Saturday, October 31, 2020

Icon II: He Shailed Into Hishtory

For many punters Sean Connery, who died on Saturday aged ninety, was the definitive James Bond. Suave, yet a cold-hearted ruthless killer, his 007 was every inch the Cold War warrior of Ian Fleming's novels. He strode across the screen, licensed to kill, shaken but never stirred. He moved - in the words of his producer - 'like a panther,' hungry and in search of his prey. But whereas Fleming's hero went to Eton, Connery's own background was noticeably short of Aston Martins, beautiful women, casinos and vodka Martinis.
Thomas Sean Connery was born in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh in August 1930, the son of a Catholic factory worker and a Protestant domestic cleaner. His father's family had emigrated from Ireland in the Nineteenth Century potato famine; his mother traced her line back to Gaelic speakers from the Isle of Skye. The area he grew up in had been in decline for years. Young Tommy Connery was brought up in one room of a tenement with a shared toilet and no hot water. He left school at thirteen with no qualifications and delivered milk, polished coffins and laid bricks, before joining the Royal Navy. Three years later, he was invalided out of the service with stomach ulcers. His arms by now had tattoos which proclaimed his twin passions: 'Scotland forever' and 'Mum & Dad.'
Connery was a keen footballer, having played for Bonnyrigg Rose in his younger days. He was offered a trial with East Fife. Later, while on tour with South Pacific, Connery played in a match against a local team that Matt Busby, manager of Manchester United, happened to be scouting. According to legend, Busby was impressed enough with Sean's physical prowess to offer Connery a contract worth twenty five quid a week immediately after the game. Connery admitted that he was tempted, but he recalled: 'I realised that a top-class footballer could be over-the-hill by the age of thirty and I was already twenty three. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.'
In Edinburgh, he gained a reputation as hard man when six gang members tried to steal from his coat. When he stopped them, he was followed. Connery launched a one-man assault on the ruffians which the future Bond won hands down. He scraped a living any way he could. He drove trucks, worked as a lifeguard and posed as a model at the Edinburgh College of Art. He spent his spare time body-building. The artist Richard Demarco, who as a student often painted Connery, described him as 'too beautiful for words, a virtual Adonis.' But, bitten by the acting bug when odd-jobbing at a local theatre, he opted to pursue his luck on the stage. In 2009, Connery recalled: 'When I took a taxi during a recent Edinburgh Film Festival, the driver was amazed that I could put a name to every street we passed. "How come?" he asked. "As a boy I used to deliver milk round here," I said. "So what do you do now?" That was rather harder to answer.'
In 1953, he was in London competing in the Mister Universe competition. He heard that there were parts going in the chorus of a production of the musical South Pacific - during which period he first met another jobbing actor, Michael Caine, who became a lifelong friend. By the following year, he was playing the role of Lieutenant Buzz Adams, made famous on Broadway by Larry Hagman. American actor Robert Henderson befriended Connery and encouraged him to educate himself. Henderson loaned him works by Ibsen, Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw and persuaded Connery to take elocution lessons. Connery made the first of many appearances as a film extra in the 1954 movie Lilacs In The Spring and, later, had a more substantial role in the 1957 noir classic Hell Drivers (with a cast that also included Stanley Baker, Patrick McGoohan, William Hartnell and David McCallum).
There were roles on television too, including a gangster in an episode of Dixon Of Dock Green.  Connery, however, was struggling to make ends meet and was forced to accept part-time work as a babysitter for the journalist Peter Noble and his actress wife, Marianne, which earned him ten shillings a night. He met the Hollywood actress Shelley Winters at Noble's house, who described Connery as 'one of the tallest and most charming and masculine Scotsmen' she'd ever seen. Around this time Connery was residing at TV presenter Llew Gardner's house. Robert Henderson landed Connery a role in a six pounds a week Q Theatre production of Agatha Christie's Witness For The Prosecution, in which he was cast alongside a fellow-Scot, Ian Bannen, forming another lasting friendship. This was followed by Point Of Departure and A Witch In Time at Kew, Pentheus opposite Yvonne Mitchell in The Bacchae at the Oxford Playhouse and a role opposite Jill Bennett in Eugene O'Neill's production of Anna Christie.
In 1957, he got his first leading role in Blood Money, a BBC reworking of the acclaimed Requiem For A Heavyweight, in which he portrayed a boxer whose career is in decline. The role had been made famous on TV in America by Hollywood legend Jack Palance. When Palance refused to travel to London for the remake, the director Alvin Rakoff's wife - the actress Jacqueline Hill - suggested Sean with whom she had previously worked. 'The ladies will like him,' she said.
