SEAN CONNERY always looked as though he couldn’t believe his luck. But then so did we.
What had we done to deserve this home-grown box-office star? How lucky were we to have a man like Connery representing us on the silver screen?
In the Sixties, when Connery first became a star in Dr No, the first James Bond film, he immediately struck a chord with the British public.
Yes, he was suave, good-looking, and certainly came across as someone who could handle himself.
But he also looked a bit like one of us.
Of course, no man ever looked like him, but every man wanted to. And every woman wanted their man to look like him, too.
Even the James Bond author, Ian Fleming, didn’t think Connery was posh enough to play his fictional spy.
Dr No’s producers, Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, thought he was a “rough diamond”. And he was.
Which is why he became Britain’s foremost movie star, a Sixties icon and a genuine sex symbol who carried himself well throughout his entire career.
The principal reason Sean Connery got away with playing James Bond is because he looked as though he could get away with anything.
And even though the Bond films weren’t always played for laughs — and after Dr No, Connery would go on to star in From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever as well as the unofficial Bond movie, Never Say Never Again — he would play the role with a twinkle in his eye.
“How could anyone have the audacity to do that?” is what we thought when we saw him on screen, not that any of us — male or female — ever castigated him for it.
After all, why would we? He was James Bond.
Connery’s mother was a cleaner, his father a factory worker, and he grew up poor in the tough Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh.
Known at school as “Big Tam” because of his size — he was not averse to fighting in the streets — he left school at 14 to become a milkman.
At 16, he joined the Royal Navy, where he got his two tattoos — “Mum and Dad” and “Scotland Forever” — neither of which were ever seen in a James Bond film, by the way.
Back in Civvy Street he became a lorry driver, a lifeguard, a labourer, an artist’s model at Edinburgh College of Art, even a coffin polisher (“Definitely my worst job,” he said).
And then, because he had nothing better to do, he tried his hand — and every other bit of himself — as a bodybuilder, which is how he eventually fell into acting.
“Perhaps I’m not a good actor,” he once said. “But I would be even worse at doing anything else.”
We especially liked Connery because he didn’t try to disguise his voice.
He said he’d never been tempted to change his voice on screen because “Drama is conveyed with emotion and it’s best to spend time looking for that emotion — which is international — instead. Besides, I think there is a certain musicality each person has in their own tongue.”
It was this good-natured cockiness which made him a star in the Sixties, in the same way it made stars of Michael Caine, The Beatles or Cockney photographer David Bailey.
It was why the likes of Cilla Black and Lulu became so beloved.
We looked at all their success and thought: “You know what — that could almost be me.”
But of course it couldn’t, not with Sean, because Connery was a real star, a global star, a man who, when he left James Bond behind — when he’d become frustrated by the typecasting, and apparently by the fact that he thought he wasn’t making enough money from the franchise — and when he moved on, he became an even bigger star.
Years later, he reportedly said he was “fed up” with the character, adding: “I have always hated that damned James Bond — I’d like to kill him.”
Initially, Connery was drawn to parts that took him as far away from Bond as possible, but even when he was cast against type, or even when the role was too much of a stretch, we tended to forgive him because he was, well, Sean Connery.
Like Michael Caine, we would watch his films because he was in them, which is obviously the USP of a movie star.
And what films they were: The Hill, The Offence, The Wind And The Lion, The Man Who Would Be King (made with pal Caine), A Bridge Too Far, Robin And Marian, Time Bandits, The Untouchables (for which he deservedly won an Oscar), The Hunt For Red October, Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and more.
There were stinkers — the ridiculous outfit he wore in science-fiction film Zardoz — and the occasional ill-advised hairpiece.
But in every role, he managed to retain his dignity, mainly through sheer force of character.
“I’m an actor,” he said. “It’s not brain surgery. If I do my job right, people won’t ask for their money back.”
And no one ever did.
Essentially, I think we liked Sean Connery because he was a man’s man, or at least what used to be known as a man’s man.
He was never afraid to speak his mind, never embarrassed about taking someone outside for a quiet chat, and never had any qualms about telling someone he disagreed with them.
In a way, he was someone we could look up to, regardless of how old he was, and regardless of how old we were.
He was on the cover of my magazine, GQ, four times, and each time the issue was a success.
Putting Sean Connery on the cover was like putting Steve McQueen on the cover of an American magazine. It was a banker. It was always going to sell.
He took old age well. “More than anything else, I’d like to be an old man with a good face, like [Alfred] Hitchcock or Picasso.”
Not only did he achieve this, he also stayed a leading man right up until he quit. He was never forced to accept supporting roles, and didn’t have to suffer the indignity of doing cameos.
Indeed, one of his most famous roles was that of playing Harrison Ford’s dad in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, in 1989.
Like Jack Nicholson or Cary Grant, he knew when to step down, and knew when to leave his legacy alone. What a legacy it is.
On his 90th birthday a few months ago, Instagram was awash with people posting their very favourite Sean Connery moment. And I did the same.
As Bond lights his cigarette, in a casino wearing his trademark dinner jacket, he says, almost dismissively, when asked his name: “Bond . . . James Bond.”
It is a moment for the ages, one of the most important, most dynamic moments in cinema history. And it was spoken by an amateur bodybuilder from the back streets of Edinburgh.
Connery said he stopped acting because, “I was fed up of dealing with f***ing idiots. For years there has been a widening gap between people who can make films and people who can’t.
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“Too many people are afraid to say, ‘I don’t know’. They get in and out quick and too many don’t know what they are doing.”
Connery knew what he was doing, and in a way he did it for all of us.
Thank you, Sean. We’re going to miss you.
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