Every actor wants to work. And a small percentage of those actors get to work in films that people remember; and a much smaller percentage get to play an iconic character over the course of several films; and an infinitesimal percentage manage to find success by tackling other roles after becoming famous as that iconic character. Which brings us to Sean Connery, who died this week at the age of 90.
His portrayal of super-spy James Bond was as essential to the 1960s as The Beatles. (Even though, in “Goldfinger,” Connery’s Bond cracked that drinking warm champagne was “as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.”) He wasn’t technically the first Bond — Barry Nelson played the Ian Fleming character in an American TV adaptation of “Casino Royale” in 1954 — but Connery invented an action hero who was overtly sexual in a way that his predecessors hadn’t been, although still able to dispatch the bad guys with ruthless efficiency, all the while never spoiling the crease in his tuxedo.
Connery himself came from working-class origins, having been a milkman and a lifeguard before flirtations with professional bodybuilding and football on his way to an acting career. Bond might have been an employee of Her Majesty, but he was always more of a roughneck than an Oxonian. Here was a British hero without the tiniest bit of foppish elitism or aristocratic remove; his authority came from his steadfastness, his steely gaze, his unwavering voice.
Bond was cruel and sadistic, but Connery’s screen presence was so dashing and charismatic that audiences rarely noticed. If you look back at the spy craze of the decade, one that inspired knock-offs and parodies galore, you can pin it entirely on Connery’s shoulders. He had an acting career before becoming 007 — one that encompassed stage, TV and movies like the sudsy Lana Turner potboiler “Another Time, Another Place” and the Disney whimsy of “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” — and he was determined to have one after being 007, as well.
As Tom Cruise would later do in projects directed by Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, to name a few, Connery used his box-office clout as a way to work with leading filmmakers who would show audiences the breadth of his capabilities. As Bond-mania was reaching an apex in 1964, Connery signed on to star opposite Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie,” a psychosexual drama that wasn’t embraced at the time but has built a growing cult over the decades.
Even though Hitchcock later sniffed to François Truffaut that he “wasn’t convinced that Sean Connery was a Philadelphia gentleman,” Connery is perfectly cast in a role that requires him to be both cruel and affectionate, manipulative and understanding. Connery clearly had a better working relationship with Sidney Lumet, with whom he worked a year later on the 1965 WWII drama “The Hill.” The two would go on to collaborate on 1971’s “The Anderson Tapes,” a highlight of Connery’s post-Bond career, “The Offence” (1973), “Family Business” (1989), and the all-star “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974).
“Family Business,” incidentally, is perhaps best recalled as the film in which we’re supposed to believe Connery as the father of Dustin Hoffman and the grandfather of Matthew Broderick, but of course Connery paved the way for actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Liam Neeson to play American characters with European accents that audiences chose to overlook. (As former TheWrap film critic April Wolfe tweeted, Connery, in “Highlander II: The Quickening,” played “a Spanish-Egyptian immortal and DID NOT CHANGE HIS ACCENT AT ALL. And we went, ‘Sure, why not.'”)
Walking away from the Bond franchise after “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971) — apart from a one-off reprise of the role in the aptly-titled “Never Say Never Again” (1983) — Connery came into his own as a charismatic lead in films that weren’t easily categorized. For every traditional, two-fisted heroic turn in movies like “Outland” (1981), “Meteor” (1979) or “The Great Train Robbery” (1978), the actor also offered up the likes of Richard Lester’s “Robin and Marian” (1976), casting him as a later-in-life Robin Hood still madly in love with his fair maiden Audrey Hepburn, or John Boorman’s “Zardoz” (1974), a sci-fi freakout in which Connery’s red loincloth and a giant floating stone head duke it out as the film’s most unforgettable image.
It’s the savvy movie stars that know when to share the limelight, and Connery often did so, whether taking on a cameo as Agamemnon in “Time Bandits” (1981) — Michael Palin’s original script said the role should be played by “Sean Connery — or someone of equal or cheaper stature” — or the supporting role of the hero’s dad in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). The actor scored his one Oscar nomination, and win, for his scene-stealing role as one of Elliot Ness’ lieutenants in Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” (1989), and his very favorite role, thought by many to be his career highlight, came in John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975), sharing top billing with longtime pal Michael Caine in a rousing and bittersweet Rudyard Kipling adaptation.
Connery ended his filmography with something of a whimper: In true “nobody knows anything” fashion, he said yes to “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) while turning down “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix.” (While many might lump in his latter-day appearance in 1998’s “The Avengers” as a bad career move, there is a small but devoted contingent of fans of this oddball TV adaptation trying to convince Warner Bros. to #ReleasetheJeremiahChechikCut) It’s perhaps better to think of his final film as 2000’s “Finding Forester,” in which he once again worked with a world-class filmmaker (Gus Van Sant) and delivered a moving performance as a reclusive, Salinger-esque author.
It’s a role that shows that steadfastness, still an essential tool for the actor decades into his career, and a quality that will make these performances endure for future generations.