It would have been easy for Sean Connery, who has died aged 90, to bask in the fame and riches his most famous role brought him and never do film work again. But to his credit, almost from the beginning of his success as James Bond, he was up for more challenging assignments. However, having turned his back on his alter ego, and no matter what else he did, Connery would continue to be associated principally with Ian Fleming’s secret-agent hero, and remain the actor against whom all the subsequent James Bonds are measured – to their disadvantage.
As the critic Roger Ebert put it: “Basically, you have Connery, and then you have all the rest.” Connery himself was more down to earth. “There’s nothing special about being an actor,” he once remarked. “It’s a job like being a bricklayer, and I’ve never stopped being amazed at the mystique people attach to my business.”
There is about most of his performances, whether as rulers or slaves, a rough, down-to-earth quality. “His vitality may make him the most richly masculine of all English–speaking actors; that thick rumbling Scotsman’s voice of his actually transforms English – muffles the clipped edges and humanises the language,” wrote the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael.
He was sometimes criticised and even ridiculed for never changing his deep, abrasive, slightly sibilant Scottish burr no matter if he were playing an Irishman, an Arab or a Russian. Whether or not Connery could do different accents – he occasionally ventured an Irish-American one – he seemed to use his oft-imitated voice as a badge of honour, like the tattoo on his forearm that read “Scotland Forever”.
“He doesn’t give a damn for the ancillary assets of being a star,” said Terence Young, who directed Connery in three James Bond movies, including Dr No (1962), the first 007 feature. Perhaps Connery’s working-class background helped keep his feet on the ground. Born and brought up in the Fountainbridge district of Edinburgh, where he was known as Tommy, he was the son of Joseph Connery, a lorry driver and factory worker, and Effie (Euphemia, nee McLean), a cleaner. His father was a Roman Catholic of Irish descent with roots in County Wexford, while his mother was a Protestant, with Gaelic-speaking forebears.
Connery left Darroch secondary school at the age of 15 and enlisted in the Royal Navy. There followed various manual jobs: lifeguard, bricklayer and even coffin polisher, as well as a nude model for Edinburgh art students. Working on a building site, he spent much of his spare time body-building in gyms, which led to an ad-agency job modelling swimwear.
Stage experience in the sailor chorus in the West End production of South Pacific in 1953, and work in rep, led him to films (though not before Matt Busby saw him playing in a football match while South Pacific was in Manchester and offered Connery a contract with Manchester United, which he turned down). Among his dozen or so pre-Bond films were Hell Drivers (1957), a violent Hollywood-inspired melodrama about lorry drivers; Action of the Tiger (1957), a routine adventure yarn; and Another Time, Another Place (1958), a weepie about a doomed second world war love affair that starred Lana Turner, Barry Sullivan, Glynis Johns – and Connery.
He was then selected by Walt Disney himself to play the male half of the romantic interest in a coy piece of Irishness about leprechauns, Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). Connery was also a virile Hotspur in the BBC TV’s Shakespeare cycle The Age of Kings (1960), so he did not exactly come from nowhere when, from a number of contenders, he was chosen by the producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R Broccoli to incarnate Fleming’s licensed-to-kill hero. Broccoli later said: “I wanted a ballsy guy ... Put a bit of veneer over that tough Scottish hide and you’ve got Fleming’s Bond.”
Fleming initially doubted the casting of Connery, remarking, “I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stuntman,” adding that the muscular 6ft 2in Scot was “unrefined”. Fleming saw David Niven as Bond, an ultra-smooth gentleman spy, equally at ease in five-star restaurants and torture chambers, knowing instinctively which fork and which weapon to use. Connery’s Bond was a rougher diamond, but blessed with a wry sense of humour that diffused the violence, inviting the audience in on the joke.
Connery fleshed out Fleming’s “cardboard booby” (the author’s own description). In fact, Fleming changed his mind after a girlfriend told him Connery had the requisite sexual magnetism. Connery’s portrayal of Bond owed much to the tutelage of Young. According to Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny), “Terence took Sean under his wing. He took him to dinner, showed him how to walk, how to talk, even how to eat.”
Dr No was a huge hit and although the following films in the series became increasingly packed with technical wizardry, it immediately established the successful recipe of sex, violence and campy humour that remained virtually unchanged for decades to come. The ingredients were exotic Technicolored locations, beautiful (mostly treacherous) women, an evil genius who wants to control the world, and spectacular stunts. So confident were the producers that Dr No would be a hit that the final credit read “James Bond will be back in From Russia With Love”. And so he was, and thereafter in a series of unstoppable box-office attractions. However, it is doubtful whether the Bond pictures would have become so durable without the kickstart that Connery gave the series.
Not all the reviews of Dr No or Connery were positive, and François Truffaut considered that the film “marked the beginning of the period of decadence in the cinema ... For the first time throughout the world, mass audiences were exposed to a type of cinema which relates neither to life nor to any romantic tradition but only to other films and always by sending them up.”
Increasing in confidence and wealth, Connery went on to make From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967). In the last of these, Bond is given a book called Instant Japanese by Miss Moneypenny before being sent to the far east. “You forget,” he tells her, with a twinkle in his eye, “I got a first in oriental languages at Cambridge.” He also proves better than the Japanese at martial arts, cleverly avoiding being thrown into a pool of piranhas.
Connery refused to be typecast, taking roles in several non-Bond films during the same period. In Woman of Straw (1964), he murders his wealthy disabled uncle before accidentally toppling down the staircase, and in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (also 1964), he was coolly enigmatic as the rich man who marries the psychologically disturbed title character (played by Tippi Hedren). Though both stars of the latter film were good, they were in roles obviously tailor-made for Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.
