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.
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
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".
After leaving the Navy Connery worked many jobs; lorry driver, lifeguard, laborer, coffin polisher and Life model at Edinburgh Art School. Connery began bodybuilding 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.
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 Christie's Witness for the Prosecution, the theatre roles started pouring in.
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 adaptation of Ian Fleming's Dr. No.
And Then Came Bond
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
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 Loincloth
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
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 heavyweight 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).