Sean Connery, the Scottish actor who embodied the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s as cinema’s debut James Bond, has died at 90. In a 45-year career that covered many genres, Connery proved, as much as anyone, that entertainment value and artistic quality could go hand-in-hand. Who else could claim they’d worked with Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Bay, John Huston and Gus Van Sant? Connery did — and he originated the most popular action hero of all time.
The list of plaudits Connery received in his lifetime span a wide spectrum. He won an Academy Award, for playing a hard-edged cop in “The Untouchables,” received the Kennedy Center Honor, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. But his acclaim went to even greater extremes: Scottish newspaper The Sunday Herald called him “The Greatest Living Scot” while People Magazine didn’t just vote him “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1989 but “Sexiest Man of the Century” a decade later.
As much as he wanted to escape from the role — and as much as he proved that he was better than it — Connery’s place in the pop cultural pantheon was enshrined from the moment he deadpanned “Bond, James Bond” after lighting his cigarette at a chemin de fer table in the early moments of “Dr. No.” To 007 aficionados, casual and diehard, he wasn’t just the first Bond, he was the best. His Bond was a man of taste — “I prefer the ’53 myself” he says of a Dom Perignon bottle he came close to smashing over a baddie’s head — but never pretension. For generations of viewers, Connery’s 007 was the essence of cool because he didn’t seem to care that he was cool. He just was. Only Harrison Ford as Han Solo would come close in the cinematic firmament because both actors played their parts as if they thought the franchises they found themselves in were a bit beneath them. Connery always seemed a bit disinterested on screen as Bond. He never asked you to love him; you had to go to him — and viewers were all the more besotted.
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What’s funny to consider is that Connery was a bit of a pretender in Bond’s tux: when he was presented to Ian Fleming, the author thought he lacked class, calling him “an overgrown stuntman.” Terence Young, who directed him in “Dr. No,” as well as two subsequent Bond films, helped create him. The filmmaker gave Connery a crash course in the luxe life, taking him to his Savile Row tailor and telling him to sleep in his new suits; elegance had to be something he could wear like a second skin. And all of this was unfamiliar to the then 31-year-old actor.
Born in the Fountainbridge neighborhood of Edinburgh in 1930, Connery was working-class poor. His father was a truck driver and factory worker, his mother a cleaning lady. “My childhood was less than auspicious,” he said during his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech in 2006. “But when I was young we didn’t know we lacked anything.” Higher education being out of the question, his first job, at the age of 14, was as a milkman. ”When I took a taxi during a recent Edinburgh Film Festival, the driver was amazed that I could put a name to every street we passed,” he told author Murray Grigor in 2009. “’How come?’ he asked. ‘As a boy I used to deliver milk round here’ I said. ‘So what do you do now?’ That was rather harder to answer.”
At 16, Connery joined the Royal Navy. After being discharged due to health issues a couple years later, he worked as a lifeguard, an artist’s model, and a coffin polisher. He tangled with Edinburgh’s tough gangs. Trying out for the London production of “South Pacific” gave him his big break, opening doors to British TV and film appearances. His biggest early role was as the young love interest in Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” which brought him to the attention of producer “Cubby” Broccoli’s wife, Dana, who recommended that he play James Bond.
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As 007, Connery became a sex symbol. Far more than Hugh Hefner in his bathrobe, his Bond was the embodiment of the Playboy lifestyle, the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s in the flesh. But he was also a man who women could lust after right back at him. Strikingly handsome, Connery was also athletic — around the time of his “South Pacific” audition in the early ‘50s, he was also a body builder and competed in the Mr. Universe competition. And yet most viewers who marveled at his sex appeal didn’t realize that even in his first appearance as Bond he was already wearing a toupee. By his fifth Bond film, “You Only Live Twice,” Connery showed up to the premiere without his hairpiece, unconcerned that he looked quite different than he did in the movie — he was a noticeably balding man who looked much older than his age. And he abandoned the toupee for other roles shortly thereafter. Viewers didn’t care. His was a handsomeness that never seemed tied to his age. He aged while still young, and then seemed to stay that way for decades. He was 31 in his first Bond movie, while Roger Moore was 45 in his — and looked far younger. Yet Moore would never have had the enduring sex appeal in his 60s to still woo Catherine Zeta-Jones in that ‘90s schlockfest “Entrapment” like Connery actually did.
