Sir Sean Connery, first actor to play James Bond on the big screen – obituary

Telegraph Obituaries
·12-min read
Sean Connery - Universal Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images
Sean Connery - Universal Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Sir Sean Connery, the film actor, who has died aged 90, played James Bond, the British secret agent, with such piercing intelligence, animal magnetism, smouldering menace, sophisticated swagger and, above all, sex appeal as to transform the shallow, charmless protagonist of Ian Fleming’s Cold War spy novels into a screen superman – and himself into a superstar with one the most famous faces of the 1960s.

A rough, gruff Scotsman with a sometimes disconcertingly direct manner, Connery was unlike the Bond of the books in almost every respect: where Bond was elegant, Connery was unkempt; unsophisticated where Bond was suave. Where Bond had an upper-class English accent, Connery growled in a rich Scots brogue; and where Bond had attended Eton and Fettes, Connery had left Darroch secondary school in a working-class enclave of Edinburgh a few weeks before his 14th birthday.

Nevertheless, making his Bond debut in Dr No in 1962, Connery certainly looked the part. One famous publicity shot showed him in a bespoke shirt from Turnbull and Asser, plain black silk tie, pouring a Smirnoff vodka while listening to music on the latest Dansette record player.

Casting him had undoubtedly been a gamble: the film’s distributors had wanted a recognised star but the producers preferred an unknown. Connery had turned up for the role in baggy trousers, loafers, and an eruption of five o’clock shadow, but amused the producers with his easy, laconic style.

Sean Connery gets to grips with Ursula Andress in Dr No -  CAP/RFS
Sean Connery gets to grips with Ursula Andress in Dr No - CAP/RFS

Harry Saltzman was impressed that a man of Connery’s size and frame could move in such a supple way. Cubby Broccoli was more succinct. “He looked like he had balls,” he said.

But even as the film opened, one studio executive was predicting that the unfamiliar Connery would “never go over” in the all-important American market. Moreover, many British reviews were lukewarm, the New Statesman complaining that Connery made “an invincibly stupid-looking secret service agent” and another commentator faulting him as “disappointingly wooden and boorish”.

Connery proved them all wrong. With his confident air of danger and sexuality – “animal-man at its best,” raved one (female) critic – he bridged the working-class realism of the New Wave films of the late 1950s and the fantasy of the Swinging Sixties. Audiences saw him as ordinary man moving upwards through a world of exotic foreign travel, consumer luxuries and disposable pleasures. Less an angry young man, in the words of one historian, than a very satisfied one.

Although little known before taking the role of 007 in Dr No (for which he was paid just £15,000), Connery became the pre-eminent box office star in both Britain and the United States with the film’s sequels, From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965). His tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the indefatigable womanising superspy made him the world’s leading box office attraction. Comparisons were drawn between Connery and the popular romantic heroes of Hollywood’s heyday such as Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.

Thirty years after he first uttered his signature line – “Bond. James Bond” – Steven Spielberg was still singing his praises. “There are only seven genuine movie stars in the world today,” he enthused, “and Sean is one of them.”

But as the Bond cult grew – adulation dubbed Bondmania by the papers was starting to rival Beatlemania by the time Goldfinger was released – Connery began to fear that he would become so closely identified with 007 that no one would cast him in any other role.

Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice - Sunset Boulevard/ Corbis Historical
Sean Connery in You Only Live Twice - Sunset Boulevard/ Corbis Historical

This “Bondage” annoyed him. By the late 1960s he was growing somewhat weary of the character. Moreover once Connery had learnt his lines for a role he liked to stick to them, yet the Bond scripts were subject to frequent change.

Later on when John Huston (“great company, a great poker player”) decided at the last moment to change a song Connery was required to sing while crossing a bridge in The Man who would be King (1975), Connery responded by asking Huston to try crossing the bridge and singing the new song himself. Huston eyed the actor, paused, then said: “Let’s leave it how it is, kid.”

After the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), Connery had had enough and refused to sign up for another film. For On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Bond was played by the young Australian actor George Lazenby, known only for television commercials, whose lack of charisma provoked demands for the return of the screen Bond’s only true begetter.

Having successfully broken away from the image which had brought him fame but so much exasperation by making other films such as Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), Edward Dmytryk’s Shalako (1968) and Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1968), he hesitated to return to Bond. Then, for old times’ sake (and an unprecedented fee of $1.25 million plus 10 per cent of the gross receipts), he allowed himself a final fling in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Meanwhile, to his relief, a likely successor had been found in the form of Roger Moore, who was known from the television series The Saint, and whose breezy humour and lighter touch were better suited to the growing silliness and fantasy of the later epics.

Moore took over the next four films; and Connery could resume with a clear conscience his career as a serious actor – first in 1971 with his favourite director, Sidney Lumet, in The Anderson Tapes, then with John Huston in The Man Who Would Be King and so on for nine or 10 other, variable films.

Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again - Sheila Penn/ Bob Penn/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images
Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again - Sheila Penn/ Bob Penn/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

Then after more than a decade of “freedom from Bondage” the shadow fell again. It was as if the very title of the latest project – Never Say Never Again (1983) – had been chosen to defy his defection. He could not resist it. “It was an error of judgment,” was all he would say subsequently of his last brush with Bond.

It took three years for him to get over his disappointment with the film and with himself. But when at last he had exorcised the superspy’s spirit, his return to the screen in The Untouchables, for Brian De Palma, brought Connery his only Academy Award. He felt he had at last proved himself an actor in his own right.

Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - CAP/PLF
Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - CAP/PLF

The post-Bond Connery sought new roles that were deliberately experimental. Yet his scene-stealing performances in such popular fare as Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in which he played Harrison Ford’s father, and John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October (1990) as the renegade captain of a Russian submarine, showed that the man who had seen off Oddjob and grappled with Pussy Galore had lost none of his audience-pleasing screen magnetism.

The son of a lorry driver and a charlady, Thomas Sean Connery was born at Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, on August 25 1930 and left Darroch school at 14 to become a milkman, making deliveries by means of a horse and cart. At 16, rejoicing in the nickname Big Tam on account of his impressive physique and darkly masculine looks, he joined the Navy. After two years he was invalided out with an ulcer. He took jobs as a bricklayer, bouncer, lifeguard and coffin polisher.

Tommy Connery’s interest in body-building led to his modelling for life classes at a college of art. He went to London to compete in the Mr Universe contest (winning a bronze medal), and at 21 auditioned for the chorus of South Pacific at Drury Lane. He changed his baptismal name to Sean, and joined the musical’s tour.

Having played football for Scotland juniors, he toyed with the idea of joining Manchester United, but an American actor persuaded him to work on his voice so as to lose part of his Scottish accent and to acquire a literary background by reading the classics.

He did so in public libraries, devouring the complete works of Shaw, Wilde, Ibsen and James Joyce, and later on would raid the lending libraries of every town and city he visited on his travels. “It’s the books, the reading, that can change one’s life,” he remarked. “I’m the living evidence.”

On moving to London, however, he found work hard to come by and scraped by on money earned from babysitting.

Then, after drifting (without formal training) into provincial rep, in 1956 Connery began playing small parts on television and in unremarkable B-films such as, in 1957, No Road Back, Action of the Tiger, Hell Drivers and Time Lock then in 1958 Another Time, Another Place, then Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure the following year and The Frightened City and On The Fiddle in 1961; as well as in the lavish recreation of the Allied invasion of Normandy in The Longest Day (1962). He had also played Macbeth for Canadian television in 1961.

Then came Dr No.

