More than anything else, the movies' first official and best James Bond once said, “I’d like to be an old man with a good face, like Hitchcock or Picasso.”
He got there, all right. Over a career spanning seven decades, Sean Connery — who won his Academy Award as the wised-up Chicago beat cop who joins Eliot Ness’s underworld crusade in “The Untouchables” — gave audiences so much that had little to do with his talent.
That face. That Edinburgh Scots burr. The effortless, just-this-side-of-caveman masculinity. And the charm, wholly distinct from the brittle, moneyed artifice of Roger Moore, a later incarnation of Sir Ian Fleming’s idea of the male paragon with the license to kill.
Connery, who died Oct. 31 at the age of 90, brought a vital, often subtle fire to his lines of screen work. Before that, he had many others: milkman, enlistee in the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy, 1953 Mr. Universe contestant (he finished third), member of the chorus in the London production of “South Pacific.” Then he became an actor. And then an international movie star.
So many of the latter forget the former, or never were much interested in testing themselves after stardom. Connery was different.
Five films into his Bond superstardom, after “Dr. No” (1962), “From Russia With Love” (1963), “Goldfinger” (1964), “Thunderball” (1965) and “You Only Live Twice” (1967), Connery grew weary of the spy games. “Looks like you’re out to get me,” he says in his first “Dr. No” scene, cigarette dangling, eyeing a female across the baccarat table. By “You Only Live Twice” audiences were turning out to get more of him, but mainly they were there for the toys. Connery wanted more and, in terms of spectacle, less. As early as 1964, while firmly affixed to Bond in the global public eye, he took on “Marnie,” Hitchcock’s fraught, financially unpopular “sex mystery.” Then, with Sidney Lumet, another good, tough outing, set in World War II: “The Hill.”
Well before Bond, in 1957 the young actor came to prominence on British television in Rod Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” and an adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie.” He had the looks, but he could plausibly handle brutes with hidden sensitivity, beaten out of the characters by circumstance. Connery sang, pretty well, in the 1960 Disney fantasy “Darby O’Gill and the Little People." People went for the little people, not for the nascent movie star.
By the time I saw my first Bond movie at 12, “Live and Let Die” — vicious, racist, salacious and semi-appalling, then and now — Moore had taken over, though Connery came back for an odd, jokey reprise himself, “Never Say Never Again” (1983). Throughout the 1970s, however, in everything from John Huston’s rousing “The Man Who Would Be King” to Lumet’s sterling “Murder on the Orient Express” to Michael Crichton’s minor but diverting “The Great Train Robbery,” the actor proved a constant source of delight to audiences. Even when the material wobbled; he steadied it, all of it.
He’ll be warmly remembered for all sorts of hits. “The Hunt for Red October” (1990), as the Soviet adversary of steel and wiles. Harrison Ford’s father in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989). It’s sour revisionism, but Connery and Audrey Hepburn in “Robin and Marian” (1976) warm up an ice-cold subversion of the Robin Hood tale, the way no two other actors ever could.
In “The Untouchables” (1987), something happens in Connery’s first scene that feels like secret code between actors of different generations. I’ve always loved this scene, filmed on the lower level of the Michigan Avenue bridge on location in Chicago. As written by David Mamet, it’s a perfect jewel: weary, witty experience, embodied by Connery, patiently schooling the idealistic U.S. Treasury Department greenhorn, Costner.
It’s also an acting lesson of the highest order. At this point in his career, Costner couldn’t make sense or human rhythms out of Mamet’s dialogue. He tries, but throughout “The Untouchables” he’s outgunned by nearly every scene partner.
Connery, I suspect, sympathized with this much younger actor over his head, charged with headlining a big Brian De Palma/Robert De Niro gangland movie. He likely knew that the project could withstand a weak leading man, but barely. So what does Connery do? He helps him out, without any fuss or winking. Connery intuitively makes Costner a better actor, before our eyes, just by being such fun to work with, presumably. And such a pleasure to watch, inarguably.
Though he provided the voice of Sir Sean Connery, aka himself, in a 2012 animated feature “Sir Billi,” his last on-screen feature, “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” came in 2013. A flop, it sealed the deal on Connery’s unofficial retirement from screen acting at 73. “I’m fed up,” he said around that time, with “the ever-widening gap between people who know how to make movies and the people who green-light the movies.”
Now he’s gone. Like so many, I grew up and then continued to spend untold hours in the company of Connery, watching him kill off hundreds of anonymous Bond villain extras, energizing sublimely ridiculous material (“The Rock,” “Zardoz”), taking on a formulaic heartwarmer (“Finding Forrester”) and somehow actually warming hearts in the process.
I’ve only recently caught up with lesser-known, often wrenching proof that Connery didn’t want to lose sight of his ambitions. No one agrees to star in a harsh procedural like the 1973 drama “The Offence” (Lumet again, in which Connery plays a rage-fueled, disintegrating police detective) because it’ll make money.
Yet it was the humor he brought to the humorless Fleming superspy cemented his stardom. In the eyes of film historian David Thomson, writing in The New Republic, the franchise was from the start "a decisive step forward in camp. The sex and violence flowered because no one regarded them as real — least of all Sean Connery, who was far from English or upper-class. From ‘Dr. No’ onward, Connery looked at us and winked. The cinema changed, and it’s hard now to make a serious film about spies or secret agents — which may allow them to flourish more in life.”
Maybe you believe that, maybe you don’t. This much is certain: the man who would be Bond held the screen like few others, maybe no others, of his generation. And he was a fine, committed actor before, during and especially after Bond made Sean Connery’s name nearly as well-known.
As he says in “The Untouchables”: Here endeth the lesson.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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