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Sean Connery is one of the world’s few bona fide film stars, a man whose face is recognizable from Los Angeles to Lisbon, from Glasgow to Gda?nsk. But if his comfortable, masculine presence has made him an icon to moviegoers across the globe, it is his acting skill that most strikes those who know him.
“He uses himself so magnificently with every role he plays,” says Sidney Lumet, who has directed him in five films, including 1965’s “The Hill” and 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” “Most actors are either leading men or character actors, but Sean is one of the few stars who encompasses both. A character actor essentially becomes what he is playing, whereas with most leading men, what they are playing becomes them. But Sean is capable of the two.”
Connery has demonstrated that rare capacity in roles ranging from Greek King Agamemnon in 1981’s “Time Bandits” and professor Henry Jones, father of a certain dashing archeologist in 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” to Soviet submarine skipper Marko Ramius in 1990’s “The Hunt for Red October.”
Add these to the role that made him famous — supersleuth James Bond — and together, they form a body of work significant enough that this year, the American Film Institute has named Connery the recipient of its Life Achievement Award.
It’s an accolade many believe is long overdue.
“Everyone knows and likes him, but he makes what he does look easy,” critic Leonard Maltin offers. “He doesn’t call attention to his skills or his methodology. He’s one of those actors who doesn’t like to talk about the process and perhaps wants us to believe that there is no process, that he simply gets up and does it — which, of course, is nonsense.”
Today, most critics and film artists view Connery as a consummate performer, the very model of what a great film actor should be. It’s a view his colleagues share.
“He is the ultimate professional,” says Catherine Zeta-Jones, his co-star in 1999’s thriller “Entrapment.” “If someone is not pulling their weight, he’ll let them know with a very strong Scottish accent that makes any grown man’s knees tremble.”
Still, she adds, “If I got the chance, I would do the phone book with him and put it on film.”
But the actor’s astonishing success is all the more impressive when considered against the humble backdrop of a childhood spent in the slums of Edinburgh, where he was born Thomas Sean Connery in 1930.
Despite Connery’s strong public identification with Scotland, his family’s roots there do not go deep. His ancestors only moved from Ireland to Glasgow in the 1880s, making them relative newcomers by Scottish standards, and his own grandparents relocated from Glasgow to Edinburgh in the early 1900s. Whatever hopes they might have had of a richer or grander life there failed to materialize, and their eldest grandson was born in a two-room ground-floor apartment in the industrial district of Fountainbridge — a name Connery would later give to his film company.
It was a place of bleak poverty, in stark and almost ironic contrast to the glamorous lifestyle that Connery would come to personify as James Bond. Indeed, the only toilet in the house was shared by the four families that lived there, according to one of his biographers, Andrew Yule.
Not that Connery seems to have suffered. “One of the things that strikes me is that no matter how difficult or underprivileged the situation you were living in as a child, it wasn’t considered difficult,” he once noted. “I don’t think as children, you’re aware of it. You have nothing to compare it to.”
With his father working a 12-hour day in a rubber mill and his mother toiling as a cleaning lady, there was little to indicate that young Tommy would live a life different from theirs, though his emerging good looks soon began to set him apart.
From the beginning, he was a hard worker — a trait that stayed with him throughout his professional career. At the age of 9, Connery already was working part time as a milkman and a butcher’s assistant before and after school. With so many demands on his time, it’s hardly surprising that he failed to distinguish himself as a scholar, except in English, where he excelled. It was even less surprising when he dropped out of school at the age of 13.
After a brief but unsuccessful stint in the Royal Navy (he was given a medical discharge thanks to an ulcer caused, in his words, by “trepidations, anxieties, fears”) and after toying with the possibility of becoming a professional soccer player, Connery got his first taste of show business when he was hired as a dresser at a local theater. Before long, he moved to London, where he heard about auditions for a touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific.” Connery landed a small part, dropped his first name and embarked on an acting career that would consume him to the present day.
