From humble beginnings as a school dropout, Sean Connery (born 1930) became a major movie star at the age of 32 when he was cast as the sophisticated secret agent James Bond. Connery went on to distinguish himself in a number of major motion pictures, including his Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables.
An unlikely candidate to play Ian Fleming's snobbish 007, Connery became so well known as this character that he nearly didn't break out of the mold. Despite his many years of work on the stage and screen, Connery was still being thought of as "the guy who played James Bond" into the early 1980s. But throughout his career, the stubborn Scot has taken on movie roles that interested him, regardless of how they fit his image. As a result of this shrewd thinking, he now has quite an impressive list of roles in his repertoire and critics talk more about his exceptional acting ability than his inability to break out of a role. With more than 60 movies to his credit, Connery has become one of the world's most prominent movie stars.
A Depression-Era Childhood
Thomas Sean Connery began his life in the humblest of surroundings. He was the eldest of two sons, born in an Edinburgh, Scotland, tenement to Joseph and Euphamia Connery. During World War II, when he was 13, he dropped out of school to help support his family. "The war was on, so my whole education was a wipeout," Connery reminisced in Rolling Stone. "I had no qualifications at all for a job, and unemployment has always been very high in Scotland, anyway, so you take what you get. I was a milkman, laborer, steel bender, cement mixer-virtually anything." After several years of this, Connery decided to better his lot, and he joined the British Royal Navy. He received a medical discharge three years later, when he came down with a case of stomach ulcers.
Returning to Edinburgh, Connery began to lift weights and develop his physique. He became a lifeguard and even modeled for an art college. Then in 1953, the toned Connery traveled to London to compete in the Mr. Universe competition. This trip was to mean more to him than the third place prize he won. While he was there, he heard about auditions for the musical South Pacific. He decided he wanted to try out, took a crash course in dancing and singing, and was cast for a role in the chorus.
Chose Acting over Soccer
This small part became a crucial turning point for Connery. At the time, he was teetering between wanting to be an actor and a professional soccer player. But actor Robert Henderson, who was also in South Pacific, encouraged him to consider a career in acting. Connery took Henderson's advice: as a soccer player, one is limited by age; a good actor could play challenging roles forever.
The unschooled Connery looked up to Henderson as a mentor. He commented in Premiere that "[Henderson] gave me a list of all these books I should read. I spent a year in every library in Britain and Ireland, Scotland and Wales…. I spent my days at the library and the evenings at the theater." He also went to matinees and talked to a lot of other actors, people he met over the year-long touring run of South Pacific. "That's what opened me to a whole different look at things," said Connery. "It didn't give me any more intellectual qualifications, but it gave me a terrific sense of the importance of a lot of things I certainly would never have gotten in touch with." It is also where he picked up his stage name, Sean Connery. When asked how he wanted to be billed for the musical, he gave his full name, Thomas Sean Connery. After being told that was too long, he opted for Sean Connery, not knowing how long he was going to be an actor. The name stuck.
After South Pacific, Connery began broadening his horizons by working on the stage. He was also notable in his first television role, a British production of Rod Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight. After garnering critical acclaim for this role, he received several film offers. In the years from 1955 to 1962, he made a string of B movies, including Action of the Tiger (1957).
It was there he met Terence Young, who was to be the director of the Bond films. Young recalls in Rolling Stone that Action of the Tiger "was not a good picture. But Sean was impressive in it, and when it was all over, he came to me and said, in a very strong Scottish accent, 'Sir, am I going to be a success?' I said, 'Not after this picture, you're not. But,' I asked him, 'Can you swim?' He looked rather blank and said, yes, he could swim-what's that got to do with it? I said, 'Well, you'd better keep swimming until I can get you a proper job, and I'll make up for what I did this time.' And four years later, we came up with Dr. No."
Bond, James Bond
Connery was still doing B movies when he was called in to interview for Dr. No, the first James Bond film. But he had matured quite a bit as an actor and exuded a kind of crude animal force, which Young compared to a young Kirk Douglas or Burt Lancaster. Producer Harry Saltzman felt that he had the masculinity the part required. In the course of a conversation he punctuate his words with physical movement. Everyone there agreed he was perfect for the role. Connery was signed without a screen test.
Dr. No was an instant success, propelling the little known Connery into fame and sex-symbol status virtually overnight, a situation that the serious-minded and very private Connery did not like. Equally distressing to him was the way the media handled his transition into the role. He commented in Rolling Stone: "I'd been an actor since I was twenty-five but the image the press put out was that I just fell into this tuxedo and started mixing vodka martinis. And, of course, it was nothin' like that at all. I'd done television, theater, a whole slew of things. But it was more dramatic to present me as someone who had just stepped in off the street."
Connery also performed many of his own stunts in Dr. No. He has continued this practice in many of his movies because it often speeds up the production. One of the stunts in Dr. No almost killed him. They had rehearsed a scene where he drives his convertible under a crane. At a slow speed, his head cleared by a few inches. When they actually shot the scene, the car was going 50 m.p.h., bouncing up and down. Luckily for Connery, the car hit the last bounce before he went under the crane and he emerged unhurt.
In 1962 Connery married his first wife, Diane Cilento. She was also an actress, having played the part of Molly in Tom Jones. Apparently their relationship was loving, yet tempestuous. Connery's friend Michael Caine reported in Rolling Stone: "I remember once I was with them in Nassau. Diane was cooking lunch, and Sean and I went out. Of course, we got out and one thing led to another, you know, and we got back for lunch two hours later. Well, we opened the door and Sean said, 'Darling, we're home'-and all the food she'd cooked came flying through the air at us. I remember the two of us standin' there, covered in gravy and green beans." The couple divorced in 1974 and their only son, Jason, is now a movie actor.
