Connery, ‘one of world’s seven genuine movie stars’, crafted perfect spy1st November 2020
One, Harry Saltzman, was impressed that a man of Connery’s size and frame could move in such a supple way. Another, Cubby Broccoli, was more succinct. “He looked like he had balls,” he said.
But even as the film opened, one studio executive was predicting that the unfamiliar Connery would “never go over” in the all-important American market. Moreover, many British reviews were lukewarm, perhaps tinged with snobbery, the New Statesman complaining that Connery made “an invincibly stupid-looking secret service agent” and another commentator faulting him as “such a disappointingly wooden and boorish Bond that the film’s touches of grim humour go for less than they need”.
Connery proved them all wrong. With his confident air of danger and sexuality, he bridged the working-class realism of the new wave films of the late 1950s and the fantasy of the Swinging Sixties.
Although little known before taking the role of 007 in Dr No, Connery became the pre-eminent box office star in both Britain and the United States with the film’s sequels, From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965). His tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the indefatigable womanising superspy made him the world’s leading box office attraction.
Thirty years after Connery first uttered his signature line – “Bond. James Bond” – the director Steven Spielberg was still singing his praises. “There are only seven genuine movie stars in the world today,” he enthused, “and Sean is one of them.”
But as the Bond cult grew — adulation dubbed Bondmania by the papers was starting to rival Beatlemania by the time Goldfinger was released — Connery began to fear that he would become so closely identified with 007 that no one would cast him in any other role.
“It was always my intention to do other films,” he said years later. “The opportunities to do interesting stuff that could compete with the success of the Bond films were few. But I was contracted for the Bonds, and they wouldn’t be ready to shoot, even though I had committed the time.”
This “Bondage” annoyed him. Connery had thought deeply about the mechanics of acting ever since, as a young member of a touring musical, an older actor had urged him to read widely.
He devoured the complete works of Shaw, Wilde, Ibsen and James Joyce, raiding the lending libraries of every town and city he visited on his travels and on his nights off watching every play he could and talking to every actor he met.
After the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), Connery had had enough of the hit-and-miss style of composition. He liked thoroughness on the set, and the Bond scripts were subject to frequent change. He had also grown somewhat weary of the character.
So he refused to sign up for another film. For On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Bond was played by young Australian actor George Lazenby, known only for television commercials and whose lack of charisma provoked demands for the return of the screen Bond’s only true begetter.
Having successfully broken away from the image which had brought him fame but so much exasperation, by making other films such as Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), Edward Dmytryk’s Shalako (1968) and Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1968), Connery hesitated to return to Bond. Then, for old times’ sake (and an unprecedented fee of $1.25 million plus 10 per cent of the gross receipts), he allowed himself a final fling in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).
Meanwhile, to his relief, a likely successor had been found in the form of the genial, jovial Roger Moore, known from the television series The Saint and whose breezy humour and lighter touch were better suited to the growing silliness and fantasy of the later epics.
Moore took over the next four films, and Connery could resume with a clear conscience his career as a serious actor — first in 1971 with his favourite director, Sidney Lumet, in The Anderson Tapes, then in 1975 with John Huston in The Man Who Would Be King and so on for nine or 10 other, variable films.
Then after more than a decade of “freedom from Bondage”, the shadow fell again. It was as if the very title of the latest project — Never Say Never Again (1983) — had been chosen to defy his defection. He could not resist it. “It was an error of judgment,” was all he would say subsequently of his last brush with Bond.
It took three years for him to get over his disappointment with the film and with himself. But when at last he had exorcised the superspy’s spirit, his return to the screen in The Untouchables, for Brian De Palma, brought Connery his only Academy Award. He felt he had at last proved himself an actor in his own right rather than Ian Fleming’s.
Son of a lorry driver and a charlady, Thomas Sean Connery was born at Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, on August 25, 1930, and left Darroch school at 14 to become a milkman, making deliveries by means of a horse and cart. At 16, rejoicing in the nickname Big Tam on account of his impressive physique and darkly masculine looks, he joined the Navy. After two years, he was invalided out with an ulcer. He took jobs as a bricklayer, bouncer, lifeguard and coffin polisher.
Tommy Connery’s interest in body-building led to his modelling for life classes at a college of art. He went to London to compete in the Mr Universe contest (in which he won a bronze medal), and at 21 auditioned for the chorus of South Pacific at Drury Lane. He changed his baptismal name to Sean and joined the musical’s tour.
Having played football for Scotland juniors, he toyed with the idea of joining Manchester United, but an American actor persuaded him to work on his voice so as to lose part of his Scottish accent, to acquire a literary background by reading the classics (which he did voraciously in public libraries), and to stick to the stage. On moving to London, he found work hard to come by and scraped by on money earned from babysitting.
After drifting (without formal training) into provincial rep, in 1956 Connery began playing small parts on television and in unremarkable B-films.
For Dr No he was paid just £15,000. The critic Dilys Powell pronounced the newcomer in the new series “admirable in the first half of the story, where his impassive good looks and casual delivery of the retort to danger are just what is needed”, but “in the latter half a shade more anxiety wouldn’t hurt”.
Audiences for From Russia With Love (1963), which like its predecessor was directed by Terence Young, were fully prepared for the absurd and pace-filled blend of fun, fear and mystery, though some critics found it slow. Guy Hamilton’s gadget-ridden and slick Goldfinger did even better at the box office. Some connoisseurs rated it the best of all. By 1965, Connery was acclaimed in both Britain and the United States as the biggest single screen attraction of the year.
Thunderball, directed that year by Terence Young, was the most successful of all the Bond films. Two years later, You Only Live Twice, directed by Lewis Gilbert from a script by Roald Dahl, had more jokes than usual; it was to have been Connery’s last appearance as Bond, but after other players had been tried in the role, he was persuaded to return to the series in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), for which he was paid about £500,000.
Twelve years later, he appeared in Never Say Never Again, and that was the end of his association with the role.
Of his many other later films, he popped up in all-star ensembles such as The Murder On The Orient Express (1974) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).
“The movie business retired him,” his friend Michael Caine told The Daily Telegraph, “because he didn’t want to play small parts about old men and they weren’t offering him any young parts in romantic leads.”
In the 1980s, claiming he had been inadequately paid for his part in creating the Bond character on screen, Connery had launched a lawsuit against the producer Cubby Broccoli and United Artists for the then record sum of $225 million. The action, citing the argument that profit-sharing amounted to stock participation, was eventually settled out of court under terms that were never made public. But both sides claimed victory.
He received a Bafta lifetime achievement award in 1990 and a Golden Globe in 1996. He was knighted in 2000.
Sean Connery married first, in 1962 (dissolved 1974), the actress Diane Cilento; their son, Jason, became an actor. He married secondly, in 1975, Micheline Boglio Roquebrune, with whom he lived as a tax exile in Spain and then in the Bahamas.
The Daily Telegraph