Sean Connery: From Tentative Secret Agent to Suave Bond

In 1965, at the height of James Bond mania, Sean Connery told Playboy magazine that he had no problem with another actor assuming his signature role. “Actually, I’d find it interesting to see what someone else does with it,” he said. “Lots of people could play him.”

Strictly speaking, he was right. But by public reckoning, he couldn’t have been more wrong. In the popular imagination, the Scottish-born Thomas Sean Connery, who died Saturday at 90, will always be both the first and the best “Bond … James Bond.”

It’s hard to believe that before Eon Productions perfected its Bond formula, the secret agent’s creator, Ian Fleming, gushed about perhaps casting Richard Burton or David Niven as 007. The former would have brought the necessary guts, the latter the requisite charm.

But for an enduring, vodka martini-soaked franchise built on one man’s tightly wound toughness, womanizing charisma, tongue-in-cheek one-liners and exquisite tastes, Connery was the Fleming word made cinematic flesh.

Critics and superfans endlessly argue the merits of the various Bonds. Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, Daniel Craig and even the one-time George Lazenby all have their respective strengths.

Inevitably, they bow to the archetypal Connery. His appeal, wrote John Cork and Bruce Scivally in “James Bond: The Legacy,” “comes not just from good looks, it comes from a particular confidence, a certainty within himself.” They added that he had “a natural, authoritative grace, which was at once seductive and intimidating.”

Connery was not originally made of such stuff. He had done solid work in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” (1959) and, briefly, “The Longest Day” (1962), playing a British Tommy. However, when it came to personifying the ultrasophisticated lodestar of Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he was still “a pretty rough diamond,” as the production designer Ken Adam put it. Born in the Edinburgh slums, Connery was full of raw material. The producer Albert Broccoli called him “ballsy”; his partner, Harry Saltzman, said that the man moved “like a big jungle cat.”

Bond buffs credit the director of his early films, the Cambridge-educated Terence Young, for rounding Connery into shape. Though neither muscleman nor indiscriminate lover, Young (a.k.a. the “Bond Vivant”) had a taste for high living, big spending, bonhomie and forthrightness. “He was completely ruthless in a gentlemanly sort of way,” said the stuntman George Leech.

Connery’s start as Bond was a tad tentative. In the initial 007 outing, “Dr. No” (1962), his boss, M. (Bernard Lee), asks, “Does ‘toppling’ mean anything to you?” Connery answers diffidently: “A little. It’s throwing the gyroscopic controls of a guided missile off balance with a … a radio beam or something, isn’t it?” He even screws up his eyes briefly, trying to recall what the term means. When he dallies with M.’s secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), his flirting is a bit too studied.

Connery improves in “From Russia With Love” (1963). Outwitted by the covert SPECTRE operative Red Grant (Robert Shaw), he sheepishly admits missing a vital clue to his enemy’s identity. “Red wine with fish,” Connery says with a sigh. “Well, that should have told me something.” But within minutes he stabs and garrotes Grant in what Bond fans have called one of cinema’s most brutal family-friendly fights ever. A sweating Connery then adjusts his tie and retrieves a few trinkets, including stolen money from the corpse. The punchline: “You won’t be needing this … old man.”

By “Goldfinger” (1964), Connery and the Bond persona have melded seamlessly in the outsize blueprint for all future classic Bond productions. In the short teaser, our hero blows up a heroin plant with plastic explosives, shucks his scuba suit to reveal a white dinner jacket (with red boutonniere), seduces a traitorous tarantella dancer in her bathtub and, after savage fisticuffs, electrocutes a would-be assassin by knocking him and a space heater into said tub.

Connery utters fewer than 75 words in about four and a half minutes. But the last three (“Shocking … positively shocking,” said with soft reprobation as the assassin slowly simmers), combined with Connery’s self-assured sexuality and knockabout confidence, release a loud laugh from moviegoers and get them hooked.

So second nature is the persona that when the heroin plant explodes, the man who invariably saves the world reacts merely with an expression of bored, silent amusement and removes his just-lit cigarette from his mouth.

Hence Tom Jones, as Bondish a title singer as you can get, could warble in the 1965 outing, “He always runs while others walk / He acts while other men just talk / He looks at this world and wants it all / So he strikes like Thunderball!”

Connery didn’t want to continue to strike like thunder or, for that matter, lightning. Also, he wasn’t crazy about swimming with live sharks. The Bond films, he said, “don’t tax one as an actor. All one really needs is the constitution of a rugby player to get through 18 weeks of swimming, slugging and necking.” After the release of “Thunderball” he griped, “What is needed now is a change of course, more attention to character and better dialogue.”

The dialogue in what he thought was his last Bond film, “You Only Live Twice” (1967), was just fine. “I like sake … especially when it’s served at the correct temperature, 98.4 degrees Fahrenheit, like this is.” But character got short shrift. Stuffed with sumo wrestling; trap doors; an autogiro equipped with flamethrowers and missiles; a piranha pool; and, of course, a rocket base hidden inside a volcano, “You Only Live Twice” wasn’t exactly an actor’s breakthrough.

By this time, Connery’s boredom and even annoyance were obvious. And so he famously quit the series. Except for “The Molly Maguires” (1970), his next few films were unremarkable. Things weren’t going exactly as the freed agent had expected.

So for $1.25 million, 10 percent of the gross, and financing for two films of Connery’s choice, Eon lured him back for “Diamonds Are Forever.” Grayer, wiser and somewhat heavier, Connery nonetheless seems to enjoy himself in this bit of 1971 nonsense, reconciled to his increasingly cartoonish legacy. Stuffing a deadly cassette tape into a startled Jill St. John’s bikini bottom, he quips, “Your problems are all behind you now.” One of the screenwriters, Tom Mankiewicz, said, “There was an old pro’s grace about him.”

A dozen years later he returned yet again, to the non-Eon production “Never Say Never Again.” It was a pallid remake of “Thunderball.” But, Steven Jay Rubin wrote in “The James Bond Movie Encyclopedia,” “When he’s onscreen, the movie works. Fortunately, he’s onscreen a lot.”

Connery once described the part that has now made him immortal as “a cross, a privilege, a joke, a challenge. And as bloody intrusive as a nightmare.” But for those who cannot get enough beluga caviar or Walther PPKs, it remains a dream. Sean Connery as James Bond is forever.

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