To celebrate the life of Sir Sean Connery, who died on Saturday at the age of 90, The Tribune is posting this article written by Christopher Ondaatje for the Weekend section in 2017, which marvelled at the distinguished career of the award-winning Scottish actor.
Long before James Bond, and long before Sir Sean Connery, there was a tiny baby “Tommy” Connery born to Joe Connery, a truck driver, and Euphemia, a laundress, on 25 August 1930 in Fountainbridge, Scotland. The Connerys were really poor, and they lived in a neighbourhood where the stench from the local rubber mill and brewery was known as “the street of a thousand smells”. Their home was a two-room flat where the baby slept in a cupboard drawer because they didn’t have the money to buy a crib. Joe Connery brought home only a few shillings a week and those were often spent on whisky and gambling. Tommy grew up on the streets of Fountainbridge where the local gangs called him “Big Tam” because of his size and his eventual ability to dominate his playmates. He went to the local Tollcross elementary school and was clever and quick, grasping the fundamentals of mathematics, reading avidly and dreaming up fantastic stories of Martians and madmen. Even as a young boy he loved going to films and often skipped school to go to Blue Halls, the local movie house, to watch the pictures.
When Tommy was eight years old his brother Neil was born, and he delighted in the role of big brother. The boys were inseparable and they fished in the local canal using their mother’s stockings for fishing line. Together the brothers often skipped school and mixed with some rough boys from the wrong side of the tracks.
Tommy Connery left school when he was thirteen years old to work for the local dairy, St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society, as a milkman. It was his first job. He grew quickly and was 6ʹ2ʺ by the time he was eighteen. His full name was Thomas Sean Connery and, apart from being called Tommy, he was also called Sean long before he was an actor. When he was young he had an Irish friend named Séamus and those who knew them both had decided to call Connery by his middle name whenever both were present. The name stuck. Three years later he joined the Royal Navy, and received two tattoos on his arm. He still has them today: “MUM AND DAD” and “SCOTLAND FOREVER”. Although he signed on for seven years he was released after three years because of a duodenal ulcer. He returned to his job for St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society, then got work as a lorry driver, a lifeguard, a labourer, an artist’s model (in the Edinburgh College of Art), and a coffin polisher. He saved money to become a member of the Dunedin Weightlifting Club – “not so much to be fit, but to look good for the girls”. From 1951 he trained seiously with a gym instructor from the British Army. His gym mates nominated him for the Mr. Universe contest. In 1953 he travelled nine hours to get to London where the competitions were being held. He introduced himself as “Mr. Scotland”, and was chosen third in the tall men’s division and given a medal.
Connery was a keen footballer and played for Bonnyrigg Rose in his younger days, where he was offered a trial with East Fife. In a football match against a local team that Matt Busby, Manager of Manchester United, happened to be scouting, Busby offered Connery a contract worth £25 a week and he was tempted to accept.
“I realised that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.”
While in London at the Mr. Universe contest, and after receiving his medal, a local casting director liked the look of the tall Scottish kid and asked him to join the chorus of South Pacific – a new musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein playing on Drury Lane in London’s theatre district.
“I didn’t have a voice, couldn’t dance. But I could look good standing there.”
One rehearsal was all it took for Connery to decide to gamble everything on making acting his full time career. It was then that he chose the stage name Sean Connery.
“It seemed to go more with my image than Tom or Tommy.”
Sean Connery was thus listed as a chorus member in the 1953 South Pacific programme. By the time the production reached Edinburgh he had been given the part of Marine Corporal Hamilton Steeves and was understudying two of the juvenile leads. His salary was raised from £12 to £14-10s. a week. The following year, returning to Edinburgh, Connery was promoted to the featured role of Lieutenant Buzz Adams. In Edinburgh Connery was targeted by the notorious Valdor gang, one of the most ruthless in the city. He was followed by six gang members to a 15 foot high balcony at the Palais de Danse. There Connery launched an attack singlehandedly against the gang members, grabbing one by the throat and another by the biceps and cracking their heads together. From then on he was treated with great respect by the gang and gained a reputation as a tough character.
