On the fifth weekend of October 2020, the curtains finally called for Sir Sean Connery, the Scottish actor who was, for many, the definitive James Bond on screen. In his 45-year-career, Connery had played a great many roles, but none so vaunted as his seven-film-span as the suave British agent, which established his image in the forefront of the sexual revolution of the '60s.
It would come across as a bit of surprise to many that Connery as Bond was not the first natural choice for Ian Fleming, the British author who penned the James Bond series of novels. Fleming detested the idea of an "unrefined working-class Scot" playing a "suave English spy" and to this end, he was quoted as saying, “He's not what I envisioned of James Bond looks”, and “I'm looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stunt-man”, opting instead, for Cary Grant.
But all of it changed after Fleming’s girlfriend convinced him that Connery had the requisite ‘sexual charisma’ to pull of the role and the author, commandeering over much of the film script of Dr. No, decided to give him a try.
And surprised he was, for Connery played the role in the first-ever film in the James Bond series with much sophistication, the physical grace and presence of the spy, personified.
With great strides, 007 strode across the screen, licensed to kill, and in the process re-invented the action hero prototype in Hollywood. There simply was no contest.
The November 1965 issue of the Playboy magazine featured a candid interview with Sean Connery, the Scottish newspaper ‘The Sunday Herald’ called him “The Greatest Living Scot”, and the People Magazine set the definition with not only voting him as the “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1989 but also “Sexiest Man of the Century” a decade later.
Humbled to his core, Ian Fleming later admitted that he had made an awful mistake in judging Sean Connery’s charisma, and even went on to great lengths to make amends, starting with imbibing many of the actor’s impressionable qualities (the curious sense of humour comes to mind) and Scottish heritage into the character in later novels.
Indeed, Connery had in many ways defined the James Bond character itself, for rarely had an actor made waves of appreciation not just on part of the original author, but also in the idea of conventional entertainment value and artistic quality, thorough sheer force of impression.
But Thomas Sean Connery was not born with a silver spoon. Long before he became the world’s favourite spy, the man had had a tumultuous journey rising from his humble origins. The son of a Catholic factory worker and a Protestant domestic cleaner, the young Connery was brought up in one room of a tenement in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh, with a shared toilet and no hot water. Before joining the Royal Navy, he was among the many working-class poor in Scotland, a school drop-out with no qualifications delivering milk, polishing coffins, and laying bricks — scraping a living any way he could.
In 1953, while competing in London for the odd role on Broadway, an American actor, Robert Henderson, encouraged Connery to educate himself. On lease, he read the works by Ibsen, Shakespeare, and Bernard Shaw, and later taking up elocution lessons. He spent the next few years working on BBC reworkings and stage adaptations and had earned somewhat of a chivalrous reputation in the process.
And then came Bond — the spy who would define his career as much as his career would define the spy. Blending ruthlessness with characteristic wit, the slightly gauche Scot passed himself as the suave secret agent of the generation. So successful was Dr. No, that it was rumoured that even the then US President, John F Kennedy, had requested a private screening at the White House.
From lighting a cigarette at a chemin de fer table to the deadpanned “Bond, James Bond”, all of which became cultural markers, Connery is remembered for his dispassionate penchant in a tux. Western audiences, for the first time, were experiencing a male sex appeal higher than Hugh Hefner in his bathrobes — Sean Connery’s 007 “never asked you to love him; you had to go to him.”
There have been several publications, over the years, comparing his cinematic firmament to something akin to Harrison Ford’s later portrayal of Han Solo in the Star Wars series — actors playing their parts as if they thought the franchises were somehow a bit beneath them, also embodying the carnal anima of the era.
In many ways, the definitive role of a bygone decade ought not to leave audiences charmed years after its portrayal, but that’s just how Connery was — never tied to his age. His legacy, illustrious but also chequered by his evocations of often problematic definitions of machismo, remains still discussed in the film circles. In this way, Sean Connery can neither be looked at nor judged as a monolithic entity in time, because his provision, much like the man himself, is not unending, it’s everlasting.