When Ian Fleming wrote James Bond, he had a clear image of what his main character should look like: One might suspect that Sean Connery matched this image best. But Sean Connery’s legacy does not only consist of the numerous embodiments of James Bond in the many adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.
Nevertheless, the success of the James Bond films allowed him to establish himself as a character actor: Thus, he shone in numerous productions directed by Sidney Lumet. In the course of his career, Connery appeared in over ninety films.
Youth and modesty
Sean Connery was born into simple circumstances in August 1930: even when he was a successful actor, Connery lived relatively modestly compared to other screen stars – he only needed a place to sleep, to cook, to work and to live, he said. Furthermore, compared to his childhood, he lived like a king, he said.
Despite his great success as an actor, Connery maintained an understatement lifestyle throughout his life. Among other things, large parts of his fees went into a foundation that supported the interests of Scottish culture.
From bodybuilder to actor
Connery’s career as an actor by no means began with overnight success: before he even had the idea of trying his luck as an actor, he took on a whole series of odd jobs to earn a living. Connery used his free time mainly to do bodybuilding: It was bodybuilding that one day gave Connery the idea of entering show business.
But it took a few years before Connery received his first role offer: Another Time, Another Place (1958) Connery played his first major film role.
In 1959 Connery played one of the supporting roles in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the producer team Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were looking for an actor who could take on the role of James Bond: Various established British actors were considered for the role, including Cary Grant, David Niven or Roger Moore.
Connery’s appearance impressed the producers and persuaded them to cast him in the role of James Bond: The director of the first Bond film Dr. No (1962) Terence Young was entrusted with the task of introducing Connery to the world of elegance and upscale lifestyle.
A diamond in the rough
Within a very short time, Connery worked his way into the role of James Bond and eliminated all doubts that the role should have been given to an established actor: Admittedly, at the time of shooting the first James Bond film, it was far from certain that this first film would be the start of a successful franchise. But the producers’ decision to sign a still unknown actor proved to be the right one: from an acting point of view, Connery was still a rough diamond who was also prepared to remain loyal to a franchise over a longer period of time. Cary Grant also considered the Bond producers’ offer – but he would only have been willing to take on the role of James Bond for one film.
New acting challenges
From the second Bond film, Goldfinger (1964), in which Connery starred alongside Gert Fröbe, Bond films became increasingly elaborate: the budget became more generous, the sets more imposing and the advertising campaigns more intense.
Connery played the role of the British secret agent in the first five Bond films before announcing his retirement from the role in 1969. He then took on the role of James Bond again in Diamonds Are Forever (1973).
Sean Connery wanted to use the fame that came to him as a Bond actor to establish himself as a character actor: After almost a decade in the role of James Bond, Connery was looking for new acting challenges.
Sean Connery’s fame now caught the attention of directors of the calibre of Alfred Hitchcock: Connery played one of the leading roles in the thriller Marnie (1964). With his role in the classic The Hill (1965) Connery consolidated his image as a character actor under the direction of Sidney Lumet: the James Bond fever that broke out in the sixties, however, caused such roles to go mainly unnoticed. It was only when the role of James Bond was taken over by other actors that cinema audiences noticed Sean Connery’s character roles.
In the seventies and eighties, Connery achieved a real image change: he slipped into numerous roles that were considered artistically demanding. The films, however, were often slammed by the critics. After James Bond, Connery did not choose his films according to their chances of success, but paid attention to artistic ambition and expressiveness.
Never say never again!
However, Sean Connery never completely distanced himself from the action film genre: In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Connery played the role of Professor Dr. Henry Jones. In the Robin Hood film Robin and Marian (1976), Sean Connery played the role of Robin Hood alongside Audrey Hepburn.
When Sean Connery once said to his wife that he would never play the role of James Bond again, she retorted: “Never say never!”. Connery’s wife was to be proved right: in 1983, Sean Connery slipped into the role of secret agent James Bond for the last time in his film career in Never Say Never Again.
Mentor and teacher
Late in his career, Sean Connery often played characters who acted as mentors: In the drama The Name of the Rose (1986) Connery played the role of William of Baskerville. In The Untouchables (1987), the Scottish actor again played the role of an experienced mentor alongside Robert de Niro and Kevin Costner.
In the eighties, Sean Connery managed to give his acting career a new direction: his decision to play the role of James Bond in Never Say Never Again one last time paid off. This performance enabled him to expand his repertoire of roles in the eighties and nineties with very successful films.
He didn’t play James Bond, he was James Bond
At the beginning of the 21st century, Sean Connery retired from show business: he had previously been offered the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings or a leading role in the Matrix franchise, among others, but turned them down. One of his last major roles was that of the writer William Forrester, cut off from the outside world, in Finding Forrester (2000), which also bore traits of a wise mentor.
Sean Connery was one of the most memorable characters of 20th century cinema: his characteristic Scottish accent and his casual, classy acting are still unmatched today.
He was associated with the role of James Bond throughout his life – and not without reason, because one thing is certain: Sean Connery did not play James Bond, Sean Connery was James Bond.
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig