by Jason Frank Koenigsberg Sir Sean Connery has passed away at age 90. A giant among mortal men. A legend of the silver screen who defined masculinity for generations. I […]
by Jason Frank Koenigsberg
Sir Sean Connery has passed away at age 90. A giant among mortal men. A legend of the silver screen who defined masculinity for generations. I can go so far as to say that he was my favorite actor of all time. Living to age 90 is a good run and he probably went out on his own terms as he did when he chose to retire from acting and step away from the spotlight seventeen years ago. How many people in 2020 could have said that they worked with Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, Steven Spielberg, John Huston, and Sidney Lumet? Well, one less person now that Sean Connery left us and those are just a few of the biggest filmmakers Mr. Connery got to collaborate with.
I made sure not to mention that Sean Connery was the first and ultimate actor to play James Bond on the big screen anywhere in the headline. Sean Connery was much more than just the best Bond. That role was a blessing and a curse to him. It defined his career and gave him more international fame and money than most actors could ever dream of having, but the shadow of 007 loomed so large over his body of work that even after winning a much deserved Academy Award for The Untouchables (1987) it still was the character he was most associated with. Connery is still thus far the only actor to play James Bond to win a coveted Oscar. James Bond had become larger than any one man and the institution of the franchise ranks high as the longest running and arguably most successful movie series. I also did not want to make this seem like just another bad event that has occurred in 2020. Sean Connery passing away is not another reason to bemoan 2020 and say it sucks. Sean Connery was bigger than 2020. His life and his legacy deserve much more than being lumped in with all of the unrest and terrible events from the past ten months. Mr. Connery was a larger than life presence and defined an era of movies for nearly half a century. Most actors only have ten years or so when they are icons. Connery was an icon for much longer than the average movie star and his legacy will continue to shine long after his passing today.
Sean Connery was also a proud Scotsman who spent many years of his life campaigning for his beloved homeland to be independent and free from rule under the British crown. He is probably the most famous Scotsman of the twentieth century and was not shy regarding his political beliefs even though it may have hindered his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth which he was finally granted in the summer of 2000. Connery came from humble beginnings born to a working class family in Edinburgh, Scotland. He worked odd jobs, served in the military, and was even a body builder before he got into acting. His childhood roots served as a pillar for his beliefs and was always pro union, wary of big business, and did not trust banks to hold his money until he bought his own and placed all of his earnings there.
His acting career started off with a bunch of small roles in the 1950’s but it was when he was hired by Walt Disney to star and even sing (yikes) as an Irish farmer in Darby O’Gill and The Little People (1959) that the right people started to notice him. I think this movie is (thankfully) the only time Sean Connery was required to sing onscreen and that is probably best for everyone.
Sean Connery as James Bond in ‘Goldfinger’ (1964)
That film earned him a lot of attention, the most important person to notice him from that film was Albert R. Broccoli’s wife who remembered and recommended her husband and his producing partner Harry Saltzman screen test Connery for the role of James Bond since the big movie stars like Cary Grant and James Mason were not interested in signing on to play the spy for more than one or two movies. The rest is history. His big breakout role was playing Agent 007 in Dr. No (1962) and he would portray Ian Fleming’s super spy seven more times over the next twenty one years. From that point on there was no turning back. Sean Connery was the biggest and highest paid movie star in the world. Women all wanted him and men wanted to be him.
There is a reason why all these years later most people still consider Sean Connery to be the greatest Bond of them all. Yes he was the original, and yes he set the standard but it is a standard that still holds up today. He was fortunate enough to star in the 007 movies at a time when the world needed a hero like James Bond, someone to unite the East and the West governments to work together against the mysterious and absolute evil that was SPECTRE. Sure he was chauvinist on screen, and possibly in real life when he had the famous Barbara Walters interview when he said it was acceptable for a man to hit a woman. But Connery was from a different time. An era of the old Hollywood and he was one of the last of his era. As stated above he worked with filmmaking icons that most people only read about. His James Bond set records that remained unbroken for decades and still remain when adjusted for inflation. He was one of the biggest stars in the world at a time when the post World War II era was ready for a hero of his stature. Other James Bonds have been great and Connery was very complimentary of their performances and what they did with the character especially considering how far they drifted from the James Bond Sean Connery created. But he knew good cinema when he saw it. He always had high praise for Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig, and was longtime friends with former James Bond the late great Roger Moore. Sean Connery’s James Bond defined a lot of elements of motion pictures that remain influential today and that is one of the main reasons he is so revered. His first 007 film Dr. No works great as a standalone spy thriller, and its follow up From Russia With Love (1963) is a spectacular Cold War movie that was the last film President John F. Kennedy saw before his untimely death. Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965) broke records that the previous two never came close to and remained box office juggernauts for years. You Only Live Twice (1967) Connery was tired of the press and wanted to break away from the character along with fights over money with producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and only returned to the character with Diamonds are Forever (1971) to become the highest paid actor of all time up to that point. In typical Connery fashion he shrugged it off and donated most of his salary to charity. He was always giving to charity especially for anything that benefited Scotland.