Connery’s ascent can be attributed to a combination of his own individuality and the tide of social change that was rising in 1960s England, where the election of a Labor government, the leveling nature of mass-oriented television and the arrival of a group of Angry Young Men who transformed British theater all helped to pave the way for a new kind of hero.
If Connery was less obviously working-class than his friend and contemporary Michael Caine, he was far from the old Etonian that author Ian Fleming envisioned when he created James Bond. Bond was the brainchild of a sometime banker, stockbroker and British naval intelligence staffer who had failed to get into the diplomatic service then compensated for his own shortcomings by creating a fictional counterpart.
Fleming’s secret agent was smooth, sophisticated and suave; he also was unmistakably English and irrefutably upper-class, which made it all the more surprising that producers Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman offered the rough-edged Scot the part.
But when Connery brought Bond to the big screen in 1963’s “Dr. No,” his presence electrified the rather staid British film world. “He had the looks, the physique, the physicality, the sex appeal — and most of all, the insouciance — to pull it off,” Maltin says. “And as we have seen, it is not easy to find all of those qualities in one actor.”
The actor, though, felt he was playing a cartoon figure, a caricature that hardly served to showcase his talent. Nor did it help that his then-wife, actress Diane Cilento, heaped scorn on the part while earning an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in 1963’s “Tom Jones.”
In the intervening decades, Connery has expressed conflicting views on Bond. “I never disliked Bond, as some have thought,” he said on one occasion. “Creating a character like that does take a certain craft. It’s simply natural to seek other roles.”
On another occasion, however, he said: “I have always hated that damn James Bond. I’d like to kill him.”
Were Connery’s acting skills obscured by the trappings of the character? The Christian Science Monitor’s film critic Peter Rainer, who has written extensively on Connery, isn’t certain. “I don’t know if you can really say from those early Bond movies that he was a great actor, though it’s hard to be a great actor if you’re playing James Bond,” he says. “He grew into (the Bond character) as an actor and then outgrew it at the same time.”
Connery ultimately chose to abandon the franchise after playing the spy in six films — “Dr. No,” 1964’s “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger,” 1965’s “Thunderball,” 1967’s “You Only Live Twice” and 1971’s “Diamonds Are Forever.” He only returned as Bond on one other occasion, 1983’s “Never Say Never Again.”
As he embarked on the next chapter of his career, starring in such films as 1964’s “Marnie,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1966’s “A Fine Madness” and 1970’s “The Molly Maguires,” moviegoers seemed reluctant to accept Connery as anything other than the globe-trotting secret agent. The films he chose weren’t bad — in fact, several were quite good — but they were, at best, modest hits.
“Once the world fell in love with him as Bond, they couldn’t easily see him in another role — and frankly, didn’t want to,” Maltin says. “They wanted to lock him in place as 007 because he embodied that part so perfectly. It took time for audiences to warm up to Sean Connery away from that character.”
The public only really began to accept Connery in other roles during the mid-1970s, with 1975’s “The Wind and the Lion” and “The Man Who Would Be King” and 1976’s “Robin and Marian,” a run of films that finally sealed his reputation as an actor with movie-star charisma quite apart from Bond. And in the 1980s, another Connery emerged — a more settled personality who exuded a certain wisdom.
His Oscar-winning role in 1987’s “The Untouchables” helped create that new persona; his turn as Indy’s father in “Last Crusade” solidified it; and his cameo as King Richard in 1991’s “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” cemented it.
Today, thanks to those roles and stellar work in films such as 1993’s “Rising Sun” and 2000’s “Finding Forrester,” Connery has become one of the most-beloved figures in the Hollywood pantheon.
“He is one of the few actors who was identified with a character in several movies and then broke away from it,” Rainer says. “When people look at Connery now, they don’t think ‘James Bond.’ He is probably the most satisfying masculine presence in movies, period. He has a truly heroic presence, but he is also a great actor, and it is very rare to get someone who is both.”
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