Sean Connery was 32 years old when Dr. No, his first film as James Bond, transformed him from an unknown into one the most famous and popular movie stars in the world. It was the early 1960s, and Connery soon achieved a level of fame in those pre-Internet days that could only be matched by the Beatles.
Annealed by that early blast of fame, Sir Thomas Sean Connery, who died on October 31 at the age of 90, went on to establish himself as one of the movies’ steadiest presences. His early work included a romantic lead role opposite Lana Turner—a representative of Old Hollywood—and he assembled an acting career with the longevity and consistency of golden-age movie stars like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper. Yet, from early on, Connery had to fight the image and mythology of James Bond to get the kind of roles he sought. If you examine his early TV interviews after 007 became a hit, you’ll find a serious actor, mildly annoyed at the excitement about what he saw as a limited role: “There isn't a great deal of character development,” he said as he left Bond behind (for the first time) in 1967.
That shiny, smooth shell of James Bond was a performance by a quietly intellectual autodidact. Connery dropped out of school in a working-class neighborhood of Edinburgh, Scotland, first to work delivering milk, then to join the navy. He and pal Michael Caine were struggling actors together in the British provinces in the 1950s, working their way up through small theater parts to larger ones, to TV and movie roles.
Bond, of course, changed everything. Connery was cast, in part, because he looked the part: “One of the things that appealed to me about Sean is the way he moves,” producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli once said. “He moves like a cat.” That’s who Connery became to the baby-boom generation that turned James Bond into a long-running cultural icon. When Cigar Aficionado published a cover story about the legacy of Bond (July/August 2020), it was Connery's image that graced the cover.
Connery was the epitome of cool, even under pressure. He was “a man’s man,” said Kevin Costner, who starred with Connery in The Untouchables. Connery had a wry sense of humor, a seductive smile and a dangerous air.
The character’s popularity threatened to overshadow Connery’s broader talents and tastes as an actor. He emerged on the other side of Bond into a career that revealed unexpected facets. You got the sense that, after that initial sonic blast of fame, he was able to carve out the career he wanted. He seemed to lean into his age, whether as the heartbreakingly over-the-hill Robin Hood in Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian, the tough-as-nails Irish cop in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (an Oscar-winning performance), Indiana Jones’ preoccupied-professor father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the larcenous adventurer (opposite Caine) in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.
Sean Connery was good, even in bad movies. For the final decades of his career, he served as one of those cinematic secret weapons who could make you light up just by walking on to the screen.
That image—and the work he created—will live on.
Do you have a favorite Sean Connery role? Let us know in our comments section.