In a world of instant celebrity and disposable heroes, there are precious few enduring stars. Sean Connery is one of them. From the moment he captured secret agent 007 on film, Connery has come to stand for virility, tinged with just enough wit and intelligence to make us believe that such men really do exist.
In the forty years since bringing Bond to life, Connery has reinterpreted what it means to be a leading man in roles as varied as a turn-of-the-century British adventurer, an aging Robin Hood, a chivalrous Arab sheik, an insubordinate British army trooper and a 14th century monk. His performance as street-smart Chicago cop Malone in THE UNTOUCHABLES won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in 1987.
What all those characters share is that indefinable quality that is pure Connery. His larger than life presence is the anchor that tethers a fantasy world and makes us believe. Never one to overanalyze in print, he came close to explaining the magic in an interview with The New York Times’s Benedict Nightingale. “My strength as an actor is that I’ve stayed close to the core of myself, which has something to do with a voice, a music, a tune that is very much tied up with my background.” He credits another independent Celt who refused to curb his accent, Richard Burton, as inspiration.
Born into poverty in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland, Thomas Connery was hard-working and adventurous from the start. The first of two sons born to Joseph and Euphemia, he started working at the age of nine delivering milk. At 13, he left school to help support his family with odd jobs from steel bender to cement mixer. He tried his hand at the Navy and then football, coffin-polishing, modeling and bodybuilding. But when he found the theatre, he found his calling.
From the moment he walked on stage as an extra in a London production of the musical South Pacific, the lad from Edinburgh was a natural. “I had no sense of fear on the stage at all. It seemed right for me.” He learned dancing and singing on the job, touring for two years, and then studied acting in London. Scouted and signed by 20th Century Fox as a result of his television work, he might have remained another tall, dark, handsome, unknown actor, were it not for a certain literary property that went into production in the early ’60s.
His name was Bond, James Bond, and Sean Connery, the actor, played him with equal parts danger, sex and style. Cast by producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli when they couldn’t afford seasoned veterans like David Niven, Rex Harrison and Cary Grant, Connery’s Bond became an international icon.
In the role that redefined heroism by injecting subtle humor in what could have been a cold, flat superhero, Connery’s Bond has been the touchstone for all the Bonds and action heroes that followed. Christopher Reeve’s Superman, Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, Mike Myers’ Austin Powers and Pixar’s animated Mr. Incredible all grow out of Connery’s off-kilter take on the bloodless fictional character whose job is to save the Western world.
“He has no mother. He has no father. He doesn’t come from anywhere and he hadn’t been anywhere before he became 007,” said Connery. “So I had to breathe life into an idol.” In doing so, he melted the hearts of female viewers with his alluring mix of power, sophistication and tenderness. Connery’s sex appeal was a phenomenon as big as the Beatles in the sixties, and it remains an indelible part of his charisma at every stage of his life.
When he grew weary of playing Bond, Connery broke away and sought out new roles with characteristic confidence. He went on to refine his craft in a body of work that is remarkable for its range. With meticulous attention to the material being offered, he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the psychological thriller MARNIE, with Sidney Lumet on five films, with John Huston on his grand re-telling of Kipling’s THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, with Richard Lester on his exploration of an aging Robin Hood in ROBIN AND MARIAN, with Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford on INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE and with Brian De Palma on David Mamet’s THE UNTOUCHABLES. He has made the transition from international man of intrigue to psychotic cop, from 14th century monk to reclusive Bronx author, from outer space marshal to an ex con who can penetrate Alcatraz just in time to save San Francisco — all with a singular grace and minimal bravado.
When Sidney Lumet cast Connery at the height of Bondmania in 1965 against type in his gritty, all male army drama THE HILL, he recognized the craftsmanship that lie beneath Connery’s seemingly effortless exterior. “The thing that was apparent to me — and to most directors — was how much talent and ability it takes to play that kind of character who is based on charm and magnetism. It’s the equivalent of high comedy and he did it brilliantly.”
He has kept the course, continuing to do it brilliantly over the last 40 years, delivering understated performances that delight audiences of all ages while pursuing his private passions.
He may live in the Bahamas, but as the tattoo says, it’s “Scotland Forever” for Connery. In 1971, after agreeing to play Bond for the sixth time in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER, he gave his salary to start the Scottish International Educational Trust to help needy Scottish students stay in school. The trust also continues to fund a drama chair at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University. One of Connery’s proudest moments came when he received the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh from his hometown in 1991. In 2000 he was appointed a Knight Bachelor in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List. He has become an outspoken advocate of the Scottish independence movement in recent years.
With his wife of over 30 years, the French Moroccan artist Micheline Roquebrune, who he met on the golf course, Connery enjoys the privacy of his home, surrounded by a brood of children and grandchildren, playing golf with friends, reading and enjoying a life well lived.
Having received the accolades of his peers, the respect of the critics and the highest honors of his craft, Connery remains in the game, doing what he does best. Breathing life into fictional characters and making them into real men.