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The idea of the late Sean Connery being anything other than a cinema icon may be a difficult one to comprehend, but there once was a time when the Scot was a struggling extra looking for work.
It was actually the director Alvin Rakoff who — in 1957 — gave a 26-year-old Connery his first leading role, although, as he admits to The Hollywood Reporter, it was his late first wife Jacqueline Hill who convinced him to do so.
A young Canadian filmmaker who had come over to the U.K. in the 1950s — becoming the youngest producer/director in the BBC’s drama department at just 26 — Rakoff had spotted Connery early on.
“He’d been an extra several times for me,” Rakoff, now 93, says. Among Connery’s first appearances in a BBC “television play” for Rakoff was the 1956 drama The Condemned — he is literally the last actor listed in the BBC’s credits.
Then in 1957, Rakoff was commissioned to produce and direct a remake of Requiem For a Heavyweight as part of the BBC’s regular, and hugely popular, Sunday Night Theatre anthology series. Originally written for U.S. television in 1956 by The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, the drama — which went on to win a Peabody award — told the story of Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, a once-promising but now washed-up boxer suffering from brain damage and facing the end of his career.
Jack Palance — who became an Oscar winner in 1991 for City Slickers — had played McClintock in the U.S. and was due to do the same for the BBC remake, but at the eleventh hour his agent called to say that something else had come up and he wouldn’t make it.
“That was Friday and we were about to start rehearsals on the Monday, so I began looking around desperately,” says Rakoff. “Then my wife rang while I was auditioning like crazy and said, what about Sean? I said, it can’t be Sean, he mumbles, he’s never done it before.”
Her response: “The ladies would like it.”
So Rakoff called Connery in and, as he says, “the rest is history.”
That said, Connery’s performance wasn’t quite a phenomenal breakout that immediately had Hollywood calling.
While his time as a bodybuilder meant he had a good physique (“although not quite a heavyweight,” admits Rakoff), at one point during the rehearsals, BBC drama head Michael Barry popped by and, not enamoured by what he saw, told his filmmaker that he needed to “find a new leading man.” Rakoff convinced him otherwise, and says that Connery’s “acting ability was good enough” at the time.
“He matured, I’m very happy to say, as the years went by, into a much better actor.”
Just five years after Requiem for a Heavyweight, Connery was cast in his defining role as James Bond. (Legend has it that this decision too came at the behest of the filmmaker’s wife, Dana Broccoli reportedly being instrumental in persuading producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli to pick the Scot.)
Interestingly, Connery wasn’t the only fresh-faced extra to land an early part on Requiem for a Heavyweight. Also playing a boxer yet further down the cast was Michael Caine, then about 23 years old.
Almost two decades later, with both Connery and Caine firmly established among the leading talents of their generation, they reunited for John Huston’s acclaimed adventure The Man Who Would Be King.
As notes Rakoff, who is now writing a book about his career, the advertising for the hit 1975 film boasted about its stars being “together for the first time”
“But it wasn’t the first time!,” he laughs. “They both appeared on a TV show and said, yes, we did appear together before, but had been told to keep quiet. The film company had obviously spent millions promoting the film as them being together for the first time, so I said to Sean, ‘together for the second time doesn’t sound quite as good’.”
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