By Christmas of 1964, nowhere was safe for thirty-four-year-old Sean Connery.
It started with the fan letters — fifteen hundred per week. Then came the mobs rushing gates at movie premieres and personal appearances — screaming, fainting, tearing at his clothes, all demanding time, autographs, kisses, and more. Soon, even walking down the street incognito or taking his family out to dinner became perilous endeavors.
“The whole damn thing took over,” said his then-wife, the Academy-Award nominated actress Diane Cilento. “He really didn’t know who he was. People would call over to him things like, ‘Hey, Bondy, where’re you off to next?’ or ‘See any Soviet agents lately?’ It became impossible to have any sort of life. . . .It got madder and madder with each film.”
Every time it looked as if matters couldn’t get any worse, they did. In Tokyo (where they greeted him with screams of “Bondo!”) Connery was using a bathroom urinal when he heard a quiet click. Startled, he glanced up to see a Japanese photographer peeking around his shoulder with a Nikon. On another occasion, after graciously signing his name for an elderly lady at the airport, she reacted with a look of horror. “No, no!” she said, “I wanted James Bond.” Director Terence Young, who was with Connery, remembers that “Sean sort of crumpled. It suddenly occurred to him that he was no longer a human being, he was a symbol.”
For a painfully private and unassuming family man like Connery, this insane superstardom — Bond-age, you might call it — was intolerable. And so even as Goldfinger was smashing box-office records across the world, the actor responsible for playing the hero was counting down the days until his contract expired.
Tommy Connery was born in 1930 on the wrong side of the tracks of Edinburgh, Scotland, arriving just in time to grow up amidst the poverty of the Great Depression (his crib was a dresser drawer). At age eight he was already finding whatever odd jobs he could to help support Mom, Dad, and a younger brother: delivering milk and newspapers, working for the local butcher. By fourteen he was working three different jobs.
What little spare time he had was spent bodybuilding, and he soon transformed himself into a formidable, well-muscled bruiser. “There was nothing of the long-haired poet about schoolboy Connery,” recalls one of his classmates. “He was big, and he was as hard as nails in an easygoing way, and anyone at school who messed him about got a thick ear and a black eye.” After opening up a can of whoop-ass on a gang of local bullies one day, kids on the street started respectfully calling him “Big Tam.” Later “Shane” became an alternate moniker, inspired by the 1953 film. According to one version of the story, years of neighborhood use eventually corrupted Shane into Sean, and thus Tommy Connery’s reputation for toughness earned him the name that would one day adorn theater marquees around the world.
From early on, Sean found himself looking for some way to escape the claustrophobic slums of postwar Edinburgh, where generations of lower-class workers slaved away in quiet toil only to have sons and grandsons repeat the whole business ad infinitum. At sixteen he abandoned school and joined the Merchant Navy (a pair of tattoos stenciled on his right forearm — “Mum and Dad” and “Scotland Forever” — gave him the requisite Popeye look), but a year later he was mustered out on medical grounds from an ulcer. He spent the rest of his teens bumming around town as an “odd-job man”: steelworker, road worker, coal delivery man, cement-mixer, lifeguard, artist’s model, newspaper press-room worker, and bouncer at the local Big Band dance hall.
It was while serving as a polisher of tables and coffins that a co-worker introduced him to stagehand work at King’s Theater, and the exposure gave Connery the acting bug. When he and a friend later went to London to compete in the Mr. Universe contest on a lark (Connery says he placed third in the tall men’s class, others insist he didn’t make the cut), his ears perked up when someone mentioned that the touring show for South Pacific was on the lookout for burly actors who could sing. Connery crashed the audition, won a job, and was soon traveling all around the British Isles performing six evenings a week as a grunt in the chorus.
Mingling with professional actors for the first time prompted the high-school dropout to begin educating himself with Ibsen, Proust, Tolstoy, Stanislavski, and Thomas Wolfe. At a party he met another young actor named Maurice Micklewhite, and soon the two blue-collar thespians were commiserating about their troublesome accents (a Scottish brogue in Connery’s case, a Cockney twang for Micklewhite). This new pal would eventually change his name too, inspired by a 1954 Bogart movie poster, and thereafter Sean Connery and Michael Caine would remain lifelong friends.
