the sillier highlights of Connery’s career. Next, “The Name of the Rose” (1986), though not a huge hit, earned Connery his first major acting award, a BAFTA for Best Actor.

In 1987 came “The Untouchables,” a generally well-received gangster movie that took Connery to the Academy Awards stage for the first and only time. He won the Oscar – it was his lone career nomination, too – for Best Supporting Actor. He also won the Golden Globe as well as the praise of critics. Hal Hinson, reviewing the film for the Washington Post, noted, “Connery has real brio and authenticity. … He’s playing an Irishman with a Scottish brogue, but it doesn’t really matter. He steals the show.” Ebert called Connery’s “the best performance in the movie,” while Pauline Kael called his performance “sheerly likable.”

In 1989, Connery joined the “Indiana Jones” franchise for its third installment, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” playing Indiana’s father, Henry. He was nominated for Golden Globe and BAFTA awards, and he’d receive another BAFTA nomination the following year for “The Hunt for Red October,” playing a Soviet submarine captain.

Later career

In the 1990s, Connery began producing films as well as acting in them. His career was slowing down, though, driven in part by his exasperation with the film industry. He told the BBC, “I’m fed up with the idiots… the ever-widening gap between people who know how to make movies and the people who green-light the movies.” It was a view that led to his retirement in his 70s, an age when many actors are still looking for juicy roles.

Before he retired, Connery turned in a few more well-regarded performances, particularly in “Finding Forrester” (2000), playing a Salinger-esque reclusive writer. In 2003, he made his last film before retirement, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” portraying hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain.

Connery officially confirmed his retirement in 2006 while receiving the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. But having previously learned his lesson about saying never, Connery returned to provide the voice of the main character in the 2012 animated film “Sir Billi.”

Connery in the News

With his first major public success coming as he played the notable rake Bond, Connery naturally gained his own reputation as a bit of a playboy. But he spent more time married – first to Diane Cilento (1932 – 2011) from 1962 to 1973 and then in 1975 to Micheline Roquebrune, who survives him – than he did playing the field. There were rumors of affairs, though Connery called Roquebrune his one true love.

He was a sex symbol to be sure, never mind his marital status. In 1989, at age 59, he was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” the oldest ever to take that title. He was admired for more than his sex appeal, too, voted “Scotland’s Greatest Living Treasure” in 2011 by the people of his home country, and named as the most appealing British actor via Q scores in 1998, 2003, and 2013.

But in a widely cited 1965 interview with Playboy magazine, Connery came off more like a boor. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” he told readers, “although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man. An open-handed 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.” And in Cilento’s autobiography, she alleged that she left Connery after a physical fight in which he punched her in the face.

The Playboy comments were made during a more misogynistic era, perhaps nearly forgotten over the years as fans relished his performances. But Cilento’s account, only made public in 2006 with the publication of her autobiography, was a new complexity that put a damper on some fans’ love for the actor.

U.K. politics

Connery was a strong supporter of the movement toward Scottish independence, still identifying distinctly as a Scot despite having lived away from the U.K. – in the Bahamas and New York City – for many years. As the 2014 referendum allowing Scots to vote for or against independence from Great Britain approached, Connery was vocal in support of it even though he himself was not allowed to vote.

“I fully respect the choice facing Scotland in September is a matter for the people who choose to work and live there – that’s only right,” he said in a statement. “But as a Scot with a lifelong love of Scotland and the arts, I believe the opportunity of independence is too good to miss. Simply put there is no more creative an act than creating a new nation.”

Funeral details

Connery’s family announced that he will be honored with a private funeral. A public memorial event will be held at a later date.

Tributes to Sean Connery

Full obituary: The New York Times

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