Today is Sir Sean Connery’s 85th birthday, and to celebrate, I thought I’d take a look back at Connery’s relationship with James Bond, the character that made him famous.
Think of Sean Connery and you instantly think James Bond. As agent 007, Sean Connery exuded cool, and his suave, British superspy made men want to be him and women want to be with him. In the 1960s, “Bondmania” erupted and turned Connery from a relative unknown into a megastar, whose popularity was on a par with The Beatles.
But there is undoubtedly more to Connery than James Bond. If anything, the films that made him an icon of the 60s also constricted him, casting a shadow over his performances in every other film he undertook. The public saw him as James Bond and wanted him to remain James Bond, which is a shame because there was far more to his acting ability than seducing women, saving the world, and looking good in a suit.
Connery was cast having had little in the way of experience. He’d done theatre, television, and had some notable film roles, including the lead in Disney’s “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959), but he’d never had a part with quite the enormity of expectation as playing James Bond.
Initially, producers “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were reluctant to cast an unknown, and were unsure of taking such a big risk on Sean Connery. It is widely understood that Connery landed the part of 007 at the insistence of Dana Broccoli, Cubby’s wife, who recognised Connery’s appeal to women, remarking that he “moved like a cat”.
Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, was also initially against casting an “overgrown stuntman” in the role of his dashing Commander Bond, but even he relented after the success of “Dr. No”. He even went as far as to change Bond’s heritage to Scottish in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (written at the time of “Dr. No”) to reflect Sean’s portrayal more closely.
The success of the early films, and particularly “Goldfinger” showed what an astute choice Connery had been for the role. He breezes through “Goldfinger” with such ease, it is difficult to imagine that he was carrying the weight of the movie on his shoulders. “Goldfinger”, of course, was an enormous success, changing the fortunes of the franchise and all those involved with it. Until “Goldfinger”, the Bond films had been a risk. Now they were a licence to print money.
Connery became a bone fide superstar in 1964. It is hard to comprehend today the level of fame that he had. He was at the epicentre of a global cultural phenomenon, and he became engulfed by it.
Bond may have made Connery a superstar, but even during his tenure as 007, he was determined to break away from the confines of the role, intent on being taken seriously as an actor. His turns in “Woman of Straw” (1963), “Marnie” (1964), and “The Hill” (1965) all played strongly against type, with Connery’s acting ability particularly shining in “The Hill”. But Bond was ever present, despite these successes. The public’s appetite was for Bond and Connery felt the mounting pressure of the role and the constrictions it placed upon him.
Finally, in 1967, Connery could take no more and he quit the role that made him famous. By this time, relations between Connery and the producers “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had severely broken down, with Connery refusing to work at all if Harry Saltzman was present on the set. Connery felt that, as the films became more successful and the producers earnt more and more money, he was not being given his due. His threat to leave the franchise didn’t alter the financial situation, with the producers feeling that the James Bond films were bigger than just their star.
Finally, it all came to a head when, whilst shooting “You Only Live Twice” in Japan, Connery was followed into the restrooms by an over-eager journalist. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back and Connery said goodbye to James Bond for good. Or so he thought.
Determined to make his mark outside of the world of 007, Connery went on to do a number of films after his departure from the Bond series, most notably “The Anderson Tapes” (1971), teaming up once again with director Sidney Lumet who had directed him in “The Hill” and would go on to direct Connery again the following year in “The Offence”.
Meanwhile, the producers of the Bond films, “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, were quickly learning that perhaps they had misjudged the public appetite for Sean Connery as Bond. They began to realise that quite a lot of the previous films successes had been due to Connery, after all.
Connery’s replacement in the role of 007, George Lazenby, had delivered a very different type of Bond, one who was emotional and vulnerable, one who didn’t always save the day. Whilst today “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” is considered by many fans to be one of, if not the best, films of the series, at the time audiences were not ready for a downbeat Bond and Lazenby’s understated performance.
The film was a financial and critical failure and, whilst the producers looked for other actors to play the role, David Picker, the head of UA, insisted that they once again turn to Sean Connery to step into the role of James Bond.