Connery’s athletic prowess was such that, after a soccer match between the cast of South Pacific and a local team, he was offered a professional contract with Manchester United. After thinking over his options, however, he turned it down, choosing instead to keep hammering away at the frustrating but ultimately fulfilling acting game. “One of my more intelligent moves,” Connery later quipped.
A lucky break came when Jack Palance suddenly pulled out of a BBC production of Requiem for a Heavyweight, causing the director to take a wild chance on a physically imposing but still largely untested Scotsman. Connery put in countless hours of practice learning his lines and molding a serviceable American accent, and when the play appeared on TV reviews were good. In the wake of this success, Twentieth-Century Fox’s British office signed the twenty-seven-year-old to a studio contract. which Connery would later say was akin to “walking through a swamp in a bad dream.” Over a period of years Fox didn’t use him in a single project, choosing instead to occasionally loan him out to other studios for a quick buck.
Terence Young, who would direct three early Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball), remembers working with the young Connery on an early movie shoot. “He came to me and said in that very Scots accent of his, ‘Sir, am I going to be a success in this?'” Touched by this display of hopeful innocence, and impressed by his raw if unfinished talent, the director leveled with the struggling actor: “No — but keep on swimming. Just keep at it, and I’ll make it up to you.”
And that’s exactly what Connery did, acting in whatever films Fox loaned him out for. One day, on the set of Another Time, Another Place (1958) co-starring Lana Turner, her notorious hoodlum boyfriend Johnny Stompanato stormed the set and began waving a gun at the Scotsman, threatening to pump Connery full of holes if he should touch the legendary beauty. In an instant the Big Tam of old roared to life, leaping out of his chair like a panther, twisting the gun away, and sending the gangster flying with a wallop to his nose. Still later Connery would star in the one high-point of his Fox contract: Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), a performance made possible by a timely loan-out of the actor to Disney. The film was the usual Magic Kingdom success (Connery’s rendition of “Pretty Irish Girl” was even released on the radio as a single), and ultimately it would become an instrumental stepping stone to Bond.
Throughout the Fifties various parties had optioned the rights to James Bond, but all of those efforts resulted in nothing more than a single, mediocre 1954 TV adaptation of Casino Royale. It wasn’t until the early Sixties that a pair of aging, on-the-rocks movie producers named Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman made the whole thing work. Crucially, after negotiating the rights, they hired Terence Young as their director. Soon after getting the gig, Young attended a play in England and noticed that one of the muscular figures up on stage looked familiar. It was that kid — Sean what’s-his-name — who had so impressed him years earlier. Remembering his old promise to give him a boost someday, the wheels started turning: could this fellow possibly handle the Bond assignment?
He mentioned Connery to Broccoli, who did his own research by taking his wife to see a reissue screening of Darby O’Gill. When she began panting over the actor’s raw sex appeal, the producer’s interest was piqued. One meeting later and Connery had the job. “He bounced across the street like he was Superman,” marveled Broccoli about their first encounter. “He moved like a cat. That did it for us. Harry and I both said, ‘This is the guy.'”
“We’d never seen a surer guy,” Saltzman added. “Or a more arrogant sonofabitch!” Connery later explained that he deliberately gave off that impression during their initial confrontation. “My strength as an actor, I think, is that I’ve stayed close to the core of myself, which has something to do with a voice, a music, a tune that’s very much tied up with my background experience.” That voice, that music, harkens back to the mean streets of the Edinburgh slums, when a muscled kid named Big Tam once faced down gangsters and gained the respect of the neighborhood.
The execs at United Artists weren’t convinced by Broccoli and Saltzman’s enthusiasm, cabling them back from America with a curt request to “See if you can do better.” But the minds of the two producing partners were all made up. “Put a bit of veneer on that tough Scottish hide,” Broccoli promised, “and you’ve got Fleming’s Bond instead of all the mincing poofs we had apply for the job.”
The “bit of veneer” was provided by director Young, a man of fine tastes and manners who took Big Tam under his wing and taught him how to act sophisticated. Young decked Connery out in the finest clothes from Savile Row using his own tailor, and continually coached the actor in the nuances of creating a polished performance (“Sean, do keep your mouth shut while chewing your food!” “Tone down that bloody Scottish brogue!”). Soon Connery was looking and acting the part, to the point where movie critic Pauline Kael would gush that, “Connery looks absolutely confident in himself as a man. Women want to meet him and men want to be him. I don’t know any man since Cary Grant that men have wanted to be so much.”
