Classic Bond: Sean Connery   cover

Classic Bond: Sean Connery

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With his virile good looks and an easy charm belying his hardscrabble beginnings, Connery was an overnight Hollywood sensation in ‘Dr. No,’ his first movie as Secret Agent 007.
But few knew that Connery’s first Bond film was very nearly his last.


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Classic Bond: Sean Connery

Who is James Bond?

To many movie fans, Sean Connery IS James Bond.

With his virile good looks and an easy charm belying his hardscrabble beginnings, Connery was an overnight Hollywood sensation in ‘Dr. No,’ his first movie as Secret Agent 007.

But few knew that Connery’s first Bond film was very nearly his last.

Even as an unknown actor on set in 1962 he insisted on carrying out many of his own stunts to speed up the production and avoid the lengthy delays often caused by shooting the more dangerous scenes.

Who’s Your Favorite Bond?

Who’s Your Favorite Bond?

Image by Raoul Luoar

(CC BY 2.0)

Devil-May-Care Moment

The non-nonsense Scot ran through one such scene when he drove his convertible under a crane several times at slow speed.

On each occasion his head cleared the crane by several inches. But when the director finally gave the go ahead for the cameras to roll, Connery’s car was going 50 mph and bouncing up and down. It was only pure luck that the car hit the last bounce just before he went under the crane and he emerged unhurt the other side.

It was the kind of devil-may-care moment that would typify Connery’s career-defining role as Britain’s favorite spy.

Late Career Renaissance

Driving at speed with the top down would also give him some less fatalistic cause for concern that his toupee would fly off.

He wore a hairpiece in every Bond film because he’d started balding since the age of 21. The dour star may not have always been so happy with the demands the phenomenon took on his privacy but it was Bond that paved his way to the richness of his late career renaissance and earned him so many millions he has spent decades as a tax exile.

But while Connery left his tough past way behind in the rear view mirror of his signature Bond Aston Martin following the success of ‘Dr. No’, he never really escaped his lowly beginnings.

Old Remarks

His remark in a 1960s Playboy interview that he didn’t think there was “anything particularly wrong in hitting a woman” haunts him to this day.

Despite his insistence it was taken out of context, the comments were a throwback to his bleak childhood in an Edinburgh house where four families shared the one toilet.

Born Thomas Sean Connery in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh on August 25, 1930, his mother Euphemia – “Effie” – was a cleaning woman and his father, Joseph, worked in a rubber factory.

Growing Up

He was a hard worker and a quick learner in life if not in school.

Little “Tommy” was already working part-time as a milkman and a butcher’s assistant by the age of nine and he left school at 13 to help raise money to support his family. He reportedly lost his virginity a year later to an adult servicewoman.

He joined the Royal Navy, during which time he got his two and only tattoos – one reading “Mum and Dad” and the other “Scotland Forever” – but was discharged on medical grounds because of stomach ulcers and a plethora of jobs followed. They included being a lorry driver, a lifeguard, a building laborer, an artist’s model, and a coffin polisher.

Starting His Acting Career

Starting His Acting Career

Starting His Acting Career

After traveling down to London for a bodybuilding contest in 1953, he heard about an audition for a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’ and landed a small part.

He dropped his first name and embarked on a career as a struggling actor. For years the most drama he encountered was when actress Lana Turner’s gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato accused them of having an affair and threatened Connery with a gun. The Scotsman promptly disarmed him and knocked him flat on his back.

Problems With Stereotyping

There was no shortage of parts on TV and in movies but few were memorable.

He played the lead in a Disney leprechaun film, ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’ in 1959 and was a brooding presence in ‘Anna Karenina’ for the BBC two years later.

At the same time in Britain, a new wave of Angry Young Men were transforming the theater and the stilted stereotypes of the upper crust domination of the arts, moving away from the traditional cut-glass voices and celebrating the rough-hewn accents of the north and the provinces.

Connery and his close friend, cockney Michael Caine, gradually found themselves more in demand.

A New Kind Of Hero

A New Kind Of Hero

The time was ripe for a new kind of hero but few, Connery among them, would see him in the role of the urbane, sophisticated and eminently upper class James Bond. Connery’s physique made him an easy fit for B-movie action flicks and it was on the set of ‘Action of the Tiger’ in 1957 that he met director Terence Young, who would go on to direct the Bond films.

Making Up For A Better Job

“‘Action of the Tiger’ was not a good movie,” Young told Rolling Stone.

“But Sean was impressive in it, and when it was all over, he came to me and said, in a very strong Scottish accent, ‘Sir, am I going to be a success?’ I said, "Not after this picture, you're not. But,' I asked him, "Can you swim?' He looked rather blank and said, yes, he could swim---what's that got to do with it? I said, ‘Well, you'd better keep swimming until I can get you a proper job, and I'll make up for what I did this time.’”

Looking For James Bond

Four years later, when Young was looking for his James Bond, he hadn’t forgotten the intense Scot he thought of as a young Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster.

Producer Harry Saltzman told the ‘Saturday Evening Post’: "We spoke to him and saw that he had the masculinity the part needed. Whenever he wanted to make a point, he'd bang his fist on the table, the desk, or his thigh, and we knew this guy had something. When he left we watched him from the window as he walked down the street, and we all said, 'He's got it.' We signed him without a screen test."

Changing The Envision Of James Bond

The casting decision didn’t exactly go down well with Old Etonian Bond creator Ian Fleming.

