• Sarah E. Mason

For Family and Country: Legendary Scottish Actor Sir Sean Connery Dies at 90



On October 31, 2020, Sir Sean Connery died in his sleep at his home in the Bahamas. He was 90 years old. I was first introduced to Sean Connery in the 1970s when my father took me to see John Huston's, The Man Who Would Be King. I was exposed to many age inappropriate films in that era (thank you Dad), several starring Connery, Murder on the Orient Express, The Great Train Robbery, Time Bandits. For years I was unaware that Connery had portrayed Bond because at the time Bond was Roger Moore. It wasn't until one of my older cousins, scoffing at my excitement after seeing Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me educated me, "Connery IS Bond. Period." Perhaps it was serendipitous that I regarded Sean Connery as an actor first. It would certainly have pleased Himself as Connery spent his career escaping the label of Bond. He succeeded yet somehow found room to appreciate 007's legacy.


Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Director Sydney Lumet said of Connery, "Sean is a brilliant actor and what is unique about him is; because he's so gorgeous, he's a leading man. But he's also a character actor. And very few leading men are character actors too. It gives you some idea of his incredible range."1


Humble Beginnings


Thomas Sean Connery was born on August 25, 1930 in the Fountainbridge neighborhood of Edinburgh, Scotland. Fountainbridge was a mix of working class and tenement homes and in the 30s and 40s had degenerated to the worst slums in the city. Connery's father was a lorry (truck) driver and his mother a cleaning woman. Connery said of his humble upbringing, "It's very difficult to equate with anywhere else when you have nothing to compare it to so you get on with it." 2 Connery spent many hours at the cinema with his younger brother Neil until World War II changed everything. At age nine he worked as a Milk Boy driving a horse and carriage at St Cuthbert's Co-op in Fountainbridge. When Connery was 13 he dropped out of school so he could earn more money. He was eager to go to war but too young. He joined the Royal British Navy in 1946 at age 16 and was discharged three years into his service due to a duodenal ulcer, a condition that plagued many of the men in his family. He left the Navy with two tattoos representing his lifelong priorities to family and country. They read, "Mum and Dad" and "Scotland Forever".

Sean Connery, Mr Universe circa 1950

After leaving the Navy Connery worked many jobs; lorry driver, lifeguard, laborer, coffin polisher and Life model at Edinburgh Art School. Connery began body building at 18 and even placed in the Mr. Universe competition. He was also a talented footballer who turned down a shot to try out for Manchester United because he thought there was no longevity in the career.


Connery had little to no formal education but was driven to better himself. His life was spent on a journey for wisdom; in all its forms. While touring the United Kingdom in a production of the stage musical South Pacific, he met American actor Robert Henderson. Henderson encouraged Connery to study acting and gave him an assignment: Read. He gave him a list of book titles including; all of Shaw, all of Shakespeare, Stanislavski's My Life in Art and An Actor Prepares, Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. He sought out all of these works visiting libraries in every town up and down Britain, extending his tour with South Pacific to complete his self-education. At the end of the tour he had determined he was an actor.


Sean Connery Life Model drawing, Edinburgh Art School circa 1952

Find a Mentor, Be Scrappy


Robert Henderson made good on his mentorship urging Connery to take elocution lessons and helping him secure parts at the Maida Vale Theatre in London. Connery pursued the silver screen simultaneously getting extra work but it wasn't paying the bills so he was forced to get scrappy again and take work where he could get it. He got a job as a babysitter for journalist Peter Noble and his actress wife Marianne. Through this happy misfortune his world opened up-- meeting famous actors and influential people. Oscar winning actress Shelly Winters met Connery through the Nobles who quickly became Connery's drinking buddy. After Henderson landed Connery a role in Q Theatre's production of Agatha Christies's Witness for the Prosecution, the theatre roles started pouring in.


Another Time, Another Place 1958 Sean Connery with Lana Turner

Television Director Alvin Rakoff saw Connery on stage during his tenure at Oxford Theatre. Rakoff cast Connery in several television productions including BBC Television's production of Requiem for a Heavyweight, his first leading role. Connery's first film role was in 1957's No Road Back but his first big screen break was opposite Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958). During the production Turner's gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato visited the set and was convinced that Connery and Turner were having an affair. Stompanato held a gun on Connery who quickly and infamously disarmed the mobster. For years Connery received threats from Stompanato and his infamous mob boss Mickey Cohen.


After some success on the big screen Connery dove back into television which gave him more opportunity to push his range with parts like John Proctor in ITV's production of The Crucible and the title role in a TV production of Macbeth. In 1959 Connery landed a leading role in the Walt Disney production of Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Connery sang in the role, which he claimed he did not like at all. It was one of the only films Connery did not use his ubiquitous Scottish accent opting instead for a distinct Irish brogue--more about that accent later.