A year later, he was cast alongside Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place. Her boyfriend, the mobster Johnny Stompanato, reacted badly to rumours of a romance. He stormed on set and pulled out a gun. Connery grabbed it from his hand and overpowered him, before others stepped in and kicked him out. Two Scotland Yard detectives then 'advised Stompanato to leave' and escorted him to the airport, where he scuttled off back to the US. Connery later recounted that he had to 'lie low for a while' after receiving threats and menaces from men linked to Stompanato's mob boss, Mickey Cohen.
In 1959 Connery landed a leading role in Robert Stevenson's Disney film Darby O'Gill & The Little People alongside Albert Sharpe, Janet Munro and Jimmy O'Dea. The film was a tale about a wily Irishman and his battle of wits with leprechauns. The New York Times reviewer praised the cast, except for Connery whom he described as 'merely tall, dark, and handsome.' Sean also had prominent television roles in Rudolph Cartier's 1961 BBC productions of Adventure Story and Anna Karenina, in the latter of which he co-starred with Claire Bloom. His star was rising; he played Harry Percy in the An Age Of Kings, the title role in a major TV production of Macbeth and, on the big screen, appeared - along with just about every other actor in the world - in Darryl Zanuck's production of The Longest Day. And then came Bond.
Producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman had acquired the rights to Fleming's novels but were having trouble finding an actor to portray 007. Richard Burton, Cary Grant, David Niven and Rex Harrison were all considered. So were Lord Lucan and the BBC's Peter Snow. It was Broccoli's wife, Dana, who persuaded her husband that Connery had the magnetism and sexual chemistry for the part. That view was not originally shared by Bond's creator. 'I'm looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stunt-man,' Fleming allegedly said. But Broccoli was right and Fleming, as he later happily admitted, was wrong. The author quickly changed his mind when he saw Connery in action. He even wrote a half-Scottish history for the character in some of his later works.
The director Terence Young took Connery under his wing, taking him to expensive restaurants and casinos, introducing him to his tailor and teaching him how to carry himself, so the slightly gauche Scot would pass as a suave and sophisticated assassin. Connery made the character his own, blending ruthlessness with sardonic wit. Many critics didn't particularly like it and some of the initial reviews for Dr No were scathing when it was released in October 1962. But the public did not agree. The action scenes, sex and exotic locations were a winning formula. Dr No, made a pile of money at the box office. Even abroad it was hugely successful; President Kennedy was a fan, requesting a private screening at the White House.
More Bondian outings followed: From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (made in 1966, released the following year). It was exhausting and occasionally dangerous. During the filming of Thunderball, he was thrown into a pool full of sharks with only a flexi-glass screen for protection. When one of the creatures got through, Connery beat the hastiest of retreats. On that occasion he was, most definitely, shaken and stirred.
There was other widely-praised work during this period outside of Bond, including a fine starring role in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) and The Hill, a tough and much-admired 1966 Sidney Lumet drama about a wartime British Army prison in North Africa in which Connery gave one of the finest performances of his career.
But, by the time You Only Live Twice was completed, Connery was tiring of Bond and feared being typecast. He turned down On Her Majesty's Secret Service and made Edward Dmytryk's western Shalako opposite Brigitte Bardot instead. Saltzman and Broccoli lured him back for Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, meeting the actor's demand for a then record one-and-a-quarter million dollar fee. Connery used it to set up the Scottish International Education Trust, supporting the careers of up-and-coming Scottish artists. As part of the deal, he also got to produce Lumet's The Offence (starring in it opposite his old friend Ian Bannen), a sensationally raw and visceral police drama about as far removed from Bond as it was possible to get.
There were attempts to get him to stay on as 007. Diamonds Are Forever's author Tom Mankiewicz recalled taking Connery to dinner and explaining what he was planning for the next movie, Live & Let Die. Connery politely declined. 'I only ever wanted two things in life,' Sean reportedly told Tom. 'My own golf course and my own bank. I've got the first and I'm working on the second!' Instead, he made John Boorman's mad as toast futuristic SF movie Zardoz. Ridiculed at the time (not least for the costume Connery was wearing) it has, subsequently gained something of a cult following.
Connery starred in John Huston's long-cherished Rudyard Kipling adaptation, The Man Who Would Be King (1975), alongside his friend Michael Caine - a particular favourite of this blogger - but most of the next decade was spent in supporting character roles, such as a grand turn in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits or as part of an ensemble cast in blockbusters like Murder On The Orient Express and A Bridge Too Far.