“He's not what I envisioned of James Bond looks" and "I'm looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stunt-man," he remarked, adding that the muscular, 6' 2" Scot was unrefined.

Fleming changed his mind after the successful ‘Dr. No’ première and he was won over so completely he created a half-Scottish, half-Swiss heritage for Bond in the later novels.

“Dr. No” was a huge hit with the public and despite his protestations that he was no Johnny Come Lately, Connery, then 32, was deemed an overnight sensation in Hollywood.

Making The Role His

“I'd been an actor since I was twenty-five but the image the press put out was that I just fell into this tuxedo and started mixing vodka martinis. And, of course, it was nothin' like that at all,” he insisted.

“I'd done television, theater, a whole slew of things. But it was more dramatic to present me as someone who had just stepped in off the street."

Despite his reticence, he was no fool. Connery knew he was onto a good thing. He went on to star in the next five Bond films – ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963), ‘Goldfinger’ (1964), ‘Thunderball’ (1965), and ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967) – and made comebacks as Bond in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ (1971) and ‘Never Say Never Again’ (1983).

Becoming James Bond

Becoming James Bond

Every film was a box office blockbuster and the studio insisted on rolling them out as quickly as possible. His fee rocketed accordingly but that didn’t mean the obsessively private star had to like it.

"If you were his friend in these early days you didn't raise the subject of Bond. He was, and is, a much better actor than just playing James Bond, but he became synonymous with Bond,” said Caine. “He'd be walking down the street and people would say, ‘Look, there's James Bond.’ That was particularly upsetting to him.”

Image by the National Archive

(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Upheaval At Home

There was upheaval at home, too. He married first wife, actress Diane Cilento, in 1962 but by all accounts the relationship was tempestuous.

The marriage lasted until 1974 and the couple had a son, Jason, now an actor.

"I remember once I was with them in Nassau,” Caine told Rolling Stone. “Diane was cooking lunch, and Sean and I went out. Of course, we got out and one thing led to another, you know, and we got back for lunch two hours later. Well, we opened the door and Sean said, "Darling, we're home' - and all the food she'd cooked came flying through the air at us. I remember the two of us standin' there, covered in gravy and green beans."

Starting To Hate The Role

Gradually, Connery became more vocal about his feelings. “I have always hated that damn James Bond,” he said on one occasion.

“I’d like to kill him.”

He nearly had the job done for him during the filming of ‘Thunderball’ in 1965 with a second real-life brush with death. It was during the famous shark scene in Emilio Largo’s pool and Connery had been so concerned about the possible danger that he’d asked for a Plexiglas wall to be built under water. But the barrier wasn’t secured and one of the sharks managed to swim through causing the actor to scramble for his life out of the pool.

Trying To Find His Way Out

Connery finally decided to abandon the franchise – or so he believed – after being tempted back for one big payday in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ following the comparative flop of ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ starring Australian newcomer George Lazenby in 1969.

He was paid $1.25 million plus a percentage of the profits, a sum unheard of at the time for a movie star.

The big problem was that the world didn’t want to see him as anyone other than their favorite globetrotting secret agent with the license to kill.

Taking Up Different Roles

In the post Bond years, Connery intentionally took less showy roles, some part of an ensemble cast such as ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974) and ‘A Bridge Too Far’ (1977).

Others like ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (1975) were well received but never got the same kind of attention as the Bond films.

Then came an offer Connery simply couldn’t resist.

A protracted legal battle meant that for the first time a renegade Bond film would go up against the established Cubby Broccoli franchise on the big screen. It would be ‘Octopussy’ featuring the new official 007 Roger Moore versus ‘Never Say Never Again.’

Playing An Ageing Bond

Playing An Ageing Bond

The rebel producers were desperate to get Connery, now in his early 50s, on board to play an ageing Bond trying to get back in shape for a perilous new mission.

It may have been the opportunity to snub his nose at his old employers or it may have simply been that his second wife, Michelle Roquebrune, who he’d married in 1975 after first meeting in Morocco five years earlier while playing golf, wanted her new husband to ease on his Saville Row tailored suit one more time. Either way, Connery signed up.

Image by Alan Light

(CC BY 2.0)

The Peak Of His Career

As if anyone doubted it, the film was met with rave reviews.

"At fifty-three, he may just be reaching the peak of his career," read one. "Connery reminds you anew what star quality is all about. A good deal of that quality is on display in ‘Never Say Never Again’, a carefully crafted and quite lively addition to the lately listless Bond series.”

Although he was never to grace the screen as Bond again, the movie appeared to shake off any remaining misgivings Connery may have had about the franchise that gave him his big break.

New Chapter

His Oscar-winning role in ‘The Untouchables’ (1987) cemented the new chapter in his career and age and fine acting helped him gradually move out of the shadow of 007 with movies like 1991’s ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, ‘Rising Sun’ (1993) and his turn as Harrison Ford’s onscreen father in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ (1989).

"He is the ultimate professional," Catherine Zeta-Jones, his costar in 1999's thriller ‘Entrapment’ told The Hollywood Reporter. "If someone is not pulling their weight, he'll let them know with a very strong Scottish accent that makes any grown man's knees tremble."

James Bond Forever

Still, she adds, "If I got the chance, I would do the phone book with him and put it on film."

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000, he is retired now with a resume as varied and challenging as any A-List movie star.

But to most of us, whether he likes it or not, Sean Connery will always be James Bond.