Connery also liked the reputation of being a rugged ladies man, but developed a serious interest in the theatre through the American actor Robert Henderson who lent him copies of the Henrik Ibsen works Hedda Gabler, The Wild Drunk, and When We Dead Awaken, and gave him the works of Marcel Proust, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and William Shakespeare to digest. In addition Henderson urged him to take elocution lessons and got him parts at the Maida Vale Theatre in London. He began pursuing a career in film only after he was cast as an extra in the Herbert Wilcox 1954 musical Lilacs in the Spring with Anna Neagle. He secured several bit-parts as an extra but was constantly struggling to make ends meet. He was reduced to being a part-time babysitter for journalist Peter Noble and his actress wife Mary Noble. While there he met Shelley Winters who later said that Connery was one of the most charming Scotsmen she had ever met. She spent many evenings drinking beer with him.
At about this time Connery’s American actor friend Robert Henderson got him a job for £6 a week at the Q Theatre Production of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution. This role was followed by a number of minor stage parts until Canadian director Alvin Rakoff gave him multiple roles in The Condemned shot on location in Dover, Kent. In 1956 he appeared in the theatrical production of Epitaph, and played a minor role as a hoodlum in the Ladies of the Manor episode of the BBC TV series Dixon of Dock Green. He also had small TV parts in Sailor of Fortune and The Jack Benny Program.
Things turned around somewhat in 1957. He hired Richard Hatton as his agent - who got him the role of Spike, a minor gangster in Montgomery Tully’s No Road Back. Then Rakoff gave him his first chance of a leading role as Mountain McLintock in the BBC TV’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. He also played a rogue lorry driver in Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers (1957) and in the Terence Young MGM picture Action of the Tiger. Terence Young was to have a great influence on Connery’s movie career a few years later when he was given the James Bond part in 1962. He also got another minor role in Gerald Thomas’s Time Lock (1957). He was beginning to be noticed.
1957 was also the year that he met the Australian actress Diane Cilento while filming a show for Britain’s ATV Playhouse. They were immediately attracted to each other although Cilento was married at the time. Connery would eventually marry her in 1962, and they had a son Jason who later followed his father into an acting career. But the marriage did not last. They were divorced in 1973 and Cilento returned to Queensland, Australia.
Connery was given a major role in the melodrama Another Time, Another Place (1958) as a British reporter named Mark Trevor caught in a love affair opposite Lana Turner and Barry Sullivan. During the filming Lana Turner’s possessive gangster boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, believing she was having an affair with Connery, stormed onto the set and pointed a gun at Connery, only to have Connery disarm him and knock him flat on his back. Stompanato was banned from the set, but Connery had to lie low for a while after receiving threats from men linked to Stompanato’s boss Mickey Cohen.
In 1960 Connery’s career in movies began to take off. He landed a leading part in Robert Stevenson’s Walt Disney Productions film Darby O’Gill and the Little People – a film about a wily Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns. He also had prominent roles in Rudolph Cartier’s productions of Adventure Story and Anna Karenina for BBC Television, co-starring with Claire Bloom. In 1962 he appeared in The Longest Day with a host of other stars – and it was the year when Connery’s real breakthrough came. Producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli cast him as the lead in a spy movie based on one of a series of Ian Fleming’s novels. James Bond was born.
Connery was reluctant to commit to a film series but was advised that if the films succeeded, his career would greatly benefit. Connery’s selection for the role of James Bond owed a lot to Dana Broccoli, the wife of producer Albert Broccoli, who convinced her husband that Connery was the right man. Ian Fleming too was against Connery’s casting, saying “He’s not what I envisioned of James Bond’s looks. I’m looking for a Commander Bond – not an overgrown stunt man.” He criticised Sean Connery as being unrefined. However, Blanche Blackwell, one of Fleming’s girl friends, told him that Connery had the right sexual charisma. Fleming changed his mind after the first film premiere.
Connery played secret agent 007 in the first five Bond films: Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), and You Only Live Twice (1967) – then appeared again in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Never Say Never Again (1983). All seven films were enormously successful and Connery was selected as the third greatest hero in cinema history by the American Film Institute.