Somehow Sean Connery was able to sustain his success and remain on the top of Hollywood’s A-list for over forty years. At the time of his self proclaimed retirement he still could have reneged on that and received top billing on a motion picture and been a box office draw. Sure he had a lot of misfires over his long career but somehow the critics always seemed to give Mr. Connery the benefit of the doubt. He emerged from box office disasters like Zardoz (1974), Meteor (1979), and The Avengers (1998), not the Marvel one, the British one, virtually unscathed and ready to tackle his next big picture. Just look at the ridiculous costume he had to wear throughout Zardoz and you realize that role could have easily killed the leading man status of a lesser actor.
Walt Disney was not the only Hollywood icon that Sean Connery would work with early on in his career. He got to be the leading man opposite Alfred Hitchcock’s newest and last muse Tippi Hedren in Marnie (1964), the actress and stars follow up to their massively successful The Birds (1963). Hitchcock and Hedren’s tumultuous and toxic working relationship could not withstand the negative reviews and this time around the box office receipts were not nearly the same as The Birds so Marnie is often looked at as a failure but it remains one of Hitch’s most interesting and intimate later works and both he and Tippi Hedren were very complimentary of working with the talented Connery. Hedren even spoke at his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 saying what a gracious costar he was.
The 70’s were a particularly difficult period for Sean Connery in the post James Bond era as he tried very hard and often failed (at least at the box office) to shed his suave super spy image. One of his finest roles during this decade was opposite his dear friend Michael Caine in maverick director John Huston’s adventure epic The Man Who Would Be King (1975) not the big box office hit that his record breaking 007 movies were, but a resounding success for everyone involved.
In fact some of his best acting performances came in the five films he starred in that were directed by Sidney Lumet. They had a great working relationship that spanned decades from The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), to The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Family Business (1989). Those films contain some of Mr. Connery’s most versatile and emotional acting performances. In fact, if The Hill and The Offence were bigger hits at the box office they easily could have resulted in two Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. All of those films remain undiscovered gems that are waiting to be seen and enjoyed and viewers may find it hard to believe Sean Connery had the brilliant acting skills of doing more than just being an action star while handling a gun or looking good in a tuxedo.
Sean Connery had a bit of a resurgence in the 1980’s. He returned to the role he swore off a decade earlier and played Bond, James Bond in the non Albert R. Broccoli produced 007 film aptly titled Never Say Never Again (1983) which boosted his star status at the time and helped introduce the world to his newest Bond girl Kim Basinger who would go on to become a huge star and Academy Award winning actress of her own. He also starred in Highlander (1986) which would be destroyed by the critics and gain mediocre earnings at the box office but eventually received cult status and Connery would re-team with director Russell Mulcahy and star Christopher Lambert for the inept but not without its charms Highlander II: The Quickening (1991). This was one of the rare times Connery appeared in a sequel to a film he starred in that was not James Bond and he openly said it was because he loved working with the director and Chris Lambert, and it was a big paycheck. He also starred in the medieval murder mystery The Name of the Rose (1986) which contains another great under appreciated Sean Connery performance that really shows off another side of his acting chops. But it was not until the following year that critics and audiences really caught on to how great of an actor Sean Connery was when he starred opposite Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness and Robert De Niro as Al Capone in director Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Ironic that when most people think of Sir Sean Connery it is usually him as one of the silver screens most iconic leading men, but his sole Oscar nomination and its subsequent win came in a Supporting Role for his outstanding performance as Malone, the mentor to Costner’s lawman. It was a huge win and Connery received a resounding applause that night from his peers when Nicolas Cage and Cher opened the envelope and read his name. He definitely deserved that Academy Award.
