The BBC and other international news outlets are reporting that Academy Award®-winning actor and screen icon Sir Sean Connery has died. He was 90. Connery, best-remembered as the big screen’s first James Bond, passed away at his home in the Bahamas after a recent period of ill-health.
The hallmark of a true movie star is that they never remind you of anyone else. People get compared to Gable, Wayne and Bogart, not the other way around. That’s true of Connery, too. He had a mammoth presence on the screen, and was one of the truly great stars of my lifetime. He wasn’t the first James Bond (that was Barry Nelson in a live TV production of Casino Royale), but most fans consider him the best, and that’s a Hell of a legacy in itself. But Bond was only one part of a career that would have been remarkable, even without it. Connery was an original, said to be as daunting a presence in real life as he was on the screen.
Connery was of Irish extraction, but was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on August 25, 1920, and adamantly considered himself Scottish. He was an outspoken advocate for Scottish independence, which may help account for his not being knighted until 2000, despite the millions of pounds his films pumped into the UK economy. He came from a working class family. His father was a factory worker and truck driver; his mother was a cleaning lady. Connery himself worked as a truck driver, milk man and coffin polisher before his success as an actor. He was married twice, to actress Diane Cilento, with whom he had one son, Jason Connery, and to Micheline Roquebrune, with whom he had three stepchildren.
Connery began acting professionally in the late fifties, largely in supporting roles in both American and British and television productions, followed by largely forgettable movies—Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (it wasn’t)—in which Connery played supporting roles. 1962 was a turning point. Connery appeared in Darryl F. Zanuck’s mammoth production The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan’s bestselling non-fiction account of the D-Day invasion. He was also cast in the movie that change his life and create one of the screen’s most iconic pop culture characters—Dr. No, based on one of Ian Fleming’s novels about fictional British spy, James Bond.
Fleming reportedly wasn’t initially thrilled about Connery’s casting. And if you read the early James Bond novels, you might have to admit that the ruggedly handsome, extremely macho Connery didn’t fit Fleming’s description of a relatively non-descript man with dark hair and gray eyes with a small facial scar who somewhat resembles Hoagy Carmichael. No matter. From the first time Connery, clad in a conservative tux with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, introduced himself as “Bond—James Bond…,” he was Bond to a world that embraced the character, and Connery, enthusiastically.
Fleming changed his mind, and there are indications that Connery’s portrayal influenced the way he wrote Bond in the later novels. No other actor that ever played the part can make that claim.
Movies became more international during the sixties, and Bond was a worldwide sensation. Filming of the sequels that followed (based with varying degrees of fidelity on other Fleming novels) became international media events. Later Bond movies, particularly some of the more popular Roger Moore ones, like The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker, had higher grosses, but if you account for inflation there’s little doubt that Goldfinger and Thunderball sold more tickets.
Some other opportunities came his way while Bondmania was at its height. He made Marnie for Alfred Hitchcock, but Hitchcock and leading lady Tippi Hedren were barely speaking during filming, and the movie was an artistic and commercial failure. Connery felt hemmed in by Bond, despite the international celebrity it gave him, and after You Only Live Twice, he left the series. He did several other movies, including The Hill (directed by Sidney Lumet), A Fine Madness with Joanne Woodward and Jean Seberg and The Molly Maguires with Richard Harris. The first non-Connery Bond movie, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, had underperformed (George Lazenby took the rap for that, although the truth probably had more to with the movie’s downbeat ending), and Connery returned for one more go-around, in Diamonds Are Forever, directed by Guy Hamiltion, who had directed the mammothly successful Goldfinger. With a Las Vegas setting that seemed perfect for a Bond movie, huge action sequences and a title song with vocals by Shirley Bassey, who sang the iconic “Goldfinger,” the movie really couldn’t fail. Nonetheless, Connery, noticeably heavier than in previous Bond outings, took some ribbing in the press for his weight (even in Mad Magazine) and Diamonds didn’t quite gather the respect of earlier Connery Bonds. Connery walked away from the series again, this time vowing he was done with the part for good.
That vow gave his apocryphal, one-off comeback as Bond in 1983 its title—Never Say Never Again. In between, Connery had starred in a decade’s worth of remarkable and diverse movies with notable directors and some of the biggest stars in the world: John Boorman’s genuinely bizarre science fiction movie Zardoz (1974); Sidney Lumet’s definitive Agatha Christie adaptation, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) with Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Michael York; John Milius’ spectacular The Wind and the Lion, John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975) opposite Michael Caine; Richard Lester’s elegiac Robin and Marian (1975) with Audrey Hepburn, Nicole Williamson and Robert Shaw; Richard Attenborough’s underrated WWII epic A Bridge Too Far (1977) based on Cornelius Ryan’s book and featuring one of the most impressive casts ever assembled in a single picture (including Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Edward Fox, Elliott Gould, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Hardy Kruger, Laurence Olivier, Ryan O’Neal, Robert Redford, Maximillian Schell and Liv Ullman); Michael Crichton’s period caper movie The Great Train Robbery (1978) with Lesley-Anne Down and Donald Sutherland; Richard Lester’s Cuba (1979) with Brooke Adams and Peter Hyams’ perfectly executed science fiction thriller Outland (1981), is only a partial list.
Bond purists are split on Never Say Never Again—producer Albert Broccoli, who had produced the entire movie series up until then certainly spent enough money on lawyers trying to keep it from happening. Connery ditched his by then trademark facial hair for Never Say Never Again, and looked in better shape than he had in Diamonds Are Forever. The movie didn’t have the familiar Bond supporting cast—Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell and Desmond Llewelyn—or the signature Monty Norman Bond leitmotif theme. It did have veteran director Irvin Kershner, a big budget and a sparkling supporting cast of its own, including Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Bernie Casey, Barbara Carrera, Rowan Atkinson and Edward Fox stepping in as “M” and Max von Sydow as Blofeld. Broccoli needn’t have worried. Never Say Never Again was released the same year as the Roger Moore Bond movie Octopussy, and both movies made boatloads of money.
Connery didn’t make quite as many movies in the eighties as he did the seventies, though not because he wasn’t in demand. And he made some memorable ones then, too. He took a supporting role in 1986’s swashbuckling fantasy Highlander, about immortals engaged in a centuries-long battle for supremacy. The Scottish hero was played by French actor Christopher Lambert, while the Scottish Connery played his mentor, an Egyptian named Ramirez. You had to love it for that alone. He won an Oscar for playing a tough Chicago cop in Brian DePalma’s feature film reboot of the TV show The Untouchables in 1987. Two years later he played Indiana Jones’ father in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He didn’t look or sound anything like star Harrison Ford, but no one cared. Audiences loved the movie and loved him in it. He still wowed moviegoers in The Hunt for Red October and The Rock. He showed unexpected vulnerability in Finding Forrester, which he also produced.
The movies Connery didn’t make are almost as interesting as the ones he did. He admitted to turning down roles in both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. He accepted The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an underrated movie that is nonetheless disliked by fans of the graphic novel it was based on. He retired after that, and he meant it. Spielberg tried to get him back for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but Connery said no, and you have to wonder if he’d ever heard the word before. Connery had a long retirement, lived privately, and his presence on the screen was missed. A fixture in movies for most of this critic’s life, it was hard to get used to the idea of no more Sean Connery movies. Harder still now.