However, Sean Connery was not so easily won back. His demands for a greater share in the profits had fallen on deaf ears when he had been in the role, so this time Connery was determined to use his leverage and hit the producers where it hurt – their wallets. He made a deal with United Artists that he would return for just one more Bond film, “Diamonds Are Forever”, with the stipulation that he could make two other pictures of his choice with them and that he would be paid the then unheard of sum of one-and-a-quarter million dollars. Pickering accepted.
However, Connery wasn’t doing this to be greedy. He took the entire fee for the movie and used it to establish the Scottish International Education Trust, where Scottish artists could apply for funding without having to leave their country to pursue their careers. This provided Connery with the ability to not only encourage the arts in his native Scotland and make two films of his own choosing, but also to give the middle finger to Cubby and Harry.
Connery left Bond, famously uttering the words “never again”. Connery didn’t look back for a second and instead went on to play a variety of leading roles, including Daniel Dravot in John Huston’s epic adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” opposite Sir Michael Caine, the complex Detective-Sergeant Johnston in “The Offence”, and the rakish Edward Pierce in “The First Great Train Robbery”. He also played the part of Federal Marshal William O’Niel in “Outland”, Peter Hyams’ space-set reinterpretation of “High Noon”.
Connery also appeared in a cameo role as King Agamemnon in Terry Gilliam’s fantasy adventure “Time Bandits”. Ironically, in the original script, King Agamemnon was introduced as: “…someone that looks exactly like Sean Connery, or an actor of equal but cheaper stature.” With that simple line, Connery’s transformation from former Bond actor to genuine screen legend was complete.
Then, in 1983, Bond beckoned once again. This time however, it was not to be an “official” Bond film. Instead, film producer Kevin McClory was exercising his right to remake “Thunderball”, the story of which he had co-written with Ian Fleming and Jack Whittingham in the 1950s.
McClory had long been a thorn in the side of both Ian Fleming and to Eon Productions. Since the 60s, Eon had worked hard to keep control on their commercial property and had done everything in their power to stop McClory from making a Bond film. They had many lengthy and protracted court battles over the intervening years and it’s fairly safe to say that in Eon’s eyes, McClory was public enemy number one.
This did not deter Connery in the slightest. On the contrary, McClory and Connery had, in fact, been working closely together on a new Bond film for some time, but for various reasons that did not come about. The resultant remake of “Thunderball”, “Never Say Never Again”, timed as it was to coincide with the release of “Octopussy”, seemed like a final single-finger salute from Connery to Eon.
Connery’s relationship with the producers never really mended. Sir Roger Moore tells the story of how one evening whilst chatting with Sean Connery, he told him how Cubby had lamented that “Sean wouldn’t piss in my ear if I was on fire.” Connery shook his head and said to Moore “You can tell Cubby I’ll piss in his ear anytime.” Even today, after the passing of both “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, Connery’s presence is notable in its absence from any Bond-related events, eschewing Royal premieres and charity events alike.
However, in 2005, Connery returned to the role of James Bond for one final occasion. This time it was for the video game adaptation of “From Russia With Love” by EA Games. Connery not only leant his voice to the character of James Bond but also his likeness, or at least his likeness from 1963.
After so many years in cinema and after so many memorable roles, it’s fairly safe to say that Sean Connery has successfully shed himself of the shackles of Bond. Following his departure from the Bond series he has made numerous films that have been hugely successful and memorable in their own right, including “Highlander”; “The Name of the Rose”; “The Untouchables” for which he won his only Oscar; “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, playing the eponymous hero’s father, and “The Hunt For Red October”, in which he plays a Russian submarine captain who likes to do Sean Connery impersonations.
However, even having managed to leave the role of Bond behind, 007 is a character that simply won’t let you get away. Mocked, parodied, or reverently homaged, Connery’s Bond has inspired a million imitators and yet has never truly been bettered. And despite Connery’s incredible career post-Bond, even at 85, Connery will still have to contend with Bond’s spectre.