I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that the world of cinema lost an absolute legend today.
Sean Connery, best known for his role as James Bond, died at his home in Nassau in the Bahamas after a short illness.
Thomas Connery was born in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland in August 1930 and after spell as a milkman and a coffin polisher joined the Royal Navy at age 16 (where he acquired his “Scotland Forever” tattoo on his right arm).
After a spell as a bodybuilder, competing for the 1953 Mr Universe contest, he started acting on stage. In the late 50s he appeared in many TV shows and movies such Hell Drivers (1957), Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), and The Longest Day (1962).
Fans of Ian Fleming’s books were startled when Connery was cast as James Bond in Dr. No (1961). The actor looked nothing like the literary Double-O seven, who was not a rugged 6ft 2in tall muscular Scotsman. Fleming was won over by Connery’s performance, creating a Scottish backstory to Bond which was referenced in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and even in 2012’s Skyfall.
Connery was propelled into superstardom with the subsequent films From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball(1965) but grew tired of the demands of being Bond. He also grew restless with Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman about his contracts.
He had already decided that You Only Live Twice (1967) would be his last, and that was before being jostled by fans in Japan, and the unfortunate appearance of a paparazzi photographer when he was on the toilet.
The Working Man
The same year, Connery directed and presented a black and white documentary entitled “The Bowler and the Bunnet”, which examined the gulf between management and labourers in Glasgow’s Fairfield’s shipyard.
When George Lazenby, the next Bond actor (on OHMSS) declined to return, the producers were desperate for Connery to come back, and he did – at a price. Connery negotiated a record-breaking $1.25million pay check to return in Diamonds are Forever (1971), although donated it in entirety to The Scottish International Education Trust that he helped set up to support young artists seek training and education. Years later, he would also donate his salary for his appearance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to charity.
After leaving Bond behind again, Connery embarked on some personal projects, some as part of the deal he cut for Diamonds are Forever, before returning to Bond again in 1983’s Never Say Never Again.
The eighties and nineties saw him appear in several notable “old man Connery” roles where he proved that the magic he brought to Bond wasn’t just a one off.
There is a particular joy in watching Connery playing characters from other countries – as it really does seem that he didn’t bother attempting to change. Playing a Russian in The Hunt for Red October, an Egyptian Spaniard in Highlander, an Irish cop in The Untouchables didn’t phase him. He sounded just like Sean Connery. But then, would you have argued with him?
Connery was passionate about his birth country, as well as creating his charitable trust, he was a vocal supporter of the Scottish Parliament, where he attended the official opening in 1999.
Connery was knighted by Queen Elizabeth at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh in 2000, and retired in 2006.
His death has a particular emotional connection for me as my late father was a huge fan of Connery, was a similar age, was an electrician in shipyards, and of course, was the one who introduced me to the world of Bond. It’s a sad day.
But let’s make this more than an obituary. What about Connery’s films? In a career spanning six decades and over ninety films, there will be highs and lows, so here’s my suggestion for some of the gems he worked in over the years.
Ones to Watch
Dr No (1962)
“Bond, James Bond” – the first major appearance of 007 and the role where his star power shines.
From Russia With Love (1963)
Connery’s favourite Bond (mine too), is a gritty, twisty thriller with great locations and the star really hits his stride.
The most “Bond” of Connery’s films, this is often lauded as one of the best James Bond movies.
Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological thriller stars Tippi Hedren as the troubled protagonist. Connery is the man who tries to unlock her mysteries.
The Hill (1965)
Sidney Lumet’s tough movie about prisoners in a military prison during World War 2 was made around the same time as the excesses of Thunderball and is a great change of pace for the star.
The Molly Maguires (1970)
Connery and Richard Harris star in Martin Ritt’s fact-based drama. A secret organisation is attacking Pennsylvanian coalfields in the late 1800s. Connery is great as the cop sent in undercover to expose the group.
The Offence (1973)
Connery teams up with Sidney Lumet again for this adaptation of a play where an obsessed cop interrogates a suspected sex attacker.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
The Agatha Christie adaptation is a star-studded event, again directed by Lumet, with Connery as Colonel Arbuthnot, one of the many suspects.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
John Huston’s film of two wayward British officers seeking excitement in 19th Century India paired Connery with his long-term friend Michael Caine.
The (First) Great Train Robbery (1978)
Michael Crichton directed his own tale of Victorian criminals executing a bold heist. A great crime caper with Donald Sutherland.
Peter Hyams’ version of “High Noon” in space looks a little dated now, but Connery as the tough sheriff defending himself and his space station from a group of assassins is a movie you can’t resist.
There can be only one. The classic eighties sci-fi fantasy chock full of quotable quotes, Queen music and MTV visuals.
The Untouchables (1987)
“You want to get Capone? Here’s how you get Capone…” Brian De Palma directs towards a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in this thrilling movie.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Who else could you cast as Indiana Jones’ father? Connery seems to be having a whale of a time, a twinkle in his eye, and revelling in some fantastic dialogue and physical comedy. A delight.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Possibly the best Jack Ryan film, Connery’s stature really helps sell the espionage in this tense submarine thriller.
Rising Sun (1993)
Sean Connery. Wesley Snipes. A glossy Michael Crichton-penned crime thriller? I’m in.
The Rock (1996)
The performances of the acting legends Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris are outshone by the appearance of Connery as the retired British agent. Michael Bay’s classic 90’s actioner about terrorists on Alcatraz is a great showcase for “old man” Connery who owns the screen in every scene.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003)
Hated by many fans, and suffering production issues which seemingly pushed Connery into retirement. LXG is a rollicking slice of comic book silliness, and Connery as Quartermain is still kicking ass in his seventies.
Finding Forrester (2000)
A sudden change of pace for this little-known Gus van Sant directed gem. Connery plays mentor once more, but instead of tutoring cops, he is a reclusive author who befriends and supports a gifted teen from the wrong side of the tracks.
In a sense, we come full circle – where one of Connery’s final roles is that of supporting a younger person who might not have had the opportunities. The young lad from a poor part of Edinburgh who did good, who made millions specifically to set up a charity to support young talent, becomes the mentor.
Connery hated signing autographs, annoyed that recipients could sell them online for profit, and stories of his rudeness when asked in the street are common. He was brutally open about his disputes with Broccoli and Saltzman which caused upset (although he did reconcile with the Broccoli many years later).
His similarly outspoken views on politics and Scottish Independence still generate debate, and some quotes on the treatment of women did haunt him – but as an international superstar film actor and major Scottish icon, Connery will be long remembered as an all-time great.
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