Connery did not receive stellar reviews for his part in Darby O'Gill and the Little People but the film was a success and he did catch the attention of producer Albert "Chubby" Broccoli who was casting his upcoming adaption of Ian Fleming's Dr. No.


And Then Came Bond

Dr. No (1962)

Ian Fleming did not have Sean Connery in mind to play his lead character, James Bond Code Name 007, a fictional officer in MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service. Fleming, a novelist and former British naval intelligence officer based 007 ( on "the many types" he met during the war.3 Fleming saw Connery as "an overgrown stuntman" not a British Commander.4 Producers Harry Saltzman and Chubby Broccoli couldn’t afford to cast their first picks; veteran actors like David Niven, Rex Harrison and Cary Grant. Broccoli's wife Dana and Ian Fleming's girlfriend convinced the two men that Sean Connery, (whose rate they could afford) had the perfect combination of sexual charisma and man's man sensibility to appeal to both men and woman. After the huge box office success of Dr. No, Fleming agreed. He was so impressed with Connery's branding of the character he wrote Connery's heritage into his novel You Only Live Twice, making Bond's father from Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands.


Sean Connery had originally been reluctant to sign onto a film franchise but he knew it would help his career. Connery defined 007 and paved the path for a new kind of action hero, one with humor. Connery's reinvention of the action/superhero archetype paved the way for Christopher Reeves' Superman, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and even the Marvel universe's superheroes beginning with Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man/Tony Stark have Sean Connery's Bond to thank.


Connery's Bond was so popular after the success of Dr. No and From Russia with Love that he finally had control over his projects. After Paul Newman turned down the role of Mark Rutland in Alfred Hitchock's Marnie, Connery was offered the part. Under contract as Bond, Connery did not want to be typecast as a spy and feared the role would be too similar to Cary Grant's in North by Northwest. When Connery asked to read the script in advance, Hitchcock reportedly remarked, "Cary Grant didn't ask to read the script," Connery responded, "I'm not Cary Grant."5

Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964)

Connery ultimately made seven Bond films the last, Never Say Never Again which controversially came out the same year as Roger Moore's 6th (of 7) Bond films, Octopussy. The media labeled the release of both films in 1983 as "The Battle of the Bonds".


After the success of For Your Eyes Only, Roger Moore announced he was going to retire as 007. Chubby Broccoli was set to pass the Bond baton onto American actor James Brolin. But when it was announced that Sean Connery would reprise his role of Bond in a competing production, Broccoli feared Connery's Bond was still too popular to beat at the box office so he convinced Roger Moore to continue as 007 and rescinded his offer to Brolin.


Who won the "Battle of the Bonds"?


Octopussy was released in the Summer and did well at the box office, grossing $67 million in the US and $187.5 million worldwide with a total production cost of $27.5 million. Never Say Never Again was plagued with on-set problems and Connery's relationship with producer Jack Schwartzman’s was tense. As a result production was pushed back and the film was unable to be released during the Summer blockbuster season. The film grossed $55 million in the US market and $160 million internationally with production costs exceeding $36 million. Technically, by the numbers, Octopussy won the battle but it's an unfair comparison given the release dates. Still fans got the benefit of seeing two Bonds in one year and diehard Connery fans got to see him as 007 one last time.


That Time He Wore a Red Loin Cloth

Zardoz (1974)

Connery was tired of the Bond role as he wanted to expand his range as an actor. After completing his sixth Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 he announced he was leaving the franchise. This did not go over well in Hollywood and the scripts stopped coming. In 1974 Oscar nominated Director John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory), was working on a passion project; a sci-fi/fantasy film from a script he had written about a strange new world. The story depicts a post apocalyptic world where barbarians worship a stone god called "Zardoz" that grants them death and eternal life. Boorman said of the project, "It's closer to the better science fiction literature which is more metaphysical."6 Nobody wanted to do the film but finally 20th Century Fox agreed. Burt Reynolds, hot off his performance in Boorman's Deliverance, was cast as the lead alongside Charlotte Rampling. When Reynolds had to bow out for medical reasons, Boorman reached out to Connery who was struggling to get work.


Zardoz was not Connery's finest moment on celluloid. In addition to the red loin cloth and suspenders (since a comic con cosplay favorite), he appears in drag as a bride in the film. Not surprisingly the film was a commercial and critical bomb but has since become somewhat of a cult classic largely due to Connery's legend status.


Never Count Out Connery

Sean Connery and Christian Slater in The Name of the Rose (1986)

Sydney Lumet who had directed Connery in The Hill gave Connery his route to his first career 2.0 casting him in his 1974 film adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. The ensemble cast boasted some heavy weight actors, Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Sir John Gielguld, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Ingrid Bergman who won her 2nd Oscar for the role of Greta. It was a commercial and critical success and opened the door for a slew of meaty roles for Connery: The Wind and the Lion (1975), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), A Bridge Too Far (1977).