Connery’s portrayal of James Bond owes a great deal to the British director Terence Young who directed the first two of the James Bond films Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963), and then Thunderball in 1965. Young was public school educated, and had read Oriental History at St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge. He was commissioned in the Irish Guards, and was a tank commander during World War II, participating in Arnhem in the Netherlands. Young was born in 1915 so in 1962, when Dr. No was being made, he was forty-seven years old and fifteen years older than Sean Connery. His upbringing too was very different to Connery’s. Young knew what he was doing and knew exactly what sort of a person Fleming had in mind to play the part of James Bond. Instead, he was given the job of directing a tall good-looking Scot who had none of the finer mannerisms expected of him, but who exuded sexual charisma. Young made a crucial contribution to Dr. No, not least with the performance of Connery, whose portrayal of Bond owes much to Young’s tutelage. Young helped polish the actor while using his physical grace and presence for the action scenes. Lois Maxwell, who played the part of Miss Moneypenny, related that “Terence (Young) took Sean under his wing. He took him to dinner, showed him how to walk, how to talk, even how to eat.” The tutoring was successful. Young gave Connery his polish and thereafter the actor became one of the greatest male sex symbols of film there has ever been – receiving thousands of fan letters a week. Connery remembered what Young had taught him and with each new part his charm and confidence grew.
Connery played the part of the sly, sexy and confident British agent who had questionable scruples with increasing conviction. He became the embodiment of the 007 spy and was an immediate superstar. He got other leading parts too. After and during the success of the Bond films he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Man Who Would be King (1975), The Wind and the Lion (1975), Time Bandits (1981), Highlander (1986), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Untouchables (1987) – (which earned him an Oscar for best supporting role), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), Rising Sun (1993), The Rock (1996), Finding Forrester (2000), and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).
Sean Connery married the French-Moroccan artist Micheline Roquebrune in 1975. They had met at a golf tournament in Morocco, a sport they both loved. By this time he had made six Bond pictures and, although Bond made him a star, he eventually grew tired of the role and the pressure the franchise put on him. Michael Caine, his friend and co-star in The Man Who Would be King said:
“If you were his friend in those early days you didn’t raise the subject of Bond. He was, and is, a much better actor than just playing James Bond.”
He began to shrink from the spotlight, moving his new wife and her three children to mansions first in England, and then to Marbella, Spain. It would be more than a decade before he reluctantly agreed to reprise his Bond role for the seventh and last time in the 1983 Never Say Never Again – a title suggested by his wife Micheline. For this he was paid a salary of several million dollars – a far cry from the reported $16,000 he earned for Dr. No.
In Marbella he played golf daily when not filming. For twenty years, (from 1979) he owned the Domaine de Terre Blanche in the South of France, where he planned to build his dream golf course on the 266 acres of land, but the dream was not to be realised until he sold the property to German billionaire Dietmar Hopp in 1999. By then the Connerys, fed up with disagreements with the local press, had moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, becoming members of the exclusive Lyford Cay Club in 1982 and buying a charming but not ostentatious house on the golf course where they now live.
“I have retired for good. It’s been a bit rough since Christmas but I’m perfectly OK and I feel well. In fact I’m working on a history book.”
“I get asked the question so often, I thought it best to make an announcement. I thought long and hard about it and if anything could have pulled me out of retirement it would have been an Indiana Jones film. I love working with Steven Spielberg and George (Lucas), and it goes without saying that it is an honour to have Harrison (Ford) as my son. But in the end, retirement is just too damned much fun.”
Connery continued to make films until he retired officially in March 2006.
Sean Connery’s incredible film career has been quite remarkable because of its variety. He has been given many honours. In 1998 he received the BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award; and in 2000 he received a Crystal Globe for outstanding contribution to world cinema. In 1989, when he was almost sixty years old, he was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive”, and in 1999 received a Kennedy Centre Honor for Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2000 he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in an hour long investiture at Edinburgh’s Holyrood Palace, despite his active national support for the separatist Scottish National Party; and in 2006 he received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Looking back on Sean Connery’s remarkable film career there are some interesting and sometimes bizarre comments that experts have made about his achievements. Goldfinger (1964) is arguably the most entertaining of Connery’s seven Bond films where 007 investigates a gold magnate’s smuggling and uncovers a plot to contaminate the Fort Knox Gold Reserve. He has almost been killed twice while making Bond films: In 1963, while filming the helicopter chase in From Russia With Love, he was almost decapitated when the inexperienced helicopter pilot flew too close to him. Then during the filming of Thunderball in the Bahamas in 1965, in the sequence with the sharks in Emilio Largo’s pool, Connery insisted that a plexiglass partition be made inside the pool. But this was not a fixed structure and one of the sharks managed to pass through it, almost getting to Connery as he climbed hurriedly from the pool. This near disaster was captured on the final film sequence. During the filming of Marnie (1964) Alfred Hitchcock had cast “the sexiest man alive” to play opposite Tippi Hedren – supposed to play a frigid woman thief in the film. She asked Hitchcock how she could possibly play such a role, when the iciest of women would melt in Connery’s presence. Hitchcock told her “It’s called acting, my dear.” He then ordered Connery not to touch her.
