Watching the film ‘The Frightened City’ from 1961 recently, I found myself trying to work out just how Sean Connery jumped from his role in this British B movie as a rough house Soho based burglar/protection racketeer called ‘Paddy Damian, to being the suave James Bond just a year later. Watching it, it became obvious Connery had the looks and physique for the role of a leading man, and he played well alongside the ladies in the film, but he was very rough round the edges. Whatever it was, the Bond producers marked him down as one to watch.
The journey that Connery took to becoming one of the world’s biggest stars after the first Bond film ‘Dr. No’ went global in 1962 is the ultimate lesson in; it is not where you start but where you finish.
He was born Thomas Sean Connery in August 1930 in Edinburgh’s Royal Maternity Hospital, and named after his grandfather. Mum was Effie a cleaning lady and a Protestant, and dad was Joseph a sometime lorry driver/ general factory labourer and Catholic. There was not much money around when he came into the world. His bed was the bottom drawer of a wardrobe, in a one-room tenement flat with cold water and a shared toilet. Bathing happened once a week at the local public washhouse.
Early work saw Tommy as he was known then, help on a milk round with a Co-op milkman from the age of nine, before going full time there from 13 and earning 21 shillings a week. His famous eye for the ladies began early; with him losing his virginity aged 14. He then joined the Royal Navy at 16 and trained as anti aircraft crew. Discharged at 19 he at first went back to the Co-op, and then into a succession of everyday jobs such as a labourer and lorry driver like his dad, before changing tack and becoming a life model at the Edinburgh College of Art. ‘Big Tam’ as he was often called, had started bodybuilding when he turned 18 and eventually entered the Mr Universe contest in the early 1950s.
Around this time he was targeted by one of the top gangs in Edinburgh who took a liking to his coat, but he fought six of them off single handedly and thus gained respect as a ‘hard man’ locally.
He was also a keen footballer and was offered terms as a player at Manchester United by Matt Busby. Though tempted he said ‘I realised that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.’
When down in London for a body building contest, he auditioned for the stage musical ‘South Pacific.’ He got a small part at first, before making his way up the cast as the production toured the UK, eventually becoming understudy on lead parts. He also begun using Sean as his first name and took lessons to iron out his thick Scottish accent after it was said he was taken to be Polish by many of his actor colleagues.
He then developed his acting skills and all round knowledge, as he became a voracious reader of first class literary work by the likes of Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw and Tolstoy. It paid off as begun to get work in films as an extra from 1954. He also continued to learn his craft in the theatre and in small TV parts too. His first notable film role came when he played ‘Jonny Yates’ in the ‘Hell Drivers’ in 1957. To supplement any income, he worked as a male model for Vince’s Mans Shop, one of the first male boutiques near to Carnaby Street.
It was Dana Broccoli, wife of producer Albert – ‘Cubby’ to his friends – the co-owner of Eon Productions who had optioned the James Bond books with Harry Saltzman, who persuaded her husband that Connery would make a good Bond. The author of the books, Ian Fleming doubted the choice, though his girlfriend Blanche Blackwell told him Connery certainly had the sex appeal for the part. The gents in the end trusted their ladies instincts. ‘We signed him without a screen test’ co-producer Saltzman said.
Terence Young, the director of the first film in the series namely ‘Dr.No’ helped Connery immensely to polish up his act for the part. According to Lois Maxwell who played Miss Moneypenny in the early films ‘Terence took Sean under his wing. He took him to dinner, showed him how to walk, how to talk, even how to eat.’
It worked of course and the film became an enormous success. So impressed was Fleming that he wrote in a Scottish heritage for Bond.
In a short space of time however, with the success of subsequent Bond films such as ‘From Russia With Love’ in 1963 and ‘Goldfinger’ in 1964, Connery began to feel he had become typecast as the character and grew weary of the role. To keep him happy, the producers allowed him to work outside the franchise, on the films such as ‘Marnie’ in 1964 and ‘The Hill’ in 1965. That freedom helped as he went on to make ‘Thunderball’ in 1965 ‘You Only Live Twice’ in 1967 and ‘Diamonds are Forever’ in 1971, though he passed on ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ in 1969.
In 1975, he acted alongside his old pal Michael Caine in the John Huston film ‘The Man Who Would be King’ based on a Rudyard Kipling story and 1976, he was Robin Hood to Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian in ‘Robin and Marian.’
Other notable work included ‘A Bridge Too Far’ in 1977 and playing Agamemnon in ‘Time Bandits’ in 1981.
He reprised his role as Bond on ‘Never Say Never Again’ in 1983, this time outside of Eon productions, with the title coming from his earlier statement that he ‘would never play Bond again‘. My guess is that the $1 Million advance and 12% of the takings (gross) certainly helped him change his mind.
Elsewhere he had a success with ‘The Name of the Rose’ in 1986, for which he picked up a Best Actor Bafta, and in 1987 he starred in ‘The Untouchables’ alongside Kevin Costner, and directed by Brian De Palma, where he picked up the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
He’d hit a purple patch around this later time in his career, playing Henry Jones Sr. in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ in 1989, ‘The Hunt for Red October’ in 1990 and ‘The Rock’ in 1996.
He settled permanently in Nassau on the Bahamas in the 1990s. He was knighted in 2000 and became an active supporter of the Scottish National Party. ‘As a Scot and as someone with a lifelong love for both Scotland and the arts, I believe the opportunity of independence is too good to miss’ he wrote ‘simply put — there is no more creative act than creating a new nation.’
However, being non-resident in the UK meant he could not vote when the time came. He remained a keen supporter of the arts in Scotland until the end however, making several large donations in his time. The two tattoos he picked up from his time in the navy and still proudly worn on his arms, gave a clue to how much his heritage meant to him. One read ‘Scotland Forever’ the other Mum and Dad.’
He retired from acting in 2006 and begun picking up a host lifetime achievement awards, despite his reputation for being ‘moody and short tempered’ which he put down to his Celtic roots.
He was married twice. To Diane Cilento from 1962 to 1973, a union that gave birth of their son Jason and to Micheline Roquebrune from 1975 until his death aged 90 in October 2020. He had been suffering from Dementia in his later years.
In the end, despite all of his other fine film work, he will always be remembered a Bond…James Bond. As film critic Roger Ebert put it when discussing the legacy of those films…
‘Basically, you have Connery, and then you have all the rest.’
Rest up big man.
The Mumper of SE5
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