Several years ago, the Rome Film Festival had invited Sean Connery to a public meeting, and one of his documentaries was shown for the occasion, one that I think had never been shown before in Italy: The Bowler and the Bunnet. It was a documentary from 1967 on the crisis of the shipyards in Scotland and the attempt to find a good outcome in the conflict between the executives (“the bowler hats”) and the workers (“the bunnet,” the typical Scottish cap).
And Sean, in the rare role as a film director (in which he made only one more movie, about Edinburgh), tells the story by going around the town and the shipyards, interspersed with him playing soccer with the workers. This was not merely a footnote—it said a lot about Sir Thomas (like his grandfather, according to tradition) Sean Connery.
He was the son of Joe, a Catholic worker and truck driver, the grandson of Irish immigrants to Scotland, and Elfie, a Scottish Protestant and cleaning lady. His second name, Sean, did not become the first for artistic reasons, but (apparently) because he was with an Irish friend named Seamus when he was little and everyone called him Sean. There was little money at home, and Neil, his younger brother, had also been born, so Sean started working. He delivered milk, and decades later he amazed a taxi driver from Edinburgh because he knew the names of all the streets. When asked “How do you do it?” he answered “I delivered milk as a boy.” Then the driver asked him “And what do you do now?” and whenever he told the story, Sean would add that “it was quite difficult to answer him.”
Then, he helped out in a butcher’s shop and a coal factory. At the age of 13, he quit school and went to work at the milk plant. But he was an unusual young man: he discovered literature all by himself, and at the age of 16 he enlisted among the Sea Cadets, the youth section of the British Navy, and as an aspiring sailor got a couple of tattoos: “Mum and Dad” and “Scotland forever.” But that life was not for him.
After three years, he returned to Edinburgh, willing to do any job, including polishing coffins. “I was pretty good,” he would say later, as a bricklayer, lifeguard, van driver and model for Edinburgh School of Arts students. That was already in recognition of the fact that the young man had physical beauty (the artist Richard De Marco called him “too handsome, an Adonis”). In that period, he approached the world of the theater. Anna Neagle, a popular actress at the time, wife of director and producer Herbert Wilcox, hired him.
For some time before, Sean had developed another odd passion: body building. He trained hard at the gym, then went to London for the Mr. Universe contest. He was among the top ten contestants from Europe. He also had to give up soccer, another great passion that had given him satisfaction and some prospects (Matt Busby, manager of Manchester United, saw him play and offered him a contract). “I realized that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23,” he recounted. “I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.”
His career path began to be marked by the theater, although he was forced to take diction lessons because his Scottish accent was overbearing (a mannerism that he has always wanted to keep off the set, and yet “the only way to know who I am and where I come from”). Also important were the teachings of the dancer Yat Malmgren, who became a teacher after an accident, and who educated him on how to master his body. There were small parts, cameos, then increasingly important roles, both in theater, cinema and television.
His big break came with Bond, James Bond. It was 1962, and once again it was women who bolstered his case. Albert Cubby Broccoli was about to create the most long-lived series in cinema, the 007 series. His wife Dana was convinced that Sean was the one, while Albert was much more skeptical. Ian Fleming, the creator of Bond, did not see him in the role either, but his girlfriend suggested that Sean had the sex appeal for the part. Fleming thus changed his mind, to the point of inventing a Scottish father for Bond in his novel You Only Live Twice. The success was resounding and on a global scale.
The rest could have been history, and Connery has always been considered the best Bond ever (he played him seven times); however, he didn’t want to be boxed in. On the contrary, in a recent interview with the Observer, he had the opportunity to say, “I have always hated that damn James Bond. I’d like to kill him.” He didn’t, but he started exploring around, working with Hitchcock, Lumet, Dmytryk, Ritt, before leaving Bond and moving on to Boorman, Milius, Huston, Attenborough, Lester, Hyams, Gilliam, Brooks, Zinnemann, and an independent return to the role of Bond with Kershner in Never Say Never.
Mulcahy’s Highlander was another memorable moment, followed by Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (“I had the pleasure of meeting Umberto Eco, a fantastic man, the most interesting person I’ve ever met from the point of view of conversation”) and then DePalma’s The Untouchables, with the role of the grumpy and magnificent Jimmy Malone which netted him an Oscar. Soon after, Spielberg wanted him as Indiana Jones’s dad (even though he was only 12 years older than Harrison Ford).
What followed were other important, and often magnificent, films, but it seems right to remember him by his penultimate appearance (the last one, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, dates back to 2003 and led him to quit cinema after stating that the director should have been “arrested for insanity”)—namely Discovering Forrester by Gus Van Sant, a movie that he particularly loved.
He was married twice, to Diane Cilento (1962-1973), with whom he had his son Jason, and Micheline Roquebrune, who was by his side since 1975. A proud Scot and an advocate of independence, Connery should have already been made a Knight in the 1990s, but his candidacy was opposed until 2000, when he finally became Sir. In Tallinn, Estonia, there is a bronze bust of Sean right in front of Tallin’s Scottish Club, because many Scottish expats live there.
Connery was perhaps the only actor who could be seen on the big screen in a thong (Zardoz), a kilt (Robin and Marian) and even as a king (Robin Hood), without ever being ridiculous. After all, one of his favorite sayings was “do what you can with what you’ve got,” and what he had to work with was Thomas Sean Connery. We will miss him.
Subscribe To Our Newsletter
Your weekly briefing of progressive news.