The Hill, made in 1965, is one of Connery’s best films. In a North African military prison during World War II, five new prisoners struggle to survive in the face of brutal punishment and sadistic guards. Connery’s performance is magnificent.
Under John Huston’s direction of Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would be King (1975), both Connery and Michael Caine give superb performances as a pair of British colonialists who resign from the army planning to make the faraway land of Kafiristan their own kingdom where no white man has set foot since Alexander the Great. Marvellous entertainment. The following year Connery played an ageing Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian. It is a touching film where Connery and Hepburn (after her eight year absence from films) make the film work because of the chemistry between them. They seem to have arrived at a tacit understanding about their characters and they marvellously project two complex and tender people who have acquired grace and wisdom after a 20-year separation.
Most of Connery’s successes in the next decade were as part of ensemble casts in films like Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) starring Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Olivier.
Connery won a BAFTA award for his performance in The Name of the Rose in 1986, and in Highlander he showed his ability to play older mentors to younger leads.
The Untouchables in 1987 earned Connery an Oscar for best supporting actor by playing a grizzled but honourable cop; and his subsequent box-office hits included Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and The Russia House (1990).
The Rock (1996) was one of Connery’s favourite and highest paid films – a prison action-adventure. He then played a cat burglar in the love story/thriller Entrapment (1999) which co-starred Catherine Zeta-Jones despite a forty-year difference between their ages, and a starring role in Gus Van Sant’s Finding Forrester (2000) where a young prodigy finds a mentor – a reclusive author – played by Connery. It was another of his great sensitive performances.
“More than anything else, I’d like to be an old man with a good face, like Alfred Hitchcock or Pablo Picasso.”
Rob Brown who played the part of the Bronx kid who stumbles across a reclusive old novelist – and earns himself a surly mentor in the process, said “People make him out to seem like a grumpy old man, but he’s not really like that at all”, said Brown about Finding Forrester. “He’s just a really cool guy. Our apartments were on the same floor, and he sat me down one weekend and told me about the business and how everything works, the reason being, he said, there was nobody who told him when he was really coming up. He really mentored me.” Brown still remembers all of Connery’s advice – “A lot of it wasn’t about film work per se, it was about life ... In terms of any actor I’ve worked with, I learned the most from him.”
Harrison Ford too said of Connery playing his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “He just brings such manliness and a gravitas, as well as a playful aspect to him ... Sean has a very keen interest and considerable knowledge of history.” So Connery played the part of Harrison Ford’s father as a historian rather than an archaeologist like his son. It was such an intelligent inspiration and not everyone could have done it. “What makes actors interesting is their capacity to take what is particular about themselves and somehow weave that into the characters they play,” Ford added. It seems that all his acting life Connery has been able to do this. It is what has made him the actor and man that he is.
Nicholas Cage, who acted in another of Connery’s favourite films The Rock has said: “It was quite simply one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve ever had with a co-star. That was really my first experience of an action-adventure film, and Sean explained how to be aware and how to be safe, and at the same time to take the chances that were necessary ... He taught me many things ... I have always modelled my approach and my career after him. He was always willing to try different genres and characters while maintaining his viable presence.”
* Sean Connery was 87 years old on 25 August this year and will be remembered by all who have ever met him as a giant of a man who has overcome incredible odds to reach the pinnacle of his profession through hard work, intelligence, and courage. He still lives in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas and is still happily married to Micheline Roquebrune, and has been for 42 years. He lives in the same house he bought here in the 1980s and he still remains fiercely dedicated to an independent Scotland, and still remains fiercely loyal to his family and to his friends.
There have not ever been any men like him before, and it is unlikely there will ever be any like him again. Sir Sean Connery is truly the last great matinée idol.
* Information from 2017