That Oscar victory put Sean Connery back on top of the world. Now he was wanted and desired by movie producers and audiences the likes of which he had not been in years. His first film after his Oscar win (which was already in production at the time he won) was the Peter Hyams San Francisco based action flick The Presidio (1988). This was the second time he worked with Hyams after their previous High Noon in space action sci-fi movie Outland (1981). Both The Presidio and Outland are fun B-movies and Connery excels as the action star. He was never shy to show his age often only wearing wigs if the part required it and that seldom hurt his sex appeal as 1989 was about to become one of the biggest years of his career. He not only got to work opposite Harrison Ford in the Steven Spielberg directed, George Lucas produced Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade but was also named People Magazine’s Sexiest Man of the Year. Connery was probably the only actor on Earth who could have possibly played Indiana Jones’ father and lets face it, he basically was the greatest aspect of that movie which highlighted his comedic talent in a way no other films had. His delivery of the lines such as “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers”, and “I’m sorry son… they got us” never cease to get a laugh.
The next ten years Sean Connery remained a box office force and had some of the best roles of his career. To quote Michael Bay who directed Connery in The Rock (1996) one of the finest films of both the star and director he said Connery was “like a fine wine, he gets better with age”. In 1990 Sean Connery starred in one of his most memorable roles as Soviet Captain Marko Ramius opposite Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan in John McTiernan’s tense submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October based on the novel by Tom Clancy which started the immensely successful Jack Ryan series that is still very popular today. Connery would work with McTiernan again in the criminally under-seen Medicine Man (1992) about an unconventional doctor who searches for the cure for cancer in the Amazon rain forests.
The 1990’s was the era when Sean Connery could do whatever he wanted and he declined a lot of big paychecks for roles in Jurassic Park (1993) and The Matrix (1999) to work on the smart, sophisticated more adult oriented thrillers like Rising Sun (1993), Just Cause (1995) and Entrapment (1999). But his best role of that decade would still be an action film, possibly the single best role of Sean Connery’s career as John Mason in the action packed thrill ride The Rock (1996). The perfect bookend to his career which started with James Bond and the shadow 007 cast over his entire career. He was ideal in The Rock as an older James Bond type and starring opposite Nicolas Cage and Ed Harris and delivered one of his finest performances. It works as an unofficial sequel to his 007 films if his character were captured and detained by the US government because he knew too many of their secrets.
If The Rock were his final role, he would have gone out on a high note and it would have been a storybook ending to a prolific career. After The Rock, Sean Connery worked on a handful of other movies in the late 90’s but none amounted to a huge success and some were forgettable. As movies started to change in the late 90’s and early 2000’s Sean Connery found trouble selecting what roles to take. He famously turned down the role of Morpheus in The Matrix (1999) and the role of The Architect in its sequels. Reason why, he said he did not understand it. He turned down the role of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the reason why, he said he did not understand it and he did not want to spend eighteen months shooting on location exclusively in New Zealand. Both of those films turned out to be massive critical and commercial hits and would have been great notches on Sean Connery’s belt. So when he was offered the lead role of Allan Quatermain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), even though he did not understand the script, he accepted. It ended up being a role he would regret. The film was doomed with a troubled production, the worst flooding in Europe destroyed some of the sets, Connery and director Stephen Norrington constantly fought and the final product was an incoherent mess. The whole time watching The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen I just wanted to shout out “Stop!”, walk onto the set, give Sean Connery a hug and say “let’s go, you don’t need this”, and walk him away. Connery stated he hated making the film and it probably contributed heavily to his decision to retire.
He would never make another movie and honestly did not need to. Sure selfishly we may all wish that he made a few more movies over the past two decades while he was still healthy and he easily could have if he wanted but he chose to settle in with his family and enjoy his retirement. He was an avid golfer and a huge tennis fan and towards the end of his life his most famous public appearances came at events such as Wimbledon and the US Open. He split his time between his home in the Bahamas where he passed away along with houses in New York and LA. But he always adored his beloved Scotland which will likely be the place of his burial. Rest In Peace Sir Sean Connery and thank you for so many great years with great movies to cherish forever. What a legacy.
Mike Myers hosted the AFI tribute to Sean Connery and his opening monologue perfectly captures how I feel about Sean Connery. Watch it below.