He was terrific as an aged Robin Hood in Dick Lester's Robin & Marion (1976, opposite Audrey Hepburn and Robert Shaw) and also in Michael Crichton's The First Great Train Robbery (1979, with Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down). Having lost a lot of money in a Spanish land deal, he accepted a lucrative offer to play Bond again, in Never Say Never Again in 1984. This time 007 was an ageing hero; older, wiser and self-deprecating (thanks to Connery insisting on having two of his favourite comedy writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais write most of his dialogue) but ultimately still as hard as nails. The title was allegedly suggested by Connery's wife, Diana Cilento, who reminded her husband he had vowed 'never to play Bond again.'
He continued to play memorable parts in the 1980s, winning a BAFTA for his performance as William of Baskerville, in Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose. And, he gained a whole new, younger audience as the flamboyant immortal Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez - the world's first Scottish-Egyptian(!) - in Russell Mulcahy's Highlander in the same year, 1986. (Just pretend that all of the Highlander sequels - one of which Connery was persuaded to appear in despite his character having been, you know, beheaded in the first movie, never happened.)
A year later, his performance as a world-weary Irish cop - albeit still with that Scottish accent - in Brian DePalma's The Untouchables, won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, he was truly outstanding as Harrison Ford's archaeologist father, despite being only twelve years older than his co-star. Steven Spielberg memorably recalled casting Connery with the words 'who on Earth could possibly play Indy's dad other than someone with the charisma of Sean Connery?!'
There was a further knowing nod towards Bond, alongside Nicholas Cage in The Rock, where he was a British secret agent kept imprisoned for decades. Connery had box office success in The Hunt For Red October (as the world's first Scottish-Russian submarine commander!), The Russia House and Entrapment; although First Knight, The Avengers and The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen were less highly regarded - even though Connery was, as always, very watchable in all three.
He turned down the role of Gandalf in The Lord Of The Rings in 2006, declaring himself tired of acting and sick of the 'idiots now making films in Hollywood.' After a difficult experience making The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, during which he reportedly clashed with the director Stephen Norrington, Connery 'retired' from acting in 2003 and refused an offer to join the cast of the fourth Indiana Jones film three years later, claiming 'retirement is just too damned much fun.' However, he did complete one more film, voicing the title role in the Scottish-made animation Sir Billi (2012). He was briefly considered for the role of the gamekeeper in the 2012 Bond movie, Skyfall, but the director, Sam Mendes, wisely felt it would be distracting to have a previous 007 appear with Daniel Craig and cast Albert Finney instead.
Sean Connery began life in an Edinburgh tenement and ended it with a villa in Greece, sharing a helicopter pad with the King of the Netherlands. Always hating the Hollywood lifestyle, he preferred to play golf at his homes in Spain, Portugal and the Caribbean, with his second wife, Micheline Roqubrune, an artist he had met in Morocco whilst filming The Man Who Would Be King. His previous marriage, to the Australian actress, Diane Cilento, had ended in 1975 amid allegations he had been violent towards her and had a string of affairs. They had a son, the actor Jason Connery. At various times, Connery had well-documented extramarital affairs with Jill St John, Lana Wood, Carole Mallory, Magda Konopka and the singer/songwriter Lynsey de Paul.
Despite his exile (he hated being called a tax exile and once released all of his financial documents to prove that he paid what he considered to be his fair share), he retained a full-throated passion for Scotland, despite once misguidedly endorsing a Japanese blend of whisky which went down like a sack of shite North of the border. In the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, Connery's brother Neil claimed that Connery would not come to Scotland to rally independence supporters, since his tax exile status greatly limited the number of days he could spend in the country.
He attributed his notoriously short temper and his reputation for 'moodiness' to his Celtic genes. 'My view is that to get anywhere in life you have to be anti-social,' he once said. 'Otherwise you'll end up being devoured.' A long overdue knighthood, finally awarded in 2000, was reportedly held up by Donald Dewer because of his support for Scottish independence. In truth, his Bond is now something of a museum piece; the portrayal of women in those early films seems impossibly dated. The action scenes are still properly thrilling, but the sex too-often bordered on the non-consensual. Thankfully, it's been a while since 007 slapped a woman on the bottom and forced a kiss from her. But Connery's performance was of its time, enjoyed by millions of both sexes and gave the silver screen a genuine twenty four carat Twentieth Century icon. He leaves behind him a body of work that any actor would be proud of and, not least, a vacancy for the title The Greatest Living Scot.