Sean Connery - The life of an icon
(Credit: Mieremet, Rob / Anefo)

Sean Connery: The life of an icon

I have always hated that damn James Bond. I’d like to kill him.” – Sean Connery

Scottish performer Sean Connery was one of the greatest actors of the last century. He was the first actor to play the iconic role of James Bond and subsequently went on to star in seven Bond films in total. His performances have been critically acclaimed and he has received an Academy Award, two BAFTA Awards (one being a BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award), and three Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award and a Henrietta Award. Although no details have been provided yet, it is confirmed that Connery has passed away at the age of 90. On this sad day, we revisit his life as a tribute to his invaluable contribution to the world of cinema.

Born in Edinburg in 1930, Connery began working at the early age of nine to support his film. He delivered milk before school for St. Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society. In 2009, Connery revisited this part of his life by sharing an anecdotal story about a conversation he once had in a cab, “When I took a taxi during a recent Edinburgh Film Festival, the driver was amazed that I could put a name to every street we passed. ‘How come?’ he asked. ‘As a boy I used to deliver milk round here,’ I said. ‘So what do you do now?’ That was rather harder to answer.” Soon after, Connery decided that academia wasn’t for him and left the two-room flat he shared with his brother and parents to join the Royal Navy. Trained in Portsmouth at the naval gunnery school and in an anti-aircraft crew, Connery was assigned as an Able Seaman on HMS Formidable but had to be discharged at the age of 19 because of severe ulcers. After coming back, he worked as a lorry driver, a lifeguard, an artist’s model and even a coffin polisher to sustain himself. He was also a keen footballer who was offered a contract by Matt Busby, the erstwhile manager of Manchester United but Connery turned it down. He recalled: “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.” 

In order to add to his income, Connery helped out backstage at the King’s Theatre in late 1951 and became increasingly involved with the performing arts. However, his first acting part was given to him during a bodybuilding competition in 1953 when one of his fellow competitors mentioned that auditions were being held for a production of South Pacific. Connery landed a small part as a chorus boy but was soon promoted to the part of Marine Cpl Hamilton Steeves and was understudying two of the juvenile leads. When the play returned after a year due to popular demand, he starred in one of the featured roles as Lieutenant Buzz Adams. This was the year that Connery broadened his horizons thanks to American actor Robert Henderson who introduced him to the works of William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen and James Joyce among others, fostering a love for literature and the theatre in the young actor. He met his lifelong friend Michael Caine in 1954 and also began a film career as an extra in Herbert Wilcox’s musical Lilacs in the Spring (1954) alongside Anna Neagle.

Connery had been known to get into gang fights in Edinburgh but the actor began focusing on his career by taking elocution lessons at the suggestion of Henderson who got him acting bits at the Maida Vale Theatre in London. Despite all these appearances, Connery was struggling financially and barely managed to make ends meet. The latter half of the decade brought him relatively more success: his first BBC TV production, Requiem For A Heavyweight, his big screen debut in No Road Back, his first leading role opposite Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place and his first part Stateside, Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill And The Little People in 1959 but it was only in 1962 that Connery became a cultural icon.

Terence Young’s 1962 film Dr. No established Sean Connery’s on-screen persona as the charismatic, intelligent and crafty British spy, James Bond. Although Connery was hesitant about committing to a film series, he understood that his career would take off if the films did well and they certainly did. Young took Connery under his wings and mentored the actor, transforming him into a suave sensation/sex symbol. He went on to reprise the role in six more Bond films: From Russia with Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Never Say Never Again (1983). All seven films were commercial successes and helped solidify Connery’s image in the public consciousness. James Bond, as portrayed by Connery, was selected as the third-greatest hero in cinema history by the American Film Institute.

Connery received thousands of fan letters for his stint as the world’s most famous secret agent but he was tired of being pigeonholed as the actor who played James Bond. His friend Michael Caine admitted that he would not discuss the Bond films with Connery and the actor himself was recorded saying, “[I am] fed up to here with the whole Bond bit.” While making the Bond films, Connery also starred in films made by some of the greatest directors in the world, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) and The Hill (1965) as well as John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), starring opposite Michael Caine, with both actors regarding it as their favourite film. He was even offered the lead role in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) but turned it down because the famed director would only show him a summary of the script that was stored in a cigarette packet. By 1972, Connery’s popularity as a global star was such that he shared a Golden Globe Henrietta Award with Charles Bronson for “World Film Favourite – Male”.

The actor agreed to reprise the role of James Bond in the 1983 instalment Never Say Never Again, a title which was contributed by his wife. It refers to his earlier statement that he would “never again” return to the role. Many of Connery’s greatest critics dismissed his talent by saying that he would fade away if he left the Bond franchise but some of his most critically acclaimed works came in the latter half of his career. Connery won a BAFTA award for his portrayal of a non-conformist intellectual monk in The Name Of The Rose (1986) and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant performance in Brian De Palma’s Untouchables (1987) as Jimmy Malone, an Irish-American police officer who tries to make Federal Agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) understand that the only way to take down famous mobster Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro) is to play dirty.

He appeared in several other box-office successes after his Academy Award win, including Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990). Spielberg was full of praise for Connery, saying:

“There are seven genuine movie stars in the world today and Sean is one of them. I won’t name the others, because some of my best friends wouldn’t be among them.”

Connery received a BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award in 1998 and was knighted in the 2000 New Year Honours for services to film drama but his film career slowly began to decline, due to the commercial and critical failures of films like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). He did receive positive reviews for his portrayal of William Forrester, a reclusive author who mentors a young prodigy in Gus Van Sant’s 2000 drama but that was to be one of his final films. Disillusioned with the “idiots now making films in Hollywood,” the actor retired from the world of cinema. Even though he was done with films, Connery was admittedly happy to record voiceovers for a new video game version of his Bond film From Russia with Love in 2005.

Connery officially announced his retirement on 8 June 2006 when he received the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The world of cinema lost one of its biggest stars today but it will always have the beautiful legacy of Sean Connery in the form of the films he made. In his own words:

I haven’t found anywhere in the world where I want to be all the time. The best of my life is the moving. I look forward to going.

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