In complete contrast to anything he had done before, Connery played the mutinous inmate of a gruelling British military prison camp in North Africa in The Hill (1965), the first of five films he made with Sidney Lumet. He also gave a wonderfully eccentric performance as a bohemian poet in A Fine Madness (1966). Connery directed The Bowler and the Bunnet (1967), a short documentary for STV about how Clydeside shipyard bosses attemped to create a closer relationship with the workers, and in The Molly Maguires (1970), he played a rebellious coalminer in 19th-century Pennsylvania,
After the shooting of You Only Live Twice, Connery told Saltzman and Broccoli that he was giving up Bond for good. A frantic search ensued for his successor to star in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). They came up with a 30-year-old Australian, George Lazenby, who found Connery a hard act to follow and was blamed for the picture’s comparative failure (although it was one of the highest grossing films of 1969, it brought in much less than the Connery Bond movies had). So desperate were the producers to have Connery back as Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), that they gave him a $1m fee upfront (which he donated to the Scottish International Education Trust, a charity he founded to help deprived Scottish children) plus a weekly salary of $10,000 and a promise from United Artists to finance two films of his choice.
Box office returns made the concessions worth it. Four years away from the role had not altered Connery’s droll style and sexual allure, although there was some change in his girth. He refused further inducements to return to the role, and Roger Moore, who had been shortlisted for Bond in Dr No, took over for Live and Let Die (1973), proving a lightweight but acceptable substitute.
Lumet’s The Offence (1973) was part of the two-picture deal made by United Artists with Connery in exchange for his appearance in Diamonds Are Forever. However, the failure of this murky melodrama precluded a second movie, although it did give him the opportunity to play a brutal police inspector who has a nervous breakdown after a suspect dies from a beating.
The film opened the way for Connery to enter second adulthood as a mature hero, standing (often literally) head and shoulders above most of his co-stars. Where Bond was always on the winning side, amoral and assured, Connery began appearing as a lost-cause moralist in a cynical world. He also shed the toupee he had worn in the Bond movies – he had started losing his hair at the age of 21 – and all the inhibitions to which sex objects and superstars are prey.
He was now free to tackle a variety of roles for different studios. Three of his best were the Arab brigand Raisuli, who kidnaps an American woman (Candice Bergen) in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Michael Caine’s companion-in-adventure in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (also 1975) and an embittered, grizzled Robin Hood recovering his ideals through a renewal of his love for Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) in Richard Lester’s autumnal Robin and Marian (1976).
After a few less than inspiring ventures, he returned for his valedictory performance as Bond in the aptly titled Never Say Never Again (1983), a virtual rerun of Thunderball (1965). At 53, Connery relied on his charisma to get him through the film, though he commented at the time that “Bond should be played by an actor 33 to 35 years old”.
He was not too old though to play the 2,000-year-old warrior in the mystical tosh Highlander (1986) nor the astute William von Baskerville in The Name of the Rose (also 1986). “I wish I had met me 10 years and 20lb ago,” he says in a wavering Irish accent as Malone, the incorruptible Irish-American cop in Brian de Palma’s gangster movie The Untouchables (1987), for which Connery won the best supporting actor Oscar. As the sturdy, mature mentor to the FBI investigator Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner), Connery brought authority to the role of a retired policeman who gets shot dozens of times but still manages to crawl around and disclose the name of his killer.
Maturity and eminence having blunted the edge of rebellion, Connery, at 58, played unlikely fathers to 51-year-old Dustin Hoffman in Lumet’s Family Business, and to 46-year-old Harrison Ford in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (both 1989). He followed these undemanding roles with better ones in 1990: the idealistic Russian submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October who defects to the west in pre-glasnost days, and a publisher who becomes a reluctant spy and falls for Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House.
His handsome face now seamed with age, he found himself playing authority figures such as King Arthur in First Knight (1995) and mentors to much younger men, as in Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester (2000). Sadly, his last film and one of the causes of his decision to retire was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), in which he played H Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, the legendary hunter and explorer, well past his prime. Of the confused and confusing film, Connery remarked: “It was a nightmare. The director [Stephen Norrington] should never have been given $185m. The cost to me in terms of frustration and avoiding going to jail for murder cannot have continued. It would almost need a mafia-like offer I couldn’t refuse to do another movie.” He did, however, provide the voiceover for the title role in the 2013 animated feature Sir Billi.
Connery built an incomparable reputation for driving a hard bargain and there was hardly a studio he had not sued. “I am happy to say that I sued Allied Artists for cosmetic book-keeping and they’re bankrupt,” he once recalled. He waged a famous battle against his former accountant Kenneth Richards which ended with the star being awarded £2.8m.
Cilento, in her autobiography, My Nine Lives, painted an unflattering portrait of her ex-husband, claiming he beat her on several occasions. Connery, who strongly denied the accusations, otherwise did little to allay suspicions that Cilento was telling the truth. In a December 1987 television interview with Barbara Walters, he said that it was acceptable for a man to slap a woman with limited force if it was required to calm her down or “keep her in line”, and in Vanity Fair in 1993, he said: “There are women who take it to the wire. That’s what they are looking for, the ultimate confrontation. They want a smack.”
His involvement with the Scottish National party (SNP) also caused controversy because he had not lived in his native country for several decades, though he claimed that he would return to Scotland when it gained independence; he was a vocal supporter of the Yes campaign during the 2014 referendum. (He lived in Marbella, Spain, and then the Bahamas for many years.) Adverse comment came too for his acceptance of a knighthood in 2000, as the SNP is a firmly republican party.
He is survived by Micheline, Jason and his brother, Neil.
• Thomas Sean Connery, actor, born 25 August 1930; death announced 31 October 2020
• Ronald Bergan died earlier this year