Ninety years ago today on the 25th August, 1930, Thomas Sean Connery was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. The world didn’t know it then, but it had just been introduced to one of the finest actors to ever grace the screen.
Growing up in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Thomas (as he was known then) was the son of cleaning woman, Euphemia McBain McLean and truck driver, Joseph Connery. While named Thomas, his friends began to use his middle name of Sean and it just stuck from that point on. At the age of sixteen, Sean signed up to join the Royal Navy in 1946. He trained at the naval gunnery school in Portsmouth in the anti-aircraft crew. He was discharged from service aged nineteen due to a duodenal ulcer condition that affected most of the males in his family at that point. After which, Sean held down several jobs including being a milkman, lorry driver, lifeguard at a swimming baths, a coffin polisher he even did a bit of modelling. He turned to bodybuilding and entered the Mr. Universe contest (some sources say 1950, others say 1954) where he placed third.
A keen football fan and player, Sean Connery was offered a chance to play for Manchester United by then manager, Matt Busby. He turned the offer down realising that he was, perhaps, a bit to old to become a professional footballer. So as Sean didn’t see it as a sensible long term career move. Instead, he thought about becoming an actor.
“I realised that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of thirty, and I was already twenty-three. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.”
– Sean Connery
Sean found himself a job working behind the scenes at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh around 1951 and he landed his first acting roll in a production of the musical South Pacific. It was a very minor role, but as the production continued, Sean got promoted through various rolls to become one of the leads. In 1954, Sean met and became close friends with Michael Caine at a party for the South Pacific production. From then on, he began to rub shoulders with the likes of Hollywood actress Shelley Winters and also landed a few minor roles in films. 1957’s No Road Back is the first major film Sean Connery had a role in, it was a small part playing a gangster with a speech impediment, but it was enough to get him noticed. By the late fifties, he started to appear in TV and films more and more, including a lead role in the Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People from 1959.
Of course, the sixties were where Sean Connery would really get noticed as in 1962, he became James Bond in Dr. No and would go on to become the often most voted favourite James Bond actor. His casting as James Bond catapulted Sean into Hollywood stardom. Originally though, James Bond creator, Ian Fleming really didn’t like Sean Connery for the role.
“He’s not what I envisioned of James Bond looks. I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stunt-man.”
– Ian Fleming
Yet, after Dr. No became such a big hit and after seeing Sean Connery’s performance, Ian Fleming was so impressed that he even included some of Sean’s heritage into the James Bond character. In his 1964 novel You Only Live Twice, Ian decided to make James Bond’s father Scottish so the character fit more into Sean’s obvious Scottish roots. Despite the character making him so famous and starring in the first five James Bond films from 1962 – 1971, Sean began to tire of the character and worried he would become typecast.
“If you were his friend in these early days you didn’t raise the subject of Bond. 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.” That was particularly upsetting to him.”
– Michael Caine
While still playing James Bond, Sean landed several other big movie rolls, including working with the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock in 1964’s Marnie. In 1975, he starred alongside his longtime friend, Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King. A film both actors say was the most fun and one of the best film-making experiences that they ever had. After James Bond and through the seventies, Sean’s career grew and grew, landing rolls in Robin and Marian, Murder on the Orient Express and A Bridge Too Far to name a few. By the eighties, he career showed no signs of slowing down either.
The Terry Gilliam classic, Time Bandits saw Sean Connery play Agamemnon, in what was essentially a joke role, but one that stands out in an already brilliant film. Then in 1983, Sean did something he swore he would never do… he returned as James Bond, the role he grew tired with. Playing James Bond in the not actually official Never Say Never Again, which is really a remake of the previous James Bond film, Thunderball (it’s a slightly confusing story). The title of the film is actually a reference to Sean saying that he would never play the James Bond character again. Also, people incorrectly state that Never Say Never Again was the last time he played the famous character. It was the last time he played him on screen yes, but in 2005, a video game version of From Russia with Love was made by Electronic Arts called, Bond 007: From Russia with Love and Sean Connery recorded all new dialogue as James Bond and allowed the use of his likeness too. So if the trivia question ever comes up asking when the last time Sean Connery played James Bond, the answer isn’t Never Say Never Again as most people think.
The eighties also saw Sean Connery star in two of my favourite films. First up, there is the head chopping, awesome Queen sountracked, time jumping masterpiece that is Highlander. Here, Sean played Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez, a Spanish (he’s not Spanish, he’s Egyptian) immortal, sword wielding mentor and friend to Christopher Lambert’s, Connor MacLeod, a French man (born in America) playing someone form Scotland. Yeah, the casting of this flick really does make the head hurt. Anyway, I love Highlander, so much so that I did a retrospective of the movie franchise a while back.
