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One of Andrew Birkin’s lasting memories of Sean Connery is of the actor, who died over the weekend at the age of 90, digging a splinter out of Birkin’s foot.
It was the late ’60s. Birkin was working as a location manager in Spain on a Michael Caine World War II movie, Play Dirty. Down the road, they were shooting Shalko, a Western starring Connery, Brigitte Bardot and Stephen Boyd. Birkin knew Boyd and the two crews used to hang out together in the evenings.
“One night, I don’t know how it happened, I got a huge splinter in my foot,” remembers Birkin. “I have a lasting memory of Sean spending half an hour digging it out while Stephen held me down.”
Birkin met Connery again on the set of the Guy Hamilton-directed Bond film Diamonds Are Forever where Birkin was a second-unit director (“I basically filmed shots of [Blofeld’s] cat going down staircases,” he says). But it wasn’t until the early ’80s, when he was brought in to write the screenplay for The Name of the Rose, that he actually worked with Connery, in the role — medieval friar William of Baskerville — that was probably the most removed from the actor’s iconic portrayal of 007.
“Baskerville was a completely different role for Sean, but I think he pulled it off nicely,” Birkin says.
Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, The Name of the Rose is an adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name from Italian writer Umberto Eco. It’s an intellectual mystery about a nonconformist friar who investigates a series of suspicious deaths at an isolated abbey. The book combines a whodunit plot with biblical analysis, medieval studies and philosophical musings. But when Birkin came on board the project, it was a long way from that.
“There had been a couple of previous writers on the project before me,” notes Birkin. “A French writer who’d done a rather good script, but it was four hours long, and an American version, which I took to calling ‘Raiders of the Lost Monastery.'”
Birkin returned to the original source material — Eco’s novel — and, together with Annaud and Bernd Eichinger, the film’s producer, set about crafting a version of The Name of the Rose that would be intellectual enough for fans of the book but would still provide enough action and suspense to warrant a mainstream release.
“I tried to follow Hitchcock’s dictum, that if you are going to talk philosophy in a film, make sure the audience knows there’s a ticking time bomb underneath the floor,” says Birkin.
Connery, who had recently returned for his seventh and final outing as Bond in Never Say Never Again, was discussed as a possibility for the Baskerville role.
“We didn’t think he’d do it, not at any rate for the money that was on offer,” Birkin quips, “but he didn’t want to be typecast, not as Bond or in any role.”
Clutching the final draft of Birkin’s script, Eichinger and Annaud flew to L.A. to personally persuade Connery to play against type. Instead of the sexy spy ordering martinis and bedding women, he would be the reserved monk debating theology and quoting Aristotle. In place of Bond’s classic side-part, the follically challenged Connery would be asked to rock a tonsure, a Franciscan friar hairstyle consisting of a shaved scalp and a hair halo around the rim.
“Jean-Jacques [Annaud] asked me if I would also act in the film, which I agreed to on the condition that I didn’t have to have a tonsure,” says Birkin. “That pissed Sean no end as he’d only agreed to his on the assurance that all the other actors would be having one.”
Annaud had warned Birkin that Connery wanted to make a number of changes to his Name of the Rose script. It wasn’t to punch up the action though. Quite the opposite.
“Sean had not only read Umberto Eco’s novel, which is something like 500 pages, but he had also read up on Aristotle,” Birkin recalls. “He wanted to put more of the philosophy in, stuff like Aristotle’s quote about man being a political animal.”
Birkin says he had to play politics himself on set, negotiating between Connery, who favored a more introspective take on William of Baskerville, producer Eichinger, who wanted to give The Name of the Rose as mainstream an appeal as possible, and Annaud, who just wanted to stick to the script they had all signed off on. In the end, Eichinger and Annaud got their way, though Birkin and Connery managed to slip in a few more philosophical quips.
Reflecting on Connery’s performance, Birkin sees Connery exploring a character that seems a world away from James Bond.
“He gave [Baskerville] a dour, rather Scots sense of humor,” he says. “He brought pensiveness and thoughtfulness to the part. Things he wasn’t able to play in Bond. Bond is a man of action. Here, Sean played a man of words.”
It was a role that appeared to resonate with the man Birkin knew. “He was quite a shy guy, really, not antisocial but not really a great socializer,” he recalls. “I knew him as a very sweet, gentle person. I’ve heard rumors he could be difficult, and his reputation with women wasn’t that great, but I never saw any evidence of that. … I was fond of him. And I’m grateful he pulled that splinter out of my foot!”
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