Having lost a few hands at Baccarat, the bewitching Sylvia Trench proposes raising the stakes, to which an unseen 007 quips, "I admire your courage, Miss…?"
"Trench, Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr...?” answers Sylvia.
“Bond, James Bond,” he replies, and flips open a gold lighter to light a cigarette.
Few actors could have caused such a stir with a rather minimalistic, almost plain introduction. It is a perfect testament to the hypnotic presence and mellow tones of Sir Sean Connery. It was written down as an iconic moment in cinematic history and, almost instantly, Connery rose to superstardom.
Connery had a rather impoverished childhood and young years, in contrast to the glamour and global superstardom he would eventually achieve. He was born and brought up in the Fountainbridge district of Edinburgh. At the age of 15, Connery dropped out of school to enlist in the Royal Navy but had to quit after experiencing a bout of stomach ulcers. Subsequently, he worked as a bricklayer, bouncer, and a coffin polisher. Connery invested his free time in bodybuilding and even secured a third place in the 1950 Mr Universe contest.
He then moved to London, where he managed to be part of a chorus in a production of South Pacific in 1954. He joined a local library to embark on a rigorous “self-improvement” programme and explored the works of literary geniuses including Shakespeare, Shaw, Proust, Ibsen, and Dostoevsky.
Soon, he was offered roles in films and television. He earned critical plaudits for his role in the TV drama, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956). He played supporting roles in films such as Hell Drivers (1957), Action of the Tiger (1957), and the World War II romance Another Time, Another Place (1958). He was also widely applauded for his performance as the dashing but deceitful Count Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1961).
Connery was the romantic lead in the musical fantasy adventure Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959). In attendance for a screening of the film were the Broccolis, producers of the upcoming first Bond film.
Broccoli’s wife Dana thought that Connery had the sexual charisma that made him ideal for the love scenes and he “moved like a panther”.
After a series of screen tests, Connery was cast in the role that made him a global superstar. This move was much to the chagrin of Bond creator Ian Fleming, who had envisioned Bond in his own image of an upper-class Eton educated Englishman.
Fleming remarked, “I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stuntman.” Fleming wanted David Niven or Roger Moore to play his character.
But upon meeting Connery and seeing him bring 007 to life on the big screen, Fleming changed his mind. Fleming even wrote a half-Scottish ancestry for Bond in his later books as a tribute to Connery's portrayal.
Connery credited his performance as 007 to Terence Young, who directed the first 007 film, Doctor No. Young took Connery under his wing to teach him the ways of the upper-class English gentry. The result was Connery looked as comfortable in a Saville Row suit at the swanky baccarat clubs in London as he did battling thugs in a crowded gypsy settlement in Turkey. Connery was careful to retain his now trademark Scottish accent and all that was unique to him.
Dr No, a huge success, was followed by From Russia with Love, one of the best entries in the series. Connery, after two films, had made the part his own with a blend of ruthlessness and sardonic wit.
Then came Goldfinger. Every aspect of the film, from music to the names of the leading lady, became iconic. It established the formula for Bond films; megalomaniac villains, spectacular stunts, majestic sets, Bond girls with risqué names, gadgets, guns, and humor. At the center was Connery who was now an undisputed global superstar.
But in addition to its commercial success, the films also served as effective propaganda for the West during the Cold War era. Bond became a universal icon symbolizing power and the benevolence of the West. Connery’s Bond was a patriot defending his country and its values while enjoying all the fine things in life.
It is also said that Connery’s popularity as Bond, along with the emergence of other working-class actors such as Michael Caine, Richard Burton, and Peter O’Toole, did a lot to thaw the rigid class structures in England.
Connery’s superstardom and the fact that he proudly wore his Scottishness on his sleeve, made him an enduring ambassador for Scotland. Many around the world think of Scotland synonymously with Connery.
When Connery did his fourth Bond film Thunderball, he had begun to grow weary of the formulaic plots and limitations of the celluloid Bond. As budget expanded, he might have started to realize that he was playing second fiddle to an overwhelming technical wizardry.
Connery had a hunger for artistic challenges. He played a defiant prison inmate in a British military prison camp in North Africa in The Hill (1965). The character was complex and unlike the other characters he had performed before. He delivered an extraordinary performance.
By the late 60s, Connery felt he was underpaid for his Bond films compared to the handsome profits they had made. By the time he did his fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), Connery decided to hang up his Walther PPK forever.
But as luck would have it, Connery’s replacement, George Lazenby, quit after the release of his only Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film had also underperformed compared to the Connery films. The producers were terrified about the future of the series and they went back to Connery with Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Connery was also offered $1m and a promise from United Artists to fund two films of his choice but he used the entire sum to set up a trust for deprived Scottish children.
The film was a huge success, but Connery had vowed not to return to the series. Roger Moore eventually took over as 007.
