“Bond. James Bond.” With the utterance of those three words, former truck driver and bodybuilder Sir Sean Connery would go from an actor with a handful of screen credits into an international superstar. While he would play secret agent 007 a total of six times (and once more in an unofficial film), the actor, who passed away on Oct 31 at the age of 90, refused to be defined by the role that made him famous. In a career spanning fifty years, Connery took on a variety of memorable projects and characters before choosing to enjoy the last two decades of his life in comfortable retirement.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Created by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List) as their tribute to both James Bond (conceived when Spielberg was denied any of the 007 films on the basis of his being an American) and the film serials of their youth, Indiana Jones solidified Harrison Ford’s (The Fugitive, Air Force One) superstar status beyond the blockbuster Star Wars series. After two entries (1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the filmmakers wanted to showcase another side of their adventurer character by introducing the hero’s father, and who better to play him than the original 007 himself?
As Henry Jones, Sr., Connery revealed a willingness to poke fun at his well-established, debonair screen presence, proving the perfect comic foil to his on-screen son, despite being only 12 years older than Ford! The film was a success, and ends in pitch-perfect manner, with the heroes riding off into the sunset, to John Williams’ immortal theme music.
The Hunt for Red October (199o)
John McTiernan (Die Hard, The Thomas Crown Affair) directed Connery in this thriller, based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name. Starring opposite a young Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Glengarry Glen Ross ) as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, Connery played Captain Marko Ramius, a Russian submarine commander seeking to defect to the West. Despite sounding amazingly Scottish, and being a last-minute replacement, it is impossible to imagine anyone else as the hard-nosed Soviet warhorse willing to risk everything to achieve his goal of living in peace.
As early as 1964, Connery fought back against the typecasting that came with being 007, signing up for a role as Mark Rutland in this psychological thriller under the Master of Suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Strangers on a Train). Starring opposite frequent Hitchcock collaborator Tippi Hedren (The Birds), the pair play a duo with ulterior motives whose marriage of convenience sends them spiraling in a cavalcade of theft, repressed memories, and duplicity.
To see Connery in his prime as an unsavory character can be somewhat jarring to audiences more familiar with his heroic roles, but he carries the part well, matching Hedren beat for beat as they play a couple with more than their share of skeletons in the closet.
Finding Forrester (2000)
As a man who achieved superstardom early in his career before walking away and deciding to live out the rest of his days in privacy, Connery was well-cast as reclusive writer Will Forrester. Taking inspiration from real-life writer J.D. Salinger (author of The Outsiders). The film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between Forrester and Jamal, a sixteen-year old basketball player (Rob Brown, TV’s Blindspot) with a talent for writing. As Jamal’s writing skills improve under Forrester, he draws the suspicions of his teacher (F. Murray Abraham, Amadeus, Star Trek: Insurrection), leading to a truly emotional climax where Forrester is forced to emerge from seclusion to clear his protégé’s name.
Connery’s Forrester credibly projects the air of a principled man whose reticence to deal with the world at large would eventually come to mirror that of the actor portraying him as, a mere three years later, he would walk away from the acting profession altogether and spend the next two decades in self-imposed retirement.
The Untouchables (1987)
While The Untouchables was based on the 1950s book and TV show, the role that finally won Connery his Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor), that of tough Chicago cop Jimmy Malone, was one created specifically for the film. A veteran policeman with 40 years of crimefighting experience, Malone teams up with agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves) to form an elite force of incorruptible law enforcers. As the titular Untouchables, the team would go up against infamous gangster Al Capone (Robert Deniro, Taxi Driver) in hopes of bringing down his criminal empire.
As Malone, Connery memorably gets Costner’s Ness up to speed on how things are done in Chicago, introducing to the finer points of bringing a gun to a knife fight. Malone may not have been an actual person, but since this film, it’s impossible to imagine Elliot Ness’ war on crime without him.
In 1986, Connery solidified his transition into mentor roles, taking on both the role of Highlander’s Juan Sanchez-Villalobos Ramirez, and a brilliant detective monk in The Name of the Rose. As the former, Connery portrayed an immortal swordsman who teaches titular character Connor Macleod (Christopher Lambert, Mortal Kombat) the ways of their undying existence in a performance that is altogether charming, winking, and enchanting. Backed by a killer Queen soundtrack, Connery ably did the heavy lifting for his French costar (who spoke next to no English at the time). Indeed, Connery was such a hit with audiences that Ramirez was brought back for the sequel, despite having been murdered in this film, by no less than the voice of Spongebob Squarepants’ Mr. Krabbs (Clancy Brown, Carnivale, The Shawshank Redemption).
While the Highlander films would descend to abysmal levels of inanity (even as its spinoff TV show would become a well-written genre favorite), Connery’s performance as Ramirez remains a genre highlight.
The Rock (1996)
The Rock is a curious flick in that Michael Bay’s (Transformers 1-5) take-no-prisoners (ie. incoherent) approach to on-screen mayhem wasn’t yet fully formed; under the auspices of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, the action here is brilliantly stylized, shot, and ––despite what would become of Bay’s cinematography in later years – easy to follow.
Here, Connery plays former British special forces operative John Mason, a detainee of the US government whose experience as the only man to escape from Alcatraz makes him the perfect man to get a team into “The Rock” when it is taken over by renegade soldiers led by Ed Harris (Apollo 13). Accompanying him on the mission is Nicolas Cage’s (Face/Off, Ghost Rider) as a nervous chemical weapons expert who comes to rely on Mason when things go from bad to worse. Connery exudes class and baddassery in the film, which plays even better if you imagine him as an older James Bond who just happened to get arrested by the Americans back in the day.
Doctor No (1962)
While he would appear as James Bond in five more official films, and Goldfinger (1964) is arguably more iconic it was Connery’s effortlessly cool first appearance in 1962’s Doctor No that cemented his place in the firmament of Hollywood legend.
The scene introducing his character is masterful in its restraint: we first glimpse Bond from behind, engaging a well-dressed young woman in a high-stakes card game across a crowded table. Then, we see the cards as he deals the next hand. The now-unmistakable Scottish burr is heard as Bond comments on his opponent’s (bad) luck while we see his hands extracting a custom-made cigarette from a silver case. It is only after she declares herself as, “Trench. Sylvia Trench,” that we are granted our first real look at the man, casually lighting his cigarette before proclaiming, “Bond. James Bond” in a direct echo of her introduction.
Connery’s performance is cocksure, nonchalant, and absolutely indelible; nowhere to be found is the former-laborer-turned-actor from Edinburgh – backed up by the iconic music, this was a character fully formed, and so perfect in its portrayed that, six decades on, it remains genuinely challenging to imagine anyone else in the part.
While five men have gone on to play the world’s most famous spy, it is Sean Connery’s 1962 original that continues to be the standard against which they, and anyone who comes after, will always be judged.
How many of these iconic Sean Connery movies have you watched?