The spy who made Connery

 

Erstwhile milkman, truck driver, model, body builder and coffin polisher – it was as James Bond that Sean Connery found his fame and fortune. As he celebrates his 80th birthday, will he ever escape the shadow of 007?

WHEN, AFTER being named as the latest James Bond, actor Daniel Craig was paraded before journalists, one question popped up repeatedly. Was the actor concerned about 007 overpowering his career? It’s a fair point.

One can easily imagine – in 30 years or so – Craig’s appearance in a major Shakespeare tragedy being trailed thus: The name is Lear – KingLear. Certainly, Roger Moore, despite forging a busy career over six decades, has never come close to escaping the role.

And what of Sir Sean Connery? The great man is 80 today. Appreciations will, quite rightly, mention notable performances in Time Bandits, The Untouchablesand Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. They will recycle jokes about the ardent Scottish Nationalist who chooses to live in the Bahamas. They will remind us that, long after becoming eligible for a bus pass, he repeatedly headed polls of The World’s Sexiest Man. But (like this piece) they will all mention James Bond in the opening paragraph.

This is an unusual state of affairs. When Ian Fleming, an old Etonian with serious snobbish tendencies, heard that a swarthy working-class Scot was to play his great creation, he nearly bit the end off his ivory cigarette holder. Christopher Bray, the author of an upcoming biography of Connery, claims that Fleming initially described the actor as “that f**ing truck driver”. The thriller writer eventually came round and incorporated certain aspects of Connery’s performance into the later books.

It might just have been a lucky guess on Fleming’s part, but Connery did indeed drive a truck for a spell. Mind you, there were few jobs the young Sean did not attempt.

BORN AND RAISED in the Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh – where, appropriately, the city’s multiplex cinema now sits – he earned his first pay cheque as a milkman for a local Co-operative Society. He spent a brief period in the Royal Navy, but was discharged after contracting a duodenal ulcer. He did a spot of life modelling at art college. He polished coffins. He won prizes as a bodybuilder.

It was that last experience that nudged him towards acting. Two fellow competitors in the Mr Universe competition explained that good money could be made playing smaller roles on the stage. He subsequently secured a part in a production of South Pacificand set forth on his ascent towards fame, wealth and apparently indestructible sexiness.

It all sounds a bit haphazard, but an incident from the early 1950s suggests that the young Connery quite rapidly committed himself to his new profession.

Matt Busby, the legendary manager of Manchester United, spotted Connery playing in an amateur football match and offered him a trial at Old Trafford. Connery was, it is true, already 23 at this time, but his decision to stick with acting betrays a belief that he felt he really could succeed in this business called show.

It took a while.

Domestic cinemagoers will trust that a little piece of hell has been set aside for eternal consideration of Connery’s performance – more begorrah than Boston in mid-March – in the breathtakingly grim Darby O’Gill and the Little People. He also had a significant role opposite Glynis Johns in a serviceable melodrama entitled Another Time, Another Place.

Then, in 1962, he secured a part in some thriller named Dr No. These days, grown-up actors like to be thought of as chameleons. When Connery achieved proper fame – with John Wayne, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart still just about on screen – it was, however, perfectly acceptable for a major star to create a persona and stick to it.

Though he did make occasional forays into unknown territory (see his splendid turn in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King), Connery has, for the most part, confined himself to two variations on the same personality: young, arrogant brutish charmer and aging, grumpy brutish charmer.

It is, surely, significant that the slowest period in Connery’s career – the late 1970s – coincided with his transition from young swaggerer to old codger. When, in 1987, he won the Oscar for playing a peculiarly accented Irish cop in The Untouchables, the second phase of his career was formerly launched.

Never particularly forthcoming in interviews, Connery has, nonetheless, sporadically talked himself into accusations of boorishness and misogyny. On at least three occasions, he has given the impression that, like those onscreen avatars, he is (let’s be kind) a tad unsound on the issue of violence against women.

“I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” he told Playboyin 1965. “An open-handed slap is justified – if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning.”

Thirty years later, he told Vanity Fairthat some women “want a smack”. Writing in 2006, Diane Cilento, the actor’s first wife, confirmed that Sean had raised his hand to her.

Aware of the unending prevalence of violence against women, few readers will be astonished that such attitudes exist. What now amazes is that an otherwise civilised man could, speaking casually, as if of golf or cigars, air these views so glibly to journalists. The implication is that no particularly controversial points are being made.

OF COURSE, JAMES BOND was a bit of a relic himself. A key line from Goldfinger(the film, not the book) finds the spy explaining that drinking Dom Pérignon ’53 above 38 degrees “is like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs”. More than a few 80-year-olds seem a little out of their time, but Connery has been making a living out of being a fogey for close to half a century.

Whatever your views of the man himself, the Connery grump, like Cary Grant’s empty charmer or John Wayne’s strutting superman, is one of cinema’s imperishably iconic creations.

It has been seven long years since we last saw it – in the unimpressive League of Extraordinary Gentlemen– and it would be nice to see it on the big screen at least one more time.