Well, it’s been a week now and I still haven’t got over it. Even the most chaotic Presidential Election in living memory hasn’t managed to distract me from the pressing melancholy – as absurd as it feels to say it out loud…we are no longer living on the same planet as Sean Connery.
It’s not that he was suddenly struck down in the prime of life (90 years of age is a good haul for anyone), it’s just that Connery, along with the rarified likes of Michael Caine and Clint Eastwood, carried an air of genuine immortality. He even played an immortal in Highlander and the fact that he was wearing a coat made of peacock feathers at the time, didn’t make it feel any less plausible.
Perhaps, like his aforementioned peers, it’s the fact that his vitality never withered away like so many actors who become stars in their twenties, then disappeared into obscurity. Right up until his retirement, he was not just an A-lister, but an iconic legend who’s every new role was infused with the ghosts of decades worth of memorable characters and timeless movies. In a real sense, for at least two generations, Sean Connery has always just been there. Now, suddenly, horribly, he’s not.
The one consolation of living in this oh-so much less glamorous, post-Connery world is the extraordinary legacy of his work. His CV is not flop-proof by any means – The Avengers is on there, for a start – but the consistency of quality that he kept up for over four decades is something most actors in their wildest dreams could barely hope to emulate.
Here are the highlights of a cinematic life we’ll be reliving on our screens for many decades to come.
James Bond (1962-1971, officially. 1983, unofficially)
Connery had already put in several noticeable performances in the late 1950s. Even way down the cast list of films like Hell Drivers, Time Lock and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, his star-quality was unmissable. Bigger roles in The Frightened City attracted the attention of Harry Saltzman and “Cubby” Broccoli, who were looking for someone to play the lead in a new spy movie.
Famously, names like David Niven and Cary Grant were bandied about but mercifully, they decided to take a chance on the comparatively unknown Sean Connery. Right away, they spotted that his unique combination of stealthy athleticism, attractiveness, elegance and danger was precisely the cocktail they were after.
Had they gone with Niven, say, there’s every chance that Dr. No would have just been yet another David Niven picture. Instead, Connery invented James Bond, became James Bond and was consequently transformed into one of the most famous actors of the 1960s.
Bond movies were being released at a rate of one a year, each one surpassing the popularity of the other. After the brilliant From Russia With Love, all the pieces fell magically into place with Goldfinger. By the time Thunderball arrived in 1965, James Bond wasn’t a part, more a phenomenon comparable to Beatlemania.
Connery would quickly come to tire of the brand association that he feared would smother him as an actor. His lack of interest is there for all to see in You Only Live Twice. After that, his fifth Bond movie, he ‘passed the shoe’ to George Lazenby but was tempted by a record fee to come back, somewhat paunchier than before, for 1971’s camp Diamonds Are Forever.
He described a belated return to the role in the unofficial 1983 Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again as a lapse in judgement, but nothing on earth could muddy the lustre of Connery’s first Bond movies. With the turn of his head, the look in his eyes, a quip on his lips and a strut in his stride, he created one of the most recognisable icons of the 20th Century; one that’s still thrilling audiences 60 years later.
Comparisons between Connery’s Bond and Roger Moore’s interpretation often cite Connery’s danger and innate potential for cruelty. He managed to keep that seam of menace bubbling under the skin for most of his Bond tenure but in his first major post-007 role, it was there, front and centre.
As Mark Rutland, Connery is debonair, charming but also ruthless and possessive, blackmailing Tippi Hedren’s title character into marrying him and later raping her. Hitchcock’s brilliantly constructed Freudian mystery makes for an uncomfortable contemporary watch but right from the off, it proved that Connery wasn’t afraid to restrict himself to playing decent human beings.
The Hill (1965)
Released in the same year that the decadently glamorous Thunderball broke box office records, this unforgiving slice of bleak brutality could not have been more shockingly different. It marked the start of a partnership with the director Sidney Lumet that bears comparison with De Niro/Scorsese’s relationship or Ford and Wayne.
