Sean Connery helped redefine movie stardom thanks to his role as James Bond, an impossibly suave super-spy with a taste for martinis that were shaken, not stirred. In films like “Dr. No,” “Goldfinger,” and “You Only Live Twice,” the Scottish actor created a template for a fresh and exciting action hero, one whose womanizing, hard-drinking ways and penchant to solve any dispute with the barrel of a Walther PPK presaged a new and more permissive era of on-screen sex and violence.
The man who would be 007 turns 90 on Tuesday and has been off the silver screen since opting to retire in 2003 after appearing in the execrable “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” (Why do the great ones go out with a whimper? Here’s looking at you Gene Hackman/”Welcome to Mooseport”). However, his legacy continues to reverberate — it can be felt in everything from Tom Cruise’s globe-trotting “Mission: Impossible” alter-ego Ethan Hunt to Harrison Ford’s quip-ready adventurer in the Indiana Jones films. Daniel Craig’s darker take on Bond also owes a clear debt to Connery’s interpretation of the Ian Fleming character.
A look at Variety’s archives makes it clear that Connery’s casting and elevation to Hollywood’s A-list was hardly a foregone conclusion. He was essentially an unknown when he got the call, having appeared most notably in a supporting role in Walt Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” a bit of cinematic blarney that called on Connery to sing (off-key) and interact with leprechauns. And yet, something about the actor, call it a panther-like sleekness, led to him being cast as the refined, yet deadly member of her majesty’s secret service. In fact, Fleming initially hoped that David Niven would play Bond.
The brush with celebrity took Connery by surprise. In a March 14, 1963, column for Variety, published as “Dr. No” was taking cinemas by storm, Army Archerd noted that Connery, who was feted at a Directors Guild screening of the film and a ‘feed’ at the legendary eatery Chasen’s…”was only a coupla years ago hitching rides on Hollywood Blvd. That’s show biz.”
“Dr. No” was a godsend for United Artists, the studio behind the series, which was suffering from a series of box office disappointments such as “Pressure Point” with Sidney Poitier and Bobby Darin, and the Yul Brenner adventure film “Taras Bulba.” In a June 26, 1963 article, Variety in a bit of imaginative word play noted that the public’s reaction to “Dr. No” was “yes, yes.” It went on to report that UA was looking to create a franchise and that Connery was expected to reprise the role in 10 features, which would shoot every year. Ultimately, the actor would play the role six more times, one of which was in “Never Say Never Again,” a remake of “Thunderball” that was not backed by UA or the Broccolis, the producing powerhouses behind the series.
To hype the film in the U.S. following its dominance of U.K. screens, the studio embarked on a promotional campaign that hasn’t aged well in the post-feminist era. During a two-week tour of the country, Connery was flanked by models or, as Variety put it in a March 6, 1963 article, “three comely cuties.” The article went on to note that the actor, who later developed a reputation for being prickly, “insists he dislikes this kind of pub junketing.” He would go on to feud with the team behind Bond over contracts, licensing rights, profit-sharing, and other money matters. However, he remained the gold standard for the role. There’s a reason, after all, why aspiring Bond actors must audition by performing a scene first nailed by Connery in “From Russia With Love.”
For Connery, Bond proved to be both an opportunity and an albatross. It propelled him to riches and made him a star on par with the Beatles for much of the ’60s, but it also led to issues when he wanted to stretch his acting muscles. Early attempts to prove that he could have a career apart from Bond’s toupee, such as 1964’s “Marnie” and 1965’s “The Hill” were bigger hits with critics than audiences. And yet Connery persisted. In the 1970s, he scored with “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Wind and the Lion,” and “Robin and Marian,” films that showed the aching, aging, vulnerable side of his hyper-masculine on-screen persona, and movies that stand the test of time. Over the ensuing decades, Connery would earn an Oscar playing an Irish beat cop in “The Untouchables,” and would win generations of new fans with roles in blockbusters such as “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” “The Rock” and “The Hunt for Red October,” in the latter as a Russian submarine captain with an incongruous Scottish brogue. There’d be controversies too. Particularly, comments in which Connery suggested that it was alright to hit a woman — he would later, unconvincingly claim he was misquoted (see the Barbara Walters interview to form your own conclusion). It should also be noted that Connery’s first wife, Diane Cilento, accused Connery of physical abuse — allegations he denied.
Despite those upsetting character deficiencies, Connery’s star power was undeniable throughout his 50-plus year career. He exuded an intoxicating mixture of intelligence and brawn, sophistication and menace, making him equally adept with a gun and a double entendre. To borrow a line from the theme song of a Bond film that did not feature Connery as 007 — nobody did it better.