By the 1980s Sean Connery was a certified movie and pop-culture icon. Sydney Lumet said of Connery, "Movies need a 60 foot screen to tell a story properly, Sean is somebody who reinforces the need for a 60 foot screen."7 His surprise cameos (think uncredited appearance as King Richard in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves) went viral before they could go viral. He's been impersonated by hundreds of entertainers and comedians most notably, Darrell Hammond on SNL's "Celebrity Jeopardy" skit. He was also willing to take on roles against type, making them his own and ultimately iconic.


Connery's journey in pursuit of wisdom and betterment paid off in the quality of his work in the 1980s and 1990s: as 14th century sleuthing friar William von Baskerville in the first screen adaptation of Umberto Ecco's novel, The Name of the Rose (1986), as expat British publisher turned spy opposite Michelle Pfeiffer in the film adaptation of the John le Carré novel, The Russia House (1990), as disgraced MI6 officer turned action hero in Michael Bay's blockbuster hit The Rock (1996).

Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in The Untouchables (1987)

Often credited as the film that reinvented Connery's image (though I'd argue that film was The Man Who Would Be King), the 1987 film The Untouchables. Connery played streetwise Chicago Cop Jim Malone. Director Brian de Palma and Producer Art Linson attributed many key script and production ideas to Connery.8 It was apparently Connery's idea to film the "blood oath" scene with Malone and Ness (played by Kevin Costner) in the church. The scene was originally going to take place on the street. Connery urged de Palma to set the scene in a church as he believed it would be the only safe place in Chicago two men could talk about taking down Capone.9 Connery earned a Golden Globe and Oscar for the role.


In 1989 Sean Connery was introduced to a whole new demographic of fans when he took on the role of Indiana Jone's father, Henry Jones in Steven Spielberg's third installment of his Indiana Jones trilogy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. At the 34th annual AFI Life Achievement Award honoring Sean Connery, Harrison Ford talked about how Connery brought more than his passion and commitment, he brought "good ideas" and a clear understanding of his role as the Senior Jones. Ford recounted that during production Connery told George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, "Look I'm his father. What ever he did I did it first and I did it better."10


It was that feisty, sly approach to his roles and working in Hollywood that kept Sean Connery a bankable star for decades.

Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Scotland Forever


Connery spent his life as a fierce champion of Scottish independence. Connery said of his commitment and efforts to help Scotland, "What makes the world go round is the people who go outside. But not enough of them come back and try and change what's wrong inside. I believe that the identity and everything to do with the Scottish psyche, health, future and everything is based on independence. I have been an investor in that financially, emotionally, my entire life."11


Connery remained true to his Scottish roots despite living abroad pursuing "the outside" as he put it. He had homes in Spain, Portugal and the Bahamas.


For Queen and Country

Sean Connery Knighted by The Queen.

Connery's commitment to Scotland and Scottish independence was at the heart of a bitter political fight when (it was widely reported) the ruling Labour Party in England blocked plans twice in 1997 and 1998 for him to be awarded a knighthood. Two years later all seemed to be forgiven or tolerated when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II traveled to Edinburgh to award him a knighthood for his services to the dramatic arts.

Sir Sean Connery was knighted by The Queen at an investiture ceremony at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh on 5 July 2000. After the ceremony Connery stated, "It's one of the proudest days of my life. It means a great deal for it to happen in Scotland."12



Finding Connery

Finding Forrester (2000)

Nearing the end of his film career, Sir Sean Connery delivered one of his finest screen performances in 2000's Finding Forrester. Connery portrays recluse writer Robert Forrester, a JD Salinger-esque figure who mentors a young African American teenage writing prodigy. The film co-starred Oscar Winner F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus), Oscar winner Anna Paquin (X-Men, The Piano) and introduced actor Rob Brown (Blindspot) as Jamal. Perhaps it's age and experience that enabled Connery to master the character arc so subtly yet purposefully. It's as if you're seeing a mirror portrayal of his own life coming to the end of a career and passing the torch. I loved this film, possibly more than any other in his career as it beautifully emphasizes the critical importance of having a mentor--something Connery himself benefitted from in his relationship with actor Robert Henderson. In the film, Forrester is a bit of a reluctant mentor but when he decides to engage, he changes both young Jamal's life and his own.