‘The hill’ is a vast pile of sand in the centre of a British military prison camp in the Libyan desert, that the sadistic guards (Harry Andrews and Ian Hendry) force their prisoners to march up and down for no earthly reason.
Connery’s taciturn ex-Sgt. Major Joe Roberts eventually snaps after a soldier is marched to his death, and he fights to expose the subsequent cover-up. It’s a remorseless, furious film and, in the company of some of the best British actors of the era, Connery pulls a simply extraordinary performance out of himself.
The Offence (1973)
Sean Connery used Diamonds Are Forever to wave goodbye to James Bond. He also used it as an incentive to force United Artists to fund a handful of less commercial films in which he could move away from the glamour of Bond and expand himself as an actor.
It’s hard to imagine anything less commercial or less glamorous than his part as DS Johnson, a jaded Scottish cop who suspects that he has more in common with the child-murdering suspect in his charge than he could ever admit and ends up beating his prisoner to death. It’s also difficult to imagine any other movie star of his clout willingly diving into such remorselessly raw material.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
The partnership of Sean Connery and Michael Caine in this glorious adventure was every bit as magical as Newman & Redford’s. Director John Huston had wanted to make this film since the 1950s and at one point had set up Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable as the leads.
Huston’s patience was rewarded with this classic two-hander, packed to the rafters with epic scenes and unforgettable lines – ‘God’s holy trousers!’ Connery’s subtle evolution from ex-army rogue to Afghan God is masterful, but the very real friendship between him and Caine gives this film its beating heart and a unique place in the canon of both actors. Perhaps that’s why they both adored it so much.
Robin & Marian (1976)
Twelve years after Connery and Robert Shaw kicked the shit out of each other on the Istanbul express in From Russia With Love, they met to do battle once again in a field outside Nottingham. The years had not been kind, which neatly sums up the appeal of Richard Lester’s wonderfully autumnal tale of Robin Hood, returning to the fray in middle age with creaking knees and a bad back.
This was also a return to the screen after nine years away for Audrey Hepburn. The way the years fall away from Connery’s face when they are both together is extraordinarily moving. The romance between Robin Hood and Maid Marian has been done so often by so many actors that it’s almost the stuff of school plays. It never felt as passionately, all-consumingly real as it does in this unfairly undervalued classic.
Connery had tried his hand at sci-fi before in John Boorman’s Zardoz, famously dressed in an unforgiving red mankini, but barely managed to walk away from that one with his dignity. He was on much surer footing in this brilliant Jupiter-set thriller from director Peter Hyams.
Retaining much of the drab, blue-collar aesthetic of the Nostromo scenes in Alien, Outland stars Connery as an off-world Marshall who uncovers a drug-ring sanctioned by the mining company he works for, that is killing of many of the workers in the name of productivity. In a nod to High Noon, Connery is all but left to fend for himself as a trio of assassins in despatched to silence him forever.
Time Bandits (1981)
It is a fact, much beloved by fans of Monty Python, that Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam’s script for their thrillingly inventive children’s adventure, featured the following scene description: ‘He removes his mask revealing none other than SEAN CONNERY…or an actor of equal but cheaper stature.’
The time travelling saga takes on a new lease of life once that mask is lifted. As King Agamemnon, Connery, by the sheer energy of his star-wattage, brings a gravitas and old-Hollywood legitimacy to Gilliam’s expertly channelled lunacy and confirmed, for those in any doubt, that he had a sense of humour.
The Name of The Rose (1986)
The early eighties marked something of a low point for Connery. He wasted a lot of energy by helping to put Never Say Never Again together and the result left him feeling jaded and bitter. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s gripping adaptation of Umberto Eco’s celebrated novel marked a new phase in Connery’s career. After the age-denying silliness of Never Say Never Again, he was now carving out a niche as an elder statesman.