Connery’s next was the fierce psychological drama The Offence (1973). He played a detective suffering from a debilitating PTSD, owing to the relentless violence surrounding him. Connery flawlessly captured the deep agony and the anguish of his tortured character. This was one of best performances of his career and should have earned Connery all the plaudits. But alas, the film was a commercial failure and did not receive much attention.
Connery played a habitual burglar in the surveillance heist thriller The Anderson Tapes (1971); a rebellious Arab chieftain who kidnaps an American widow and almost causes a global armed conflict in The Wind and the Lion (1975). He was a mellowed Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn in the film Robin And Marian (1976). Then there was the tale of forbidden love in the underrated Five Days One Summer (1982). All of these were morally ambiguous and not necessarily heroic characters, an emphatic departure from 007.
Then in 1983, he reprised the role that made him a superstar in the aptly titled Never Say Never Again (1983). Connery had always complained about the domination of technical wizardry in his early Bond films, but this film offered him an opportunity to explore the character while retaining the elements of action and adventure, much like the films from the Daniel Craig era. Alas, the opportunity was squandered and makers played it safe by mimicking the light-heartedness of Roger Moore's Bond films, making it seem like a rather lame, unintended parody.
At 53, Connery was both out of touch and out of shape to play Bond. That very year, Moore’s own Bond movie, Octopussy, was releasing. The press called for the battle of Bonds. While Roger was almost three years Connery’s senior, he was in better shape and spirit for the part at the time. Consequently, Octopussy outperformed Never Say Never Again at the box office.
Connery then played a 14th-century detective attempting to solve a suspicious murder at a monastery in the riveting 1986 adaption of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. Connery won the best supporting actor at the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs, and the Oscars for his tour de force performance in The Untouchables (1987), where he played mentor to law enforcement agent Eliot Ness.
When it was time to cast the father of Harrison Ford’s the intrepid adventurer Indiana Jones, the makers Spielberg and Lucas turned to Sean Connery who brought gravitas and humor to the role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989).
Connery played the stoic Russian submarine captain who defects to the west in pre-glasnost days in The Hunt for Red October (1990). He was a laid back alcoholic publisher, unwillingly drawn into a world of espionage in the adaptation of John Le Care’s The Russia House (1990). Connery delivered nuanced and restrained performance, but he didn’t receive critical acclaim he thoroughly deserved nor did the films perform well at the box office.
Like most actors, his career was replete with misfires such as The Presidio, Meteor, Cuba, Shalako, A Fine Madness, Just Cause, A Good Man in Africa and The Avengers. But he was often the only bright spot in these turkeys.
Connery played a version of James Bond – an incarcerated former British Agent who assists a daring rescue operation – in The Rock (1996) and the film was a huge success.
Then in 2003, he decided to take a retirement from his film career following the release of the enjoyable but muddled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).
By that time, corporate interests had taken over Hollywood. Connery had frequent conflicts with the film’s director and the studio bosses. He went on record to say that he was tired of dealing with “idiots”. This was an abrupt, unremarkable, and somewhat sad ending to an extraordinary career.
But that was Connery, never relenting to pressure and always doing what he deemed right. He could have continued to play James Bond for at least another decade, there certainly was public demand and he would have made millions more, but his desire to be artistically challenged took him in another direction. To him, the commercial or critical response didn’t matter. Now it was time to retire and no inducements could change that.
Connery was also a member of the Scottish National Party, which has campaigned for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom.
He was knighted in 2000. He received the lifetime achievement awards at the BAFTAs in 1998, at the Golden Globes in 1995, the American Film Institute in 2006. People magazine declared him the “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1989.
However, his life beyond cinema was also not without controversies. In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1965, he said, "I don't think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman, although I don't recommend doing it in the same way that you'd hit a man. An open-handed slap is justified if all other alternatives fail."
In a December 1987 television interview with Barbara Walters, he reiterated his position from 1965. "I don't think it's good [to slap a woman], I don't think it's that bad. I think it depends entirely on the circumstances and if it merits it." In Vanity Fair in 1993, he said: “There are women who take it to the wire. That’s what they are looking for, the ultimate confrontation. They want a smack.”
He was accused of domestic violence by his first wife Diane Cilento, but he vehemently denied the allegations.
It is also important to note that his female co-stars from Ursula Andress to Catherine Zeta Jones have praised him for being kind, generous, and a thorough gentleman. He remained married to Micheline Roquebrune, a French painter, for 45 years. He eventually altered his stance later, saying that no violence against women was acceptable.
The characters he embodied have left an indelible impression on the hearts of his admirers, and they are still a living and breathing part of their imagination , almost causing an illusion of his permanence.
But it would be wrong to end on a sombre note. At 90 years of age, Connery has touched the lives of many through his vast body of work and his charitable endeavors. It is essential to celebrate his life rather than mourn his passing.
Harrison Ford paid an apt tribute to Sean Connery during his AFI honor, "John Wayne gave us the old west, Jimmy Stewart gave us our town, but you, Sean Connery, gave us the world."