– Compiled by Hub.branded
As film icons go, there are few to rival James Bond; and as 007 actors go, there are none to rival Sir Sean Connery.
Sadly, the last 12 or so months have seen many names and faces departing, and they’ve been taken away from us rather more quietly than they should have.
It’s perhaps fitting then that the softly spoken voice of Sir Sean Connery, arguably the greatest James Bond of them all, left us on 30 October 2020 in a haze of quiet contemplation.
His sombre, warm and fuzzy dulcet tones, which held the strongest and most passionate Edinburgh accent, is one we’ll now hear only on film.
And yet, there is an abundance of a back catalogue to pore over in respect of a life and career that saw Connery held up as one of the true modern-day greats.
Passing away at the age of 90, it’s at least a consolation for Sir Sean that he moved on with nothing to prove. “I know full well how lucky I’ve been in my life,” he said in an interview three years before his death.
“There was a sense as soon as I became James Bond that there was never going to be a feeling of being unfulfilled in my work. Of course, I always aspired to do so much more after that… but in most ways, I had the satisfaction of knowing I’d done a good job; and that, for an actor, is the most valuable thing one could wish for,” he reminisced.
Connery is of course best renowned as the smooth-talking sumptuously styled Scot who legitimised, developed and truly delivered 007 into the golden era of film. He first stepped into the secret agent’s shoes in the 1962 movie Dr. No.
A former bodybuilder who finished third in Mr. Universe in the early 1950s, Sir Sean proved to author Ian Fleming that he had the fervour and finesse to carry off the role, having previously been dismissed as “an overgrown stuntman.”
“Ian was very hands-on as a writer and only wanted the most appropriate Bond to embody his character,” noted Connery. He added: “When I told this to people in the past, they expressed surprise that there were so many hoops to jump through and I always respected that.”
Connery added: “When I found out he had doubts about me, it gave me the extra impetus to prove him wrong and I carried through that attitude in all my work. I would go so far as to say it actually gave me a really strong grounding.”
And Sir Sean continued: “It proved that no matter how highly I regarded myself as an actor who could pull off a job, there would always be someone I needed to prove myself to from scratch. I think, going forward, that’s why I was able to reinvent myself so many times after Bond because I was unafraid of having to start again.”
It still seems perverse that someone who would go on to become so decorated in the indulgence and luxury of 1960s cinema may have been cast aside before it even began.
Although it’s fair to note that the actor’s previous engagements had been in rather less salubrious guises – notably crime drama Hell Drivers, fantasy adventure Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and outward-bound action flick Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.
That within a decade, Connery would have elevated his worth from tracking the movements of a man swinging through the jungle to starring in iconic movies such as From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice is remarkable.
What made Connery’s sumptuously smooth portrayal of Bond so impressive was that unlike the modern-day 007s, he interspersed international espionage with an array of other lead roles.
Seventeen movies were made across the nine years he portrayed Bond, a sequence that ended in 1971 with Diamonds Are Forever (although he did agree to reprise the character in Never Say Never Again in 1983).
“I got to the point where I felt I had nothing left to prove as far as Bond was concerned,” said Connery, elaborating: “It was a delightful run where the evolution of 007 and everything around him had gathered such pace with every new movie. Yet, I thought I had probably evolved as much as I had wanted and it was time to let someone else have a go.”
Away from Bond, the twice married Connery flourished in the likes of Murder on the Orient Express, A Bridge Too Far, Highlander, The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October, and as the eponymous hero’s father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
“Ian was very hands-on as a writer and only wanted the most appropriate Bond to embody his character“
He noted: “I find that in modern-day films, a lot of actors are a bit too keen to reach deep into their subconscious when you talk to them about a role. They take it a bit too seriously, like a film role is some sort of rehearsal for brain surgery.”
“I was always much more of the opinion that you should come in, embody the role, give it your all, then let it sit there as a piece of cinema, TV or whatever it is. You don’t need to overcomplicate what is drama and to a certain extent, make-believe. Actors are not guardians of the universe and the pedestal is, at times, raised a little too high for my liking,” confessed Sir Sean.
Connery’s humility was a defining feature of a life that combined Hollywood acclaim with a very simple upbringing. Perhaps it was the movies that got away, which helped him maintain a connection to reality.
He turned down the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings despite being offered a US$ 30million bounty and also rejected playing the Architect in the Matrix trilogy.
The truth is, Connery – who was knighted in 2000 – was always focussed on how he saw himself – as an actor as well as a person. How else can you explain politely rejecting a direct invitation from legendary manager Sir Matt Busby to join Manchester United?
He elucidated: “I was 23 at the time; and although I had the contract offer in front of me, I had long decided that football would have to take a backseat. I felt I had more chance of doing something special; something unique in the acting world – because I felt I could give more and put smiles on more faces, mine included.”
That Connery succeeded is undisputed. He may never have graced Old Trafford and a world of movie fans will be pleased that this was the case.
Instead, he enriched a film industry with one of the most iconic characters it has ever seen. Seven actors have taken on the role of Bond – he was followed by David Niven, George Lazenby, Sir Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and the recently departed 007 Daniel Craig. Yet, none really ascended to his heights.
Look at any number of polls seeking to find ‘the greatest Bond’ and Connery comes out on top every time. Many consider From Russia with Love to be his pinnacle. Critically, it was admired from start to finish while commercially it took US$ 79 million at the box office in spite of a budget of only two million dollars.
In the modern era, we are spoilt by film production where if something can’t be achieved on the film set, it is made real by CGI and digital intelligence. “I love what is possible in these incredible times,” said Connery, in 2017.
“However, I do feel we have lost a little bit of the magic of film making. If someone gives you an easy or hard way to do something, you’re probably going to take the simpler route. When you look at the final cut, you don’t know the difference,” averred Sir Sean.
“Yet, as an actor there is nothing that will embed you in a role more than knowing every move and every action counts, and you can’t have mistakes or errors just scrubbed away on a computer. Of course, that’s probably an old-fashioned view… but in many ways, I’m an old-fashioned type of actor and very comfortable in that reality,” he said with a laugh.
Finally, what we must take from the legacy of Sir Sean Connery is perhaps alien to many aspects of how the entertainment world carries itself nowadays. We are living in an era of bright lights, big exposure and high-octane drama, which grabs attention and headlines in the same breath.
Connery was a much more measured piece of the movie world jigsaw – he was smooth, sophisticated and elegant.
Sir Sean has the last word: “I was an actor first and foremost. Anything more than that was pure fluke!”