SEAN Connery, who is 90 on Tuesday, never did reveal himself to be a drag artist, a bumbling idiot or a master of accents. Casting directors never had to decide between the Scot, who was born on August 25, 1930, and the likes of Robin Williams or Dustin Hoffman.
Nor did Connery’s on-screen performances ever suggest the middle earth-deep introvert, the outrageously wild extrovert or a person with significant mental health issues (unless you consider James Bond to be a probable psychopath.)
So how does a man who grew up in an Edinburgh tenement, whose only leaning in the direction of showbiz was buying a piano with an early wage packet (despite no one in the family being able to play) become, as director Steven Spielberg, described, “One of the top five actors in the world”?
Spielberg had this own theory; “From the moment Sean Connery introduced himself as James Bond he became the man all men wanted to be – and the man women wanted.”
Is the secret of Sir Sean’s success down to machisimo and sex? It seems they have been contributory factors. Since the age of 18 when big Tam Connery took up body building, the Greek god physique and all-round handsomeness resulted in lots of swooning, first as a lifeguard and then as an artist’s mode. “Too beautiful for words, a virtual Adonis,” said artist and future gallery owner Richard Demarco of the figure in front of him.
Connery certainly looked very much like a handsome star when he appeared in the chorus line of the touring theatre production of South Pacific, despite the tattoos and the gold teeth.
Hollywood actress Shelley Winters met Connery in pre-fame days and described him as “one of the tallest and most charming and masculine Scotsmen” she’d ever seen. And film legend Lana Turner certainly reckoned Connery to be leading man material, angling for his casting alongside her in the 1958 melodramatic love story, Another Time, Another Place.
Turner’s gangster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato however believed his girlfriend and Connery were playing out their love affair off screen and confronted the Scot, waving a gun in his face. Turner’s daughter wrote that Connery then grabbed the gun and twisted the gangsters wrist. “Unperturbed, he (Connery) flattened John with a right to the nose.”
The sexual dynamic was massively important when Connery met with producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to discuss the role of Bond. The producers didn’t fancy Connery for the role at all. But Broccoli’s wife Dana did. “Women – and men – will love him,” she said. And she beckoned the pair over to the window to watch Connery as he crossed the street outside, and told them: “He moves like a panther.”
The ‘panther’ description was apt. Connery was tough and seemingly fearless, a man not far removed from the teenager who’d given several Edinburgh gang members a beating.
Where Roger Moore would come to rely upon stunt performers to convince as a physical Bond, Connery would often take huge risks, such as crashing a car in Dr No.
However, playwright Neil Simon, who became a close friend of Connery, recalled a stunt which left him speechless. One afternoon, Simon met Connery for lunch at the Scot’s LA apartment. But on closing the door of the apartment, Connery, on his way to play golf, realised he’d left his golf clubs – and keys – inside.
The playwright suggested his friend take the elevator to the ground floor and get a spare set of keys from the concierge. “It will take me too long,” said the impatient Connery. Simon was then struck dumb by Connery’s next move. “I watched as he walked down the end of the hall and opened the window. When I saw him climb out, I rushed to see where he was going.
“There he was, climbing along a narrow ledge 17 stories above the earth; he eventually found a window open and climbed inside. Ten minutes later he emerged with his clubs around his shoulder.”
Connery, said Simon, carried on with their previous conversation, “as if nothing had happened in between time.” Neil Simon was stunned. “He didn’t just act James Bond. He was James Bond.”
But Connery brought much more than sheer physicality to his roles, such as innate intelligence. As a struggling actor, he worked hard to ignore the fact he’d left school at 14 by studying Proust, Ibsen and Shaw. He was clever enough to take elocution lessons to improve his diction. He was smart enough to pass up the chance to play for Manchester United. “I realised that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23,” he reflected. “I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.” When he landed the role of broadcast journalist in Another Time, he studied tapes of real-life war correspondents for weeks.
Sean Connery had another positive going for him. He refused to go any way other than his own. “If you compromise your independence for any reason there’s not much use living,” he once declared.
It was a risky position to take. He turned down offers from major film studios, even when landlords were banging on the door looking for rent. He was 31 before the chance to play Bond came along.
In an industry renowned for its sycophancy and desperation to impress, Connery revealed himself to be the opposite – which made him stand out.
Indeed, when he arrived for his Bond interview at Broccoli’s office in Mayfair, director Terence Young had suggested the relatively unknown Scot wear a smart suit, in order to convince as a “dashing and elegant Old Etonian.”
Connery wore scruffy slacks and a lumber jacket. Young also impressed on Connery not to demand too much money. Broccoli later told how he sat amazed as Connery began pounding the desk with his fist as he made his financial demands and laid down his vision of how the part should be played.
And when the producers asked him if he would be willing to do a screen test along with the other actors they were considering, Connery beat them down as coldly as Bond beat a confession out of Tatiana Romanova in 1963’s From Russia With Love.
One of the major strengths of Connery was he knew his acting limitations. He believed he knew the parts he could play best. It wasn’t that he couldn’t act; he received good reviews for his Shakespeare work on television and theatre appearances in the West End.
