Connery, Sir Sean Connery—the Oscar-winning Scottish screen icon who originated the role of James Bond in the long-running film franchise—has died about two months after celebrating his 90th birthday, his family told the BBC Saturday. Connery starred as Agent 007 in six official Bond films and one non-canon entry, the underrated Never Say Never Again, which was released in 1983 when he was 52.
The role that made him a star cast a long shadow—but over the course of his almost 50-year screen career, Connery branched out into a wide variety of character roles made indelible by his distinctive voice (one of the most imitated in film), physicality and sexual charisma. As Alec Baldwin, his The Hunt for Red October co-star, observed in Sean Connery Close Up, a 1997 documentary, “He’s the most physically beautiful man to ever stand in front of a movie camera.”
Even at the height of Bond-mania, Connery endeavored to stretch himself as an actor, citing Burt Lancaster as a role model to The New York Times in 1987. “He was more ready to play less romantic parts, and was more experimental in his choice of roles,” he said. “And that’s the way I’ve tried to be. I’ve tried to be guided by what was different, what was refreshing, stimulating to me.”
That is how he wound up in the role of King Agamemnon in Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy, Time Bandits. Connery was Monty Python animator Gilliam’s own fantasy choice for the role, but Gilliam did not think he could afford him. In the script, Gilliam joked, “The warrior took off his helmet, revealing someone that looks exactly like Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature.” Connery, a Python fan, stepped in when he learned his participation would help get the film financed, he told The Chicago Tribune in 1989.
Connery’s career flagged in the immediate post-Bond years, but he enjoyed a Seanaissance in the 1980s with three of his most legendary roles. In 1986, he portrayed Juan Sanchez-Villalobos Ramierez, mentor to Christopher Lambert’s Connor McLeod in the cult fantasy, Highlander. The next year, he portrayed Malone, a Chicago cop who taught Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness “the Chicago way” to get Al Capone in The Untouchables, a role which earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Two years later, in an inspired bit of casting, he portrayed Professor Henry Jones, Indiana Jones’ dad, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Sidney Lumet, who directed Connery in five films—including the gritty war drama The Hill and the star-studded period mystery Murder on the Orient Express—noted in an interview, “Most actors are either leading men or character actors. Sean is one of the few stars who encompasses both.”
Connery was born Thomas Sean Connery on Aug. 25, 1930. In his 2008 book, Being a Scot, he wrote of growing up impoverished in “my two-room Fountainbridge home in the smoky industrial end of Edinburgh opposite the McCowans’ toffee factory. There was no bathroom with a communal toilet outside. For years we had only gas lighting.”
His father worked 12-hour days in a rubber mill and his mother worked as a cleaning woman. Connery himself took a job at the age of nine delivering milk. He left school at 13, joined the Royal Navy at 16, and was discharged three years later due to ulcers. The man who would be Bond shoveled coal, worked as a bricklayer and a coffin polisher. He was also an artist’s model at the Edinburgh Art School.
He took up bodybuilding and while competing in London (as the self-proclaimed “Mr. Scotland”), he was discovered by a casting director who wanted him to join the chorus of the musical South Pacific. Connery credited Robert Henderson, one of the show’s stars, with persuading him to consider acting as a career. Though Connery also thought about becoming a professional soccer player, he decided a life in theater offered more longevity.
Encouraged by Henderson, he became an avid reader of the world’s great works of literature and books about acting.
Prior to being cast as Bond, Connery starred in a variety of television and film projects ranging from the title role in Shakespeare’s Macbeth to a singing Dubliner in Walt Disney’s 1959 fantasy, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. His performance in a 1961 television adaptation of Anna Karenina led to an audition for producers “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, who were bringing Ian Fleming’s Agent 007, with his license to kill, to the big screen in Dr. No.
Among others who were considered or who auditioned for the role were David Niven, Trevor Howard, Cary Grant and Richard Burton, whom Fleming himself championed. As for Connery, a 1961 telex Saltzman sent to Broccoli reveals that Connery did not thrill the suits: “New York did not care for Connery. Feels we can do better.”
But Dr. No and Connery were a sensation. A blunt instrument in Fleming’s books, Connery’s Bond brought a rogish charm and sly humor to the character. (Connery said he supplied Bond’s deadpan jokes and double-entendres.)
With its two sequels, From Russia with Love and Goldfinger, he became an international superstar and tabloid target, much to his growing frustration. In her memoir, Connery’s first wife, actress Diane Cilento, whom he married in 1962, said of the couple’s split in 1971, “The whole damn Bond thing took over our lives.” They divorced in 1973. He married his second wife, painter Micheline Roqubrune in 1975.
Connery made some notable films during his Bond years, including Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological drama Marnie and The Hill, but Bond was his bread and butter. In a 1965 Playboy interview, he griped, “Bond’s been good to me, so I shouldn’t knock him, but I’m fed up to here with the whole Bond bit.” After a four-year hiatus following Thunderball, he officially left the franchise after 1971’s Diamond are Forever.
“It took time for audiences to warm up to Sean Connery away from (Bond),” film historian Leonard Maltin told The Hollywood Reporter in 2006. A run of successful films in the mid-1970s broke the Bond mold, with memorable performances in the 1974 ensemble mystery Murder on the Orient Express, the sweeping epic adventures The Wind and the Lion and John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, both released in 1975, and the elegiac love story Robin and Marian, in which he portrayed Robin Hood to Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian.
In 1983, he appeared for the last time as Bond in Never Say Never Again, a loose remake of Thunderball. “Things have been awfully dull around here,” a character greets him. “I hope we’re going to have some gratuitous sex and violence.” With the original Bond, a memorable villain in Klaus Maria Brandauer’s Largo and a beautiful but deadly Bond fatale in Barbara Carrera’s Fatima Blush, the film was the year’s 13th biggest box office hit, according to Box Office Mojo.
Connery continued to work steadily over the next decade. The Hunt for Red October (1990), The Rock (1996)and Finding Forrester (2000), his penultimate film, further cemented his action and dramatic bona fides. He retired after the disappointing The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, having turned down the role of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. But though he had retired from the screen, Connery did lend his voice to Bond video games and documentaries.