Connery’s persona was the stuff SNL parodies are made of. He played the greatest symbol of the British Empire in the latter half of the 20th Century, and yet he rolled his r’s so you’d always know he was a Scot. Some of his pronunciations, though, defy any ethnic origin, especially his take on Pussy Galore as “poo-see.” And he’d trip over his macho image more than a few times — most notably in a 1965 Playboy interview in which he declared it was “no big deal” to hit a woman. His first wife, Diane Cilento, claimed Connery was physically and verbally abusive, in a 2006 memoir, which he denied, claiming his quote to Playboy was taken out of context.
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The disdain he exuded as James Bond wasn’t a put-on; Connery genuinely disliked playing the character. “If you were his friend in these early days you didn’t raise the subject of Bond,” his pal Michael Caine told biographer Andrew Yule. “He was, and is, a much better actor than just playing James Bond, but he became synonymous with Bond. He’d be walking down the street and people would say, “Look, there’s James Bond.”
You can see Connery’s first effort at breaking out of the Bond mold in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” in which the full darkness of his Bond persona is teased out. This character isn’t heroic, he’s a predator, with 007’s bon mots curdled into bitterly acidic barbs. In the ‘70s, he had a run of hit after hit: “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Wind and the Lion,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “The Great Train Robbery.” Successes all, but Connery wasn’t just in it for the money. He could get experimental too, donning a barely there Speedo ensemble for the science fiction head trip “Zardoz.” And even his blockbusters always felt personal: today, it’s easy to frown on Connery playing a Berber chieftain in “The Wind and the Lion,” but it’s possible to imagine this proud Scot seeing something of himself in this story of a colonized person’s fight against empire. In real life, he bore a “Scotland Forever” tattoo and supported its failed 2014 independence bid.
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He may have been eager to leave Bond behind, but Connery continued making action movies — arguably contributing to the idea of the aging action star that’s inspired Liam Neeson and Bruce Willis — until the very end of his career. “The Hunt for Red October” and “The Rock” continued to make his name synonymous with white-knuckle excitement. And in “Highlander” he started playing mentor characters, something he did exceptionally well. In fact, he was Peter Jackson’s first choice to play Gandalf the Grey in “The Lord of the Rings,” but Connery turned it down, on account of not understanding the script. As he was offered part of the back end, it means he likely walked away from $450 million.
As his career evolved, Connery became much more capable of making fun of himself. In “Time Bandits” he played a cartoonish Agamemnon. In “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” he played Indy’s father, despite only being 12 years older than Harrison Ford. “You know Sean, he could have done it,” Ford joked. But that performance as Henry Jones, Sr., in which he’s a tweedy professor far more used to books than bullets, is a delightful inversion of the Connery action-hero persona.
His last great role is as a reclusive, Salinger-esque author in 2000’s “Finding Forrester.” Shut off from life, his William Forrester befriends a young Black kid, Jamal (Rob Brown), who’s on the verge of transferring to a prep school on a scholarship. Jamal also has great literary skill and Forrester decides to be his mentor. It’s a film deeply attuned to systemic racism in U.S. literary and intellectual circles — not to mention white supremacy at a tony New York City prep school — and what Connery presents here is an exemplar of white allyship. It’s self-consciously a “passing the torch” role, and it’s meaningful that it would be to a talented Black kid. Connery made one more movie, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (the 2003 film which somehow he was able to understand, unlike “Lord of the Rings”), but the ending of “Finding Forrester,” in which Connery rides away from us on a bike and into the flow of New York City traffic, is an ideal “riding into the sunset” moment.
Done with movies, he did some voice work later in the 2000s, including as Bond once again for a videogame version of “From Russia with Love.” Every now and then he’d pop up in the news, such as appearing at the U.S. Open to support tennis star, and fellow Scot, Andy Murray. But mostly it seemed that he was willing to spend his last decades in private life: “Retirement is just too much damned fun” he told the BBC. It also meant being able to spend more time with his second wife, Micheline Roquebrune, to whom he’d been married since 1975.
Maybe a “less is more” strategy was Connery’s best bet for his last years. What more could he have done to add to his legacy? All there was instead was the risk of tarnishing it.