That other film I love so much was Brian De Palma’s brilliant take on the famed The Untouchables. Telling the story of Eliot Ness and his team of ‘untouchable’ police officers trying to bring Al Capone to justice during the prohibition era of America. Here, Sean Connery played straight talking, no nonsense beat cop, Jimmy Malone, the Irish cop with a thick Scottish accent. Oh how I love this film and Sean Connery in it, a role he won an Oscar for, very much deserved too. This could be my all time favourite Sean Connery performance. He was pushing fifty-seven years-old too, an age where most Hollywood actors were taking it easy and winding down. But not for Sean, he was playing hard edged rolls and even got involved in the action. Well, he was an incredibly fit and active man, even in his twilight years. The Untouchables is a great mobster flick told from the perspective of those trying to keep the mobsters under control. A movie full of great, memorable scenes and dialogue.
“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone.”
– Jimmy Malone
After his Oscar win for The Untouchables, Sean found himself very much in demand and he ended the eighties with easily one of the greatest pairings of action heroes ever.
George Lucas has gone on record as saying that the Indiana Jones character was very much inspired by James Bond. He and Steven Spielberg wanted Indy to be the James Bond of the 1930s. So who better to play the father of the man inspired by James Bond other than James Bond himself? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, released in 1989 teamed up Harrison Ford and Sean Connery for, what was then, the final in the Indiana Jones trilogy. The camaraderie between the two actors is amazing and Sean, despite being just shy of sixty, got involved with the action again.
In 1990’s The Hunt For Red October (a film Sean was quickly drafted in to do with only two weeks notice), he played a Russian submarine commander, Marko Ramius… with a Scottish accent.
Okay, so right here, I want to address the elephant in the room. Sean Connery was a fantastic actor, he could play anything. But yes, his accent let him down as no matter what role he played, he had that accent. Egyptian immortal, Scottish accent. Irish cop, Scottish accent. Russian submarine commander, Scottish accent. But you know what? I just don’t care. Sean’s voice, his accent was so iconic that it didn’t matter that it never changed. That dragging of the ‘S’ and the ‘sshhh’ sound was his trademark. That thick Scottish brogue was poetry to my ears. I really did not care that Sean’s accent hardly changed, if ever, from character to character. I didn’t care because Sean Connery was just so damn engrossing to watch. He could read the phone-book out loud and it would be entertaining.
You want to know how great Sean’s voice was? He could play a dragon and still be convincing, that’s how great. In 1996, Sean voiced Draco the dragon in the fantasy flick, Dragonheart. Featuring a still impressive looking CGI dragon, Sean made the character utterly charming and lovable… for a dragon. Also from 1996 was the bombastic The Rock were Sean played John Patrick Mason, ex-SAS captain and the only man to have ever escaped the famed Alcatraz island prison. Teaming up with Nicolas Cage’s FBI Special Agent Dr. Stanley Goodspeed, the two have to break into Alcatraz when it’s taken over by a group of marines turned rouge. Again, this is an action film with Sean Connery when he should’ve been taking it easy, he was sixty-five at the time.
In the latter nineties, Sean did start to take it easier. He appeared in fewer films, despite the fact he was still massively popular. He played the main villain in the film adaption of the classic TV show, The Avengers. Bowler hat John Steed The Avengers, not Captain America The Avengers. Though I do think that having a seventy year-old Sean Connery play all-American superhero, Captain America with a Scottish accent would’ve been amazing.
Yup, I have to mention it… The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from 2005. A film so bad that it made Sean Connery retire from acting (true story). Apparently Sean had such a bad time on set, he and director Stephen Norrington just couldn’t get on and often argued over where the film was heading or what it was about. As he said himself…
“It was a nightmare. The experience had a great influence on me, it made me think about showbiz. I get fed up dealing with idiots.”
– Sean Connery
And so, that was it. After a movie career that began in 1954 as an extra, Sean Connery officially announced his retirement from acting in 2007. He turned down the opportunity to return as Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. He turned down the chance to play Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as the role as The Architect in The Matrix sequels, a part written with Sean Connery in mind. Sean was done with acting for good… kind of. His actual last film was the low budget, animated Scottish production, Sir Billi from 2013. I’ve not seen it, but it’s supposed to be pretty terrible…
Just to be clear, Sean Connery refused to come out of retirement for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even only for a small cameo… but he came out of retirement for this?
Aside from the previously mentioned Oscar win for The Untouchables in 1998, Sean Connery has had various awards and honours bestowed on him. Three Golden Globes in 1972, 1998 and 1992. The latter being the Cecil B. DeMille Award given for outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment. Two BAFTAs in 1988, one being the BAFTA Fellowship, the highest honour given for outstanding achievement in the art forms of the moving image.
He also won the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 2006. as well as many other accolades over the years. Oh yeah, he was also knighted on the 5th of July, 2000, making him Sir Sean Connery.
Happy ninetieth birthday Sean. Thanks for the movies over the years… even the bad ones.
Would you believe it, I just covered Sean Connery’s career spanning seven decades and I didn’t even mention or reference Zardoz once…
“I like women. I don’t understand them, but I like them.”
– Sean Connery