Between 1962 and 1967, Connery made five James Bond movies-Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger (which was, at that time, the fastest money-maker in movie history, netting more than $10 million in its first few months), Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice. He was tiring of the grueling pace of producing a new feature every year, and of the constant publicity and invasion of privacy. During the filming of Thunderball Connery was working long days and doing press interviews at night.
He was also arguing with the Bond movies' producer, Albert (Cubby) Broccoli, because he wanted to slow the pace of the series-completing a feature every 18 months instead of each year. He threatened to cut out of the contract after completing You Only Live Twice, and agreed to accept a salary that was lower than normal.
But the nation was Bond-crazy and the films were a gold mine. Connery agreed to star in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, demanding a salary of $1.25 million, plus a percentage. At that time, it was an unprecedented sum of money for such a role. After completing the film, Connery said "never again" to Bond roles and donated all of his salary to the Scottish International Education Trust, an organization he'd founded to assist young Scots in obtaining an education. (This is not the only example of Connery's generosity to charities. In 1987, he donated 50,000 British pounds to the National Youth Theatre in England after reading an article on the failing institution.)
Life After Bond
After his split with Broccoli, he continued to pursue a variety of movie roles with his main concern being that he find them interesting. He would also do films if he felt his help was needed. He reportedly offered to be in Time Bandits for a very modest salary because he heard the producer was running into financial difficulties. With a few exceptions, however, most of the films Connery did in the decade following Diamonds Are Forever were not noteworthy.
Then, in the early 1980s, a strange thing happened. At the age of fifty-three, Connery was asked to reprise the role he had made famous, in Never Say Never Again. The movie rights to this film had been won in a long court battle by Kevin McClory, an enterprising Irishman whom Connery admired a great deal for being able to beat the system. The movie was also scheduled to go head-to-head with Octopussy, a Broccoli Bond epic featuring the new 007, Roger Moore. It seems that twist was too much to resist, and Connery signed up. Another possibility is that Connery's second wife, Micheline Roquebrune, whom he had met on the golf course in Morocco in 1970 and married in 1975, convinced him to give the role another try.
Connery drew rave reviews as an aging Bond trying to get back in shape for a daring mission. "At fifty-three, he may just be reaching the peak of his career," reported Kurt Loder in Rolling Stone. "Connery reminds you anew what star quality is all about. A good deal of that quality is on display in Never Say Never Again, a carefully crafted and quite lively addition to the lately listless Bond series." Instead of furthering any Bond typecasting by doing this film, Connery seemed to squash it.
Roles Increased with Age
In the years since, his performances seem to be getting better and better. In The Untouchables, Connery took the supporting role of Malone, a world-weary, but savvy, street cop. "It's a part that gives him ample opportunity to demonstrate his paradoxical acting abilities," wrote Benedict Nightingale in the New York Times, "his knack for being simultaneously rugged and gentle, cynical and innocent, hard and soft, tough and almost tender." For his portrayal of Malone, Connery won an Academy Award.
Connery was also very strong in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he played the scholarly father of the ever-adventurous Jones, entangling himself in a lot of adventure and intrigue. Peter Travers commented in Rolling Stone that "Connery, now fifty-eight, has been movie-star virility incarnate. Here in his scholar's tweeds, with an undisguised horror of creepy-crawly things … and armed only with an umbrella and a fountain pen, Connery plays gloriously against type."
Similarly, in his other recent roles-a monk in The Name of the Rose (1986), a deranged Russian submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October (1990), the knowledgeable police detective in Rising Sun (1993), an aging attorney in Just Cause (1995), King Arthur in First Knight (1995)-Connery continues to prove his versatility and maturity as an actor. Even as he passed age 65, Connery showed he can hold his own against Hollywood's hottest upstarts with his role as the ex-con who had once escaped from Alcatraz in the 1996 action thriller The Rock, costarring Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris.
Connery has worked hard throughout his career and taken professional risks with his roles. For these efforts, he has become a greatly respected actor, almost a legend in the screen world. Patrick commented that "You suddenly realize [Connery is] the closest thing we now have to Clark Gable, an old-time movie star. Everyone knows him and likes him. It's shocking-every age group, men and women. There's something very likable about him on screen." In 1998 Connery received the Fellowship Award, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts highest honor. Yet, in spite of this, he remains a very conscientious worker, always trying to improve the movie he's in rather than sabotage others' performances to make himself look better. When asked whether he can now write his own ticket when he decides to star in a movie, he replied in "Premiere": "I have enough power in terms of casting approval and director approval. But I don't think it's something someone can brandish like a sword. I sense myself as much more a responsible filmmaker in terms of what's good for the overall picture, and for the actors as well, because I have had all this experience, and I've seen a lot of waste."
Further Reading on Sean Connery
The Film Encyclopedia, Harper, 1990.
American Film, May 1989.
Entertainment Weekly, February 17, 1995.
Interview, July 1989.
Newsweek, June 8, 1987; May 29, 1989.
New York Times, November 12, 1965; June 7, 1987.
Parade, May 20, 1992.
People, October 17, 1983.
Premiere, April, 1990; February 1992; August 1993.
Rolling Stone, October 27, 1983; June 15, 1989.
Time, November 1, 1982; August 2, 1993.
Vanity Fair, June 1993.