Acclaimed screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz once recalled the time he contacted Sir Sean Connery to reprise his role as James Bond Agent 007 in Live and Let Die, the eighth Bond picture in just over a decade. An embittered Connery responded “There are two things I’ve ever wanted in this world – my own golf course and my own bank. I already own one and I’m well on my way to owning the other.” Connery did not return to the role in any official capacity again.
This glib response encompasses so much of what Connery was – aggressive, frustrated, utterly suave and largely invaluable. Much has been made (with good reason) of the man’s flaws and for every hastily drawn webcomic of a tuxedoed man entering the pearly gates, there’ll be another grainy thumbnail of that disgusting interview he gave seated opposite a stunned Barbara Walters. For a man who spent so long trying to escape the shadow of his most famous role, he had a nasty tendency of sliding into the equally unforgivable traits of Fleming’s creation.
For some, he’ll forever be the arrogant curmudgeon, a relic of a backward era where testosterone superceded sense. For others, his iconic image is too hardwired in their hearts and minds to cast off into the annals of history. I’m somewhere in the middle.
Growing up in the 90s meant experiencing the James Bond phenomenon at one of its most crucial turning points. The series had endured its longest break to date with a six year gap between Licence to Kill and GoldenEye, during which time many of the mainstays of the cast and crew moved on (including franchise godfather Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli). This hibernation period brewed a more distilled cultural understanding of what Bond was and how he could exist today. ITV and RTÉ would constantly show the older films while Pierce Brosnan kept the tuxedo warm on the silver screen.
It was during these formative years that I was first introduced by my father to Sean Connery. My dad would often transfix me with his story of watching an after-school youth club screening of Doctor No, at which he won 30 shillings. He would break my heart describing the Corgi Aston Martin toy he owned as a child but never thought to keep. He would reiterate that while he’d seen all of the films, no one would ever hold a candle to the original.
And he’s not wrong – while recently rewatching the entire series leading up to one of the many supposed release dates of No Time to Die, it became apparent that Connery’s really is the only portrayal that feels completely real – you believe that he could make all of these women fall in love with him (some within minutes of meeting him), you believe he could defeat all of these dastardly foes, you believe that his knowledge of inane subjects would be so encyclopaediac that he could decipher how brandy had been improperly blended by its aroma.
Terrence Young (a man often credited with turning a 31 year old Scottish milkman into 007) was once asked what the key ingredient of the James Bond series was, to which he described “Sean Connery, Sean Connery, Sean Connery”. Truly, with the possible exception of Roger Moore, nearly every succeeding actor is merely standing on the shoulders of a giant.
After concluding that the financial and creative overtures presented by the series didn’t properly reflect the effort he put into it, Connery left and forged what is undoubtedly the most successful post-Bond career of them all. Marnie, The Man Who Would Be King, Highlander, an Academy Award forThe Untouchables. Steven Spielberg openly acknowledges the priceless debt Indiana Jones owes to Connery and James Bond, partially repaid by Connery’s unforgettable casting as Henry Jones Sr.
His renaissance as the original Old Man Action Hero in the 1990s yielded some true gems – The Rock is gas craic (and a rare victory for Michael Bay). The Hunt for Red October is a truly great film with arguably the performance of his career. Many will scoff at Connery choosing the disastrous League of Extraordinary Gentlemen over The Matrix or Lord of the Rings, but even therein may lie a hint to his true motives, beyond the financial – for in the closing moments of the film, Allan Quatermain turns to Tom Sawyer and says “May this new century be yours son, as this old one was mine”. A complicated man and the coolest of the century.