Some actors dominate the screen so thoroughly that they become archetypes. They become larger than the films they appear in. Their very presence onscreen captivates audiences. Your eyes are compelled to follow them.
John Wayne was one. Cary Grant another. And of course, so is Sean Connery. In all three cases these actors’ apparently effortless ability to fill the roles they were assigned leads many to conclude they didn’t have to work very hard.
Some charge they were just one-trick ponies who tended not to accept challenging roles, essentially playing the same character in film after film and coasting through careers based on their appearance and screen appeal. People just liked to see them in movies, so they didn’t have to be that good.
Nonsense. I think it’s a mistake to think anybody can just show before a camera and create remarkable and memorable films as these actors did. Their “effortless” acting was based on pure talent. Enormous talent. This is especially true of Connery.
Making 007 Possible
Let me talk about Connery and Bond.
No other film franchise in history has lasted for nearly 60 years. It has literally been a shorter span of time since the release of “Dr. No” (1963) and the world’s first feature film (1906), then between “Dr. No” and “No Time to Die” scheduled to release in 2021. The remarkable durability of the 007 saga would not have been possible if Connery had not launched the franchise. Others have played James Bond, with varying degrees of success, but Connery was Bond. He defined Bond.
He was an unlikely choice for the role. Some 200 actors auditioned or were approached for the part, including some very big names with proven box office potential (Trevor Howard , Stanley Baker, Rex Harrison, David Niven, and Richard Todd, among others). There are at least three actors identified as Ian Fleming’s personal choice, depending on the source, including Cary Grant, whom serious film fans will admit did make the first “James Bond movie” with Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959.)
Other reported Fleming preferences include Richard Todd (“The Dam Busters”) and Roger Moore (TV’s “The Saint,” who would eventually play Bond). Whoever the character’s creator preferred, it was certainly not the working-class Scotsman Connery. Fleming’s Bond was thoroughly English and public-school material.
However, the film’s producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were convinced, despite the Scottish burr, Connery would have the most appeal on both sides of the Atlantic. Incidentally, Connery was reportedly asked to tone down the accent for “Dr. No.” He refused.
Scottish nationalism was an important factor in Connery’s private life. In “Skyfall” (2012), the film title refers to Bond’s childhood home in the Scottish Highlands. Fleming’s Bond was not Scottish, and neither is Daniel Craig, the actor currently inhabiting the Bond role. Today’s Bonds are Scottish because Connery was Scottish.
What Makes Connery Bond Forever
Three things make Connery the nonpareil Bond. One is the pure sense of menace exuded by the character. This is a vital ingredient in the enduring appeal and success of Connery’s Bond. I can’t think of any other actor, certainly not in this franchise, capable of projecting the threat of sudden violence so convincingly.
Review any of the numerous interviews with Connery available on YouTube. He is, in his private life, a teddy bear. The menace is his acting, not remotely himself.
Two is obvious. Connery may well be the top actor in the history of film in sex appeal. Oddly, this seems to affect both men and women. You ever meet a guy who said, “Gee I wish I could be Rudolf Valentino?” On the other hand, have you ever met a guy who didn’t say, at least to himself, “I wish I could be Sean Connery?”
The other remarkable thing is, maybe unique in Hollywood history, Connery’s sex appeal increased as he got older. Connery was voted “Sexiest Man Alive” by People magazine at the age of 59, and 10 years later, another survey determined that he was the “Sexiest Man of the Century.”
The final essential element Connery brought to the role is something you might not expect: comedy. Before Bond, Connery’s acting career included some unlikely roles, including musical comedy. He was a well-reviewed sailor in a London production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” in 1954. In 1957, he played a bit part on Jack Benny’s television show.
Connery’s sense of comedy timing and delivery is the other essential element of the Bond character he created. How many of the great Bond one-liners can you remember? “Shocking.” “He got the point.” “Watch my wife, won’t you, she’s just dead.” Like Cary Grant, in many ways the prototype Bond, Connery could flawlessly mix comedy with dramatic action, creating another defining characteristic of Bond.
