Sean Connery, the Scottish actor who earned his license to thrill as the original on-screen James Bond and then spent the rest of his career trying to make audiences forget that role, died Saturday, the official James Bond Twitter account confirmed.
He was 90.
Born on Aug. 25, 1930 in Edinburgh to a mother, Euphemia McBain, who toiled as a cleaning lady, and a father, Joseph, who plugged away in a factory, Connery seemed destined for a far less glamorous life than the one he would later enjoy as one of the most popular leading men of his generation. Indeed, after leaving school at 14, he drudged through a number of blue-collar jobs from truck driver to milkman — the worst of which, he would later say, was polishing coffins — before discovering acting.
He muscled into the craft quite literally, being discovered while competing as a body builder in a Mr Universe competition held in London in 1950. There, he booked a part in the chorus of a traveling production of “South Pacific.” His physique landed him his first major television role, playing a boxer in the BBC drama, “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” which in turn led to a Hollywood contract with Paramount.
His big break, of course, came when producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were looking to adapt the popular James Bond spy novels for the big screen. Cary Grant turned the role down, which left them looking for a cheaper and less known Plan B. They settled on the 6-foot-2 Connery. Bond author Ian Fleming famously detested the casting at first, saying the bulky Scot had none of the refinement of his fictional British creation.
“I never got introduced to Fleming until I was well into the movie but I know he was not happy with me as the choice,” Connery recounted to Britain’s “The South Bank Show” in 2008.
“What was it he called me, or told somebody? That I was an ‘over-developed stunt man.'”
Audiences clearly disagreed: “Dr. No” opened as a huge hit in 1962, catapulting Connery into superstardom and the fledgling franchise into a pop culture phenomenon that is still going 25 films, $7 billion and more than a half century later. As Bond, Connery would cement his long-running image as a Hollywood heartthrob — an image that would net him People’s “Sexiest Man Alive” honor in 1989, when he was 59-years old.
Connery continued in her Majesty’s cinematic service for the five of the next six installments — “From Russia With Love” (1963), “Goldfinger” (1964), “Thunderball” (1965), “You Only Live Twice” (1966), and “Diamonds Are Forever” (1971). He would reprise the role for one last time twelve years later with “Never Say Never Again,” though that film is not considered part of the official Bond canon.
He parlayed that fame into a lead role opposite Tippi Hedrin in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 thriller, “Marnie” — a film and a part as a rapist that has become even more uncomfortable to watch in the #metoo era.
Even as the public’s fascination with the fictional British super-spy grew, however, Connery’s tolerance for the character ebbed. Frustrated by fights with producers over his salary and the increasing sense that Bond would overshadow everything else he did, the actor ejected himself from the series.
“A lot of people still say, ‘Hello, Mr. Bond,’ like someone has never heard it before,” Connery told ’60 Minutes’ in 1999. “And because they’re still making (more Bond movies), it’ll always be there.”
And even as George Lazenby and Roger Moore continued that franchise, it took Connery a lot longer to escape its shadow. For every critically acclaimed role — such as the Agatha Christie adaptation “Murder on the Orient Express” (1973) or “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975) — there were less prestigious ones such as “The Next Man” (1976) or “Meteor” (1979).
He’d achieve modest success in the mid-80s playing a monk the period mystery, “The Name of the Rose,” but he had yet to manage a role anywhere close to as high profile as the biggest one on his resume.
It would take until the 1988 Academy Awards, however, before Connery would fully receive his due as a serious actor, with a best supporting win for his role as a Chicago cop who mentors Kevin Costner’s Elliott Ness in “The Untouchables.”
That sparked a creative and box office resurgence which included “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), “The Rock” (1996) and “Finding Forrester” (2000).
But after five decades in the film industry, the curmudgeonly Connery seemed to reach a breaking point with the 2003 film, “League of Extraordinary Gentleman.” As poorly as received as the comic book adaptation was by critics, no one seemed to revile it more than Connery, who reportedly feuded with director Steven Norrington throughout production.
That would prove to be the final film for Connery, who would unofficially retire from acting immediately afterwards and would retire from public events eight years later.