Connery's last live-action film appearance was in the 2003 action comedy The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, a film adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel of the same name. Connery had turned down the role of Gandalf in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Architect in The Matrix trilogy because he didn't understand the scripts. Ironically, when he was offered the role of Alan Quartermaine in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman Connery decided to take it despite also not understanding the script. Three times a charm! Not so, as the film was a commercial disaster and Connery and Director Stephen Norrington disagreed and argued constantly. Rumors swelled about an incident on set where Norrington dared Connery to punch him in the face. Connery responded by walking off the set. Norrington never directed another movie. Connery retired from making movies shortly after the film was released.



That Voice

Sean Connery as the voice of "Draco" in DragonHeart (1996)

There have been few actors whose voice gives them away so readily as Sean Connery's. It's not just the easily identifiable Scottish accent, which he never parted with but, the smooth, soothing sound of his tone. Oddly Connery's voice was underused as a solo act. He memorably voiced the dragon Draco in the 1996 film DragonHeart starring Dennis Quaid and made a surprise exit from retirement when he agreed to lend his voice to the Scottish animated film Sir Billi. The film was not a success. It had a bizarre plot and very rudimentary animation however it supported two things that Connery cared about above all others; Scotland and his family. Connery's grandchildren (through his second marriage to wife Micheline Roquebrune) became enamored with a sample DVD of the project and encouraged him to sign on to it. The project was Scotland's first CGI animated film and Connery was always up for supporting his native land in any way he could.


Sean Connery in Highlander (1986)

One thing consistent in all of Connery's roles was his heavy Edinburgh brogue, often to the point of ridicule. In The Hunt for Red October he plays a Russian Submarine Captain with a Scottish accent. In Highlander he plays a 6th century immortal Egyptian/Spanish swordsman with a Scottish accent, in Rising Sun a retired Los Angeles Police Captain, Scottish accent, as a Native American/Irish/Jewish/Italian New York former bank robber in Family Business, accent.


Connery addressed why he never altered his vocal trademark to fit a role in a 2003 appearance on the British television show Parkinson, which he appeared alongside the now British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, "Because the emotion should be the same internationally; A Russian is the same as Scottish, Irish, Pole even English. It's all about the emotion".13

Sir Sean Connery after winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for THE UNTOUCHABLES

Sean Connery forged one of the most remarkable careers in Hollywood spanning 60+ years and over 94 credits. Throughout his career he was awarded an Oscar, three Golden Globes one of which was the Cecil B Demille Award, two BAFTA awards and the AFI Life Achievement Award. He is survived by a son, Jason, his second wife, Micheline Roquebrune, grandson Dashiell Quinn Connery, three step children and several step-grandchildren.


In 2004 Sir Sean Connery recorded a reading of the poem Ithaca by C.P. Cavafy set to the music of composer Vangelis (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire). The two men had been good friends for years and wanted to do produce a film about their shared interest in the Greek philosopher Socrates. The CD of "Ithaca" was released as part of a published book, A Journey in Colour, by Connery's wife, Micheline Roquebrune. The book displays Roquebrune's paintings. Sold together only in Athens, Greece, the book and CD raised funds to support a charity initiative "Friends of the Child".


Below is the recording and accompanying video. It appropriately details the end of a journey.


From the poem Ithaca


Keep Ithaca always in your mind.

Arriving there is what you’re destined for.

But don’t hurry the journey at all.

Better if it lasts for years,

so that you’re old by the time you reach the island,

wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.

Without her you would have not set out.

She has nothing left to give you now.


Credit Josh Jones, writer and musician based in Durham, NC for finding this and for his piece, "Sean Connery (RIP) Reads C.P. Cavafy's Epic Poem Ithaca, Set to the Music of Vangelis", Open Culture.



References

  1. Sydney Lumet quoted from his taped appearance in the "34th AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute to Sean Connery" 2006

  2. From 2003 appearance on British TV Series, Parkinson.

  3. Macintyre, Ben (5 April 2008). "Bond – the real Bond". The Times. London. p. 36.

  4. "8 Things You Didn't Know About James Bond". Huffington Post. Retrieved 15 March 2019.

  5. From imdb.com Marnie trivia.

  6. Movies: Boorman at 40: Losing a Millstone at a Milestone Los Angeles Times 7 Apr 1974: n24.

  7. Sydney Lumet quoted from his taped appearance in the "34th AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute to Sean Connery" 2006

  8. Commentary by Director Brian de Palma and Producer Art Linson from the DVD "Special Collector's Edition: The Untouchables"

  9. Commentary by Director Brian de Palma and Producer Art Linson from the DVD "Special Collector's Edition: The Untouchables"

  10. From Harrison Ford's introduction of Sean Connery at "34th AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute to Sean Connery" 2006

  11. From 2003 appearance on British TV Series, Parkinson.

  12. From ABC New's Article "Sean Connery Knighted in Scotland" by Ed Cropley, January 6, 2006.

  13. From 2003 appearance on British TV Series, Parkinson.



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