Although the transformation sent the movie’s producers over the moon, the character’s creator took a bit more convincing. “I don’t think [Ian Fleming] approved of me terribly,” Connery later said. “But he did have casting rights over the film, so I guess he must have come round to the idea.” Fleming initially dismissed Connery as “that laborer playing Bond,” but once the first few films were successful he changed his tune, going so far as to adopt Connery’s Scottish background for the Bond of the books.
For those of us who wish Connery could have played Bond all the way up to the present day, the way his participation in the series ended was unfortunate. Compared to what Broccoli and Saltzman were making, Connery’s share of the burgeoning 007 pie was small, with only a fixed salary and a bit of profit participation to offset all the hell that Bond’s fame was playing with his life. Meanwhile, his image was being used on all manner of merchandise (toys, cars, aftershave — hundreds of products in all) without him getting so much as a cent for it:
I was paying 98% tax. I was making all this money and making movies and I had nothing. . . . Basically I’m a private person, and the Bond producers wouldn’t let me be that. I’d work six days a week, all day, with much of the work physical, then have to spend every free moment answering stupid questions like, “Do you like to beat people up? Slap women around?”
As the character’s popularity reached insane levels with the release of Goldfinger, Terence Young (slated to direct Bond’s next adventure, Thunderball) sensed Connery’s dismay with his stardom, and advised the producers that they would be wise to take the actor on as a full partner. “He’s a Scotsman,” Young argued. “He likes the sound of gold coins clinking together. He likes that lovely soft rustle of paper. He’ll stay with you if he’s a partner, but not if you use him as a hired employee.” Broccoli and Saltzman rejected the idea out of hand. In their opinion, Connery was getting more than enough for his trouble, and could be replaced fairly easily if needed. “All I ever did to Sean Connery,” Broccoli later said, “was make him an international star and a very, very wealthy man.”
Insulted by their stinginess and tired of the demands put on his time and life, Connery would grudgingly finish out his contract with Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967), then after a one-film hiatus commit to a final movie, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), so that he could donate his million-dollar paycheck to charity. But even as he appreciated what 007 did for his career, he left the fold with bitter feelings towards the two producers who, in his judgment, got filthy rich while he did most of the heavy lifting. “I’ve been screwed by more people than a hooker,” he said in disgust at the end of his run with the Broccoli outfit. “Bond’s been good to me, but I’ve done my bit. I’m out.”
And except for thumbing his nose at his erstwhile employers with the non-Broccoli-produced Never Say Never Again (1982), he’s stayed out. Like another veteran actor, Gene Hackman, Connery retired almost a decade ago and hasn’t looked back. He now spends his days enjoying “golf, food and drink,” that first item being a passion developed in 1964 while training for Bond’s epic match against The Man With The Midas Touch in Goldfinger.
Decades after his own stint, Connery was asked whether he had any advice to offer the then-new Bond, Timothy Dalton. His answer was only half-joking: “I hope he has a good lawyer.”
Next week in For Conservative Movie Lovers, a look at (and a listen to) the iconic music of Goldfinger.
Previous posts in the series “Ian Fleming, Sean Connery, and Goldfinger“
FURTHER READING and VIEWING
Sean Connery: Neither Shaken nor Stirred by Andrew Yule. (Also published as Sean Connery: From 007 to Hollywood Icon.) The world is chock-full of Sean Connery biographies, even though he’s kept pretty mum about his personal life in the decades since he gave up being Bond. I found this one to stand out above the rest by virtue of its anecdotes fueled by superior research and original interviews.
Sean Connery singing “Pretty Irish Girl” in Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). This great live-action movie is of a kind that Disney gave up making long ago. Judge for yourself whether Cubby Broccoli’s wife was right when she thought that ol’ Big Tam displayed here the requisite sex appeal for his future role as James Bond.
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Barbara Walters vs. Sean Connery! Watch Walters ambush Connery in typical leftist sneak-attack fashion, pitting her practiced feminist high dudgeon against his relaxed masculinity. Will he crack under the withering disapproval of this liberal-news-network Lady Macbeth? Or will he end up, in typical Bond fashion, “Neither Shaken Nor Stirred”?
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Sean Connery — AFI Award Tribute. A nice 2006 career-capping speech from a class act.
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