This is a big one, and a long time coming. Sir Sean Connery, the definitive James Bond and elder statesman actor for a generation has gone to his reward at the age of 90.
Sir Sean was an interesting figure on screen: one of the old school of actors who came from a working class background, serving as a truck driver and labourer among other things (his father was a factory hand and his brother was plasterer), though he also dabbled in bodybuilding and modeling. When he turned to acting (choosing it over a football career), he had a fair number of roles in low-budget or made-for-TV movies (which were just getting started at the time), as well as a lead role in Walt Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People. It was this film, of all things, that brought him to the attention of Cubby Broccoli when he was casting an adaptation of Dr. No.
Ian Flemming wasn’t crazy about the rough Scotsman at first. Bond is an aristocrat, and Sir Sean had no knowledge whatsoever of the high-class, sophisticated world that Bond was supposed to inhabit. He had to have a crash course in fine wines, tailored clothes, and all the rest of it. It paid off, and Sir Sean conveyed the absolute perfect combination of sophistication and brutality that has come to define Bond: a man you can absolutely believe would be equally at home trading witty barbs in a high class casino and trouncing thugs in the alley behind it. Flemming warmed up to Sir Sean’s portrayal so much that he re-wrote Bond’s backstory to make him Scottish.
Sir Sean attempted to leave the role more than once, being tired of it and especially the enormous publicity that went with it, as well as not wanting to be typecast. After finally escaping the franchise, he began to reinvent himself as a powerhouse actor, serving under Alfred Hitchcock in Marnie and John Houston in The Man Who Would Be King (acting opposite the equally great Michael Caine in an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story, and frankly those four names alone tell you it’s going to be great), being one of a dozen stars participating in Murder on the Orient Express, and playing the Arab chief Raisull in The Wind and the Lion.
I remember him mostly, from my own childhood, as one of the great elder statesmen actors: as Indiana Jones’ father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as Draco the dragon in Dragonheart, defecting Soviet sub captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October, and as the aging British secret agent John Mason (who is basically Bond in all but name) in The Rock. He won the Academy Award for The Untouchables, back when that still actually meant something. In any case, it was only a confirmation of what everyone already knew: Sir Sean was one of the top actors of his generation, with an unforgettable voice and manner (he’s one of the most imitated actors in history). He could be incredibly tender or incredible brutal, often in the same film. Or he could become a grumpy old professor, or a reclusive writer. Whatever role demanded character, strength, and integrity.
That, I think, is what came across most on screen: Sir Sean was a man. When he was tender and romantic, or even when he was doddering and comic, he always had that edge of iron masculinity that made him riveting to watch.
By all accounts he was a consummate gentleman on set and well-liked by his peers. Some of my own favorite stories about him tell of how he would go out of his way to look after the other actors, such as when he took it upon himself to check on Japanese actress Mie Hama (who, like him, came from a working class background and was blindsided by the experience of making a Bond film) every day they were shooting together on You Only Live Twice to make sure she was bearing it up.
His final role was in the unfortunately abysmal League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film that, like the Mario Brothers movie, I have a soft spot for despite its horrible quality. It’s a film marked by a collection of very talented actors doing their best with awful script. That said, Sir Sean’s performance as an aging Allan Quatermain showcases all his usual power and skill, and his final words are strikingly appropriate epitaph upon his illustrious career:
Eternal rest grant unto him, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, Rest in Peace