Sean Connery in Goldfinger - CAP/MFS/ Capital Pictures
Sean Connery in Goldfinger - CAP/MFS/ Capital Pictures

Many critics thought Connery’s acting better in his non- Bond films. In Hitchcock’s Marnie, for example, as a publisher married on therapeutic grounds to a frigid kleptomaniac, he had shown a subtler sexual arrogance and a paler, truer menace than had been possible in the thinly written Bond parts. He also picked up something from the director, who encouraged him during filming to talk more slowly, and corrected his tendency to listen open-mouthed while others were speaking. “The good people of Pocatello,” observed Hitchcock, “will not be all that interested in your dental work.”

There were other signs of the darker, more disturbing side of his talent in Basil Dearden’s Woman of Straw (1963) and particularly in his portrayal of a sullen and subversive military prisoner in Lumet’s The Hill.

In Irvin Kershner’s A Fine Madness (1966) Connery was badly cast (as a flirtatious American poet), but as the tight-lipped, insolent and scowling hero of the western Shalako, he rose stylishly above most of the absurdities of the plot (including Brigitte Bardot as a European countess touring New Mexico).

Sean Connery in From Russia with Love - Popperfoto/Getty Images
Sean Connery in From Russia with Love - Popperfoto/Getty Images

He made an assured and intelligent leader of the saboteurs in Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires; and as leader of a gang of New York burglars in The Anderson Tapes, he drove the film’s dry humour forward at a brisk pace.

He was the rough policeman who suspected Ian Bannen of molesting little girls in another Lumet film, The Offence (1972), taken from John Hopkins’s stage play, and in John Boorman’s Zardoz (1973), he played, with a certain grit, a futuristic warrior with a pigtail.

Of his many later films, he popped up in all-star ensembles such as The Murder On The Orient Express (1974) and A Bridge Too Far (1977). He gave a hilarious performance in Robin and Marian (1976) as a decidedly middle-aged Robin Hood who comes home to Sherwood Forest after the death of Richard I and finds that scaling a castle wall isn’t as easy as it used to be, and struck a stern note as a federal district marshal in outer space in Peter Hyam’s Outland (1981).

The Oscar for his supporting role as an Irish cop in The Untouchables (despite a typically half-hearted attempt at an Irish accent) prompted a career resurgence and two years later, at 59, he was voted the “sexiest man alive” by the American People magazine.

Subsequent credits included The Name of the Rose (1987), The Russia House (1991) and Rising Sun (1993). He appeared briefly as Richard the Lionheart in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and played a reclusive author in Finding Forrester (2001). His last feature film was The League of Extraordinary Gentleman in 2003, after which he withdrew into secluded retirement, apart from contributing voices to a James Bond video game and an atrocious animated comedy called Sir Billi (2012).

“The movie business retired him,” his friend Michael Caine told The Daily Telegraph, “because he didn’t want to play small parts about old men and they weren’t offering him any young parts in romantic leads.”

In the 1980s, claiming he had been inadequately paid for his part in creating the Bond character on screen, Connery had launched a lawsuit against the producer Cubby Broccoli and United Artists for the then record sum of $225 million. The action, citing the argument that profit-sharing amounted to stock participation, was eventually settled out of court under terms that were never made public. But both sides claimed victory.

He gave a good deal of money to charity, and agreed to star in Diamonds are Forever, for example, only if the studio gave him £1 million with which to set up the Scottish International Educational Trust.

A lifelong nationalist, he joined the SNP in 1992 and frequently articulated robust opinions on Scottish independence.

He received an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt university in Edinburgh in 1981, and another from St Andrews in 1988. Other awards included a Bafta lifetime achievement award in 1990 and a Golden Globe in 1996. He was knighted in 2000.

Sean Connery married first, in 1962 (dissolved 1974), the actress Diane Cilento; their son, Jason, became an actor. He married secondly, in 1975, Micheline Boglio Roquebrune, with whom he lived as a tax exile in Spain and then in the Bahamas.

Sir Sean Connery, born August 25 1930, died October 31 2020