Stripped of any home comforts, including a hairpiece, Connery underwent a rebirth playing William of Baskerville, a rational Franciscan monk who turns detective to solve a series of brutal murders in an Italian abbey in the 14th Century. He received a much-delayed BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his trouble.
Five increasingly cheap and lifeless sequels and three TV shows later, it’s refreshing to revisit the original Highlander if only to remember just how much fun it was. The generational pleasure of its specific ‘80s-ness not withstanding, it is one of the most intriguingly cast films ever made.
To play a Scottish highlander, director Russell Mulcahy cast a French actor whose Scottish accent was on a par with Indiana Jones’s, and to play his Egyptian/Spanish mentor, one who finds the idea of haggis revolting, Mulcahy chose the most famous Scotsman alive. It’s madness, but somehow it works brilliantly. Five years later, Connery would somehow find him resurrected to reappear in the sequel – though I’m pretty sure he wished he hadn’t bothered.
The Untouchables (1987)
In perhaps one of the most sublimely cast films of the decade, newly-minted star Kevin Costner went up against the already-legendary Robert De Niro playing Al Capone in Brian DePalma’s practically perfect prohibition drama. Yet it was Sean Connery, playing mentor again as poor beat cop Malone, who gets a second chance to earn his self-respect back and make a difference, who walked away with the film.
When he won his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, everyone in the room was on their feet. It was a fork in the road moment. He had gone from star, to superstar and thence to living legend- ‘thatsch the Chicago way!’
Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade (1989)
By the end of the 1980s, Connery’s resentment towards his Bond years was softening – he even recorded some voice work as James Bond for a 2005 video game. As such he was happy to concur with Steven Spielberg’s assertion that the only person who could possibly play Indiana Jones’s father was James Bond himself.
Connery’s Dr. Henry Jones was a delightful creation. Belying his stern, Victorian exterior, he exposes Elsa Schneider as a Nazi because ‘she talks in her sleep’ – a line Connery improvised. After the unremitting darkness of The Temple of Doom, the relationship between Indy and his father gave the series back its humanity and ended the trilogy on a high note.
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
While many of his contemporaries were preparing to take things easy and edge quietly into semi-retirement and a few small parts here and there, Connery started the 1990s as he meant to go on, taking top billing as renegade Russian Captain Ramius. John McTiernan’s intense adaptation of Tom Clancy’s Cold War submarine thriller was the first big blockbuster of the 1990s, and Connery – making no pretence at a Russian accent whatsoever – dominated the film.
That same year he was in a similarly Soviet mood, albeit a far less bombastic one in The Russia House, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer. This 1990 one-two would epitomise the decade ahead for Connery. Big, studio event pictures like Rising Sun, Medicine Man, First Knight and Entrapment, interspersed with more intimate fare like Finding Forrester or Playing By Heart. The best of the big beasts arrived in 1996…
The Rock (1996)
Connery would retire in 2003 after starring in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film he loathed making and one that no one enjoyed watching. There would have been something rather fitting if he’d have punched the clock for the last time after making this, a deliriously exhilarating action movie from the Jerry Bruckheimer stable.
He plays John Mason, ‘trained by the best: British Intelligence,’ and a former resident at the notorious prison on Alcatraz island, from which he once managed to escape. When renegade general Ed Harris threatens to destroy San Francisco unless his demands are met, Mason has to lead a crack team back into ‘The Rock.’
Like so many Bruckheimer action pics of the 1990s, it was generously stuffed with much better actors than it really deserved, but Connery is the MVP. Nicolas Cage may have just won the Best Actor Oscar, but there is no question who is in charge in this relationship. ‘An educated man? That of course rules you out as being a field agent.’
I’m already thinking about the great parts I’ve not had time to mention. The Anderson Tapes? Cuba? The First Great Train Robbery? Maybe his final Lumet collaboration Family Business? Feel free to fill in the gaps below while I mix myself a cocktail and raise a glass to an irreplaceable legend.
Sean Connery 1930 – 2020