On the road to Bond, Connery had appeared in an a rage of TV and films, such as playing a convincing punch drunk boxer in Requiem For A Heavyweight. He loved the naturalistic style and was a fan of Brando.
But he believed he could sense danger in a script. He turned down the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings because he had had no idea what to do with the character and “didn’t understand the script.”
The late Ian Holm recalled a conversation he had about Connery with director Terry Gilliam, with whom the Scot had worked with on Time Bandits, Connery having played a glorious King Agamemnon.
Gilliam offered of the Scot: “He’s very, very good. But he knows exactly what he can and can’t do. He’ll say how he should be shot getting on a horse, which side of his face the camera should be on when he’s walking, and so on. He knows what he’s got and he knows how it should be shown. He was always right, of course. But he wouldn’t try things.”
So the man who played James Bond seven times over a 21-year period, the dangerous spy capable of killing in order to save the world, was a little risk averse? Certainly, in an acting sense.
He knew he was never going to become a Tony Curtis, or even a Jack Lemmon. He knew he would be best playing tough, uncompromising characters such as his brilliant performance of a demoted Sergeant Major with a chip on his shoulder in 1965 minor classic, The Hill. (Connery’s first wife Diane Cilento was remarked of her husband, whom she didn’t take a shine too at first; “He seemed like a man with a tremendous chip on his shoulder.”)
Sense of injustice
What he also brought to his roles in the likes of The Hill was a screaming sense of injustice. James Fox said Connery, who left school aged 14, long battled against inequality. “He rather despises the privilege system in this country.” It’s not surprising, given Connery’s paternal grandfather’s parents (part-tinkers) emigrated to Scotland from Ireland’s County Wexford in the late-19th century to escape the ravages of poverty. Connery’s first bed as a child was a bottom drawer. And life in 1940s Fountainbridge was about keeping a head above the poverty line. “I think the most difficult thing to displace is privilege,” said the Scot.
Connery shone as kings and leaders of men with a voice of insurrection, from the 1975 movie The Man Who Would Be King, arguably his best-ever role, to Robin and Marian in 1976. Yet, he did seem to call it wrong in turning down The Thomas Crown Affair, with the role going to Steve McQueen.
Of course, his political voice for independence has been loud and clear for many years. And his battle for fairness has seen him launch continued legal assaults against the likes of film producer Broccoli and United Artists.
For this, Connery is entirely unapologetic. “I’ve been screwed more times than a hooker.” He added in defiant voice. “Money is important, very important. It is part of a combination of things that makes it possible for you to do things you want to do, in the very way you want to do them.”
Connery certainly has a magnificent sneer. The six-foot two-inch star loved to battle for the little guy, the outsider. It’s been claimed he agreed to reappear as Bond (a character with whom he had a love-hate relationship) in 1983 movie Never Say Never Again (Connery was then 53) because the movie rights to this film had been won in a long court battle by Kevin McClory, an enterprising Irishman.
The film was also scheduled to go head-to-head with Octopussy, a Broccoli Bond epic featuring the new 007, Roger Moore. Win-win.
What also seems to have aided Sean Connery in his quest for success is an ability to contain sentimentality. And perhaps empathy. Neil Simon recalled that while the pair were very close friends, one night Connery had enough of hearing his friend talk about the break-up of his marriage. “He fixed his eyes directly on mine, practically piercing my pupils and said, ‘Get off it, Neil,’ making it clear he was going to say it once and only once. Then he looked away and finished his drink. The only thing he spared me was not saying ‘Be a man, fer Crise sakes.’”
The rough, tough side of Connery’s Edinburgh character never left him. But there’s been a sense he’s never been a contented creature. He always wanted more, in terms of projects, money, relationships. He has changed homes, continents, because he’s never quite settled, always curious, always searching.
What he’s never been is insipid and given he’s spent almost 70 years in the arts world, he’s the opposite of a luvvie. Straight talking from Connery’s Scots mouth includes his comments that League of Gentleman director Stephen Norrington should be “locked up for insanity.”
Connery spoke of Hollywood in a manner most actors would never countenance. “I’m fed up with the idiots [in Hollywood] the ever-widening gap between people who know how to make movies and the people who green-lit movies.”
At one point, he was launching an average of three legal actions a year, the largest of which was the $225 million lawsuit against Broccoli and United Artists for what he claimed was more than 20 years’ unpaid royalties (the case was eventually settled out of court)
But isn’t that what we’ve always loved about Sean Connery? He’s dangerous, defiant and his confidence and self-belief have made him the most charismatic of stars.
What does it matter if he could never have taken on Tootsie? “Perhaps I’m not a good actor, but I would be even worse at doing anything else,” he once suggested. That comment wasn’t fair. Connery proved he had believability, conviction. He wasn’t a singing dancing extrovert. He was never an Alan Cumming. But when he appeared on screen you stared and listened, as you did to Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. (Connery did however land an Academy Award for this role in The Untouchables).
Ian Holm believed the Scot to be completely special. “Connery has become one of the great old men of the movies, offering an uncompromising, and rather daunting, scary sort of charm,” he wrote.
And he was right.
But Sean Connery offered so much more.