Yes, other Bonds attempted the one-liners, usually with dismal results. Roger Moore got away with it occasionally, but he lacked the menace. To him the Bond role was always tongue-in-cheek—a parody.
Connery Made 70 Films, Only Seven as Bond
Here is my second bold assertion. Connery would be an enormously popular and revered actor had he never played Bond. We would be quoting his best lines and rewatching his films endlessly.
Connery had about as satisfying a film career as an actor could expect. His non-Bond filmography includes some of the most memorable movies of the modern age. He worked for some of the best directors Hollywood ever produced: Hitchcock, Charles Crichton, John Huston, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg, among others.
Some of his films—perhaps especially “Zardoz” (1974) and “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959)—were regrettable. Others, the Hitchcock-directed “Marnie” (1964) and “Robin and Marian” (1976) co-starring with Aubrey Hepburn, were missed opportunities.
“Marnie” was I think a victim of timing. It is interesting to think what the master Hitchcock could have done with Connery’s talents. But “Marnie” was made at the height of the actor’s Bond phase.
Curiously, no attempt was made either in makeup or wardrobe to differentiate his role in this film. He appears in the film exactly as James Bond but confusing audiences by playing a totally different character. The potential screen magic between Connery and Hepburn seems unlimited, but was not to occur in the maudlin and excruciatingly slow-paced “Robin and Marian.”
The Sean Connery Film Greats
Let’s zero in on the Connery greats, with special attention to greats that are great because Connery is in them. Here’s my list.
“The Molly Maguires” (1970). Connery plays “Black Jack” Kehoe, an Irish coal miner in late 19th-century Pennsylvania trying to make it in the new world while fighting off the Pinkertons sent to inform on the miners. This film perhaps best captures Connery’s poverty-stricken childhood and working-class roots.
“The Man Who Would Be King” (1975). Based on Rudyard Kipling’s classic story, and directed by Huston, this film features as leads two actors—the working-class Englishman Michael Cain and the working-class Scotsman Connery—who are more simpatico on screen than any other pair I can think of. The film, set in late 19th-century British India, is the story of two rogue ex-soldiers in the British Army. In search of adventure, they end up in faraway Kafiristan, where one is taken for a god and made their king. If you’re like me and you love any movies with pith helmets, this is a must.
“The Great Train Robbery” (1978). Connery’s talent has never been more developed than in this amazing heist movie. The film’s plot is loosely based on the actual Great Gold Robbery of 1855. Connery performed most of his own stunts in this film, including the extended sequence on top of the moving train directed by the great Michael Crichton. This movie is a joy and endlessly rewatchable.
“The Untouchables” (1987). This film should be in anybody’s list of best Connery movies. It is the source of his only Oscar. His portrayal of Jimmy Malone, the one honest cop in Prohibition-era Chicago, is masterful. To me, this character dominates the entire film. Truly a Connery tour de force.
“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). The addition of Connery as Indiana Jones’s lovable but nettlesome father was a stroke of genius. He makes these already infinitely watchable films even better.
And finally, “The Hunt for Red October” (1990). I think Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius (the “Vilnius Schoolmaster”) is perhaps the actor’s best single-film role. This is also undeniably the best Cold War film ever made and, outside the Bond films, the most often-quoted Connery film. (If you like “Things in here don’t react very well to bullets,” be aware that you are quoting Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan imitating Connery!) It is worth noting all of Connery’s dialog was written by the great John Milius, who was brought into the project as a script doctor.
Honorable mentions include “The Hill” (1965), “A Bridge Too Far” (1977), “The Rock” (1996), “Highlander” (1986) (in which as the cast’s only actual Scotsman, he played the only main character who isn’t Scottish.), “The Name of the Rose” (1986), and “The Russia House” (1990). Forgive me if I missed one of your favorite Connery movies. Almost all are certainly worth watching.
We should remember Sean Connery as a skillful, hard-working, and disciplined actor so talented he changed the history of movies.