Sean Connery, Filmdom's First James Bond, Dies At 90

Ryan Grenoble
·National Reporter, HuffPost
·10 min read

Sir Thomas Sean Connery, the iconic Scottish actor and Hollywood legend who made a name for himself as the cinema’s first James Bond, has died at the age of 90, his publicist confirmed to HuffPost.

Connery died in his sleep on Friday night, his family said.

Sean Connery in a scene from the 1963 film "From Russia With Love." (Photo: Archive Photos via Getty Images)
Sean Connery in a scene from the 1963 film "From Russia With Love." (Photo: Archive Photos via Getty Images)

Before he was “Bond, James Bond,” Connery was just another kid in a working-class neighborhood in Fountainbridge, Scotland. Born on Aug. 25, 1930, to Joe and Euphamia Connery, “Tommy” ― as he was nicknamed ― spent his first years sleeping in a drawer, as his parents were unable to afford a crib.

“My background was harsh,” Connery has acknowledged. “We were poor, but I never knew how poor till years after.”

“It sounds strange to say it now,” he recalled in an interview with The Scottish Sun, “but we never realized we lacked anything!”

His father worked at a nearby mill, and Connery began working at a young age to help support himself and his family. He began delivering milk at the age of 9 (incidentally, he picked up smoking at about the same age), toting bottles from house to house via horse-drawn cart. At the age of 13, as World War II raged, Connery dropped out of school to work full time and earn his keep at home.

“From the time I started working at 13, I always paid my share of the rent, and the attitude at home was the prevalent one in Scotland ― you make your own bed and so you have to lie on it,” he said in a 1965 interview with Playboy. “I didn’t ask for advice and I didn’t get it. I had to make it on my own or not at all.”

Connery joined the Royal Navy three years later, working as an armorer. Though he signed on for a seven-year stint in the navy, he was discharged after only three, sidelined due to a persistent stomach ulcer.

Following his discharge from the navy, Connery scraped by doing random jobs, working stints as a bricklayer, lifeguard and coffin polisher. He also spent hours at the gym and posed as a nude model from time to time at the Edinburgh College of Art.

Connery, center, poses during a bodybuilding competition. (Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images)
Connery, center, poses during a bodybuilding competition. (Photo: ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Connery’s first acting job came only after his bodybuilding pursuits led him to a Mr. Universe competition in London in 1953. He placed third at the competition, and while there, a fellow bodybuilder mentioned auditions were being held for the play “South Pacific.”

Despite having virtually no experience, Sean decided to go for it, and was awarded a small role.

“I’d no experience whatever [at acting] and hadn’t even been on a stage before, but it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves,” he told Playboy in 1965.

In his new gig, Connery earned £12 a week playing Sergeant Waters, a member of the chorus. He’d lied about his acting abilities during the audition and immersed himself in literature to make up for his shortcomings, reading everything from George Bernard Shaw and Shakespeare to “War and Peace” and James Joyce.

“I read them all,” Connery recalled in a later interview. “I went to the libraries in every town up and down Britain.” At the same time, he began reading aloud into a tape-recorder, playing the tapes back to himself in an attempt to refine his thick Scottish accent.

(Photo: Dario Pignatelli / Reuters)
(Photo: Dario Pignatelli / Reuters)

“I loved him because he had this twinkle all the time … he’s a great, great character,” Millicent Martin, one of his co-stars in “South Pacific,” said. “The only thing was, nobody could understand a word Sean was saying.”

Slowly, and with much hard work, Connery overcame the hurdles ― and his indecipherable accent. Following “South Pacific,” he picked up parts in “Another Time, Another Place” in 1958 and “Anna Christie” in 1957, where he met his first wife, Australian actress Diane Cilento, whom he married in 1962.

The marriage ended in 1973, and Cilento later said he had been physically abusive. Connery once told Playboy he didn’t think “there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman.

Connery remarried in 1975 to Tunisian-born French artist Micheline Roquebrune, whom he’d met during a golf tournament in Morocco in 1970.

In 1962, to the apparent surprise of both industry insiders and Connery himself, he earned the part of Secret Agent 007 in the film version of Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel, “Dr. No.” Although not the first Bond book, it was the first to be made into a movie.

Many skeptics believed Connery had been miscast in the role (including Fleming himself, who described the Scotsman as more of “an overgrown stunt-man” than Bond material), a sentiment Connery didn’t go out of his way to dispute.

“Before I got the part, I might have agreed with them,” he told Playboy. “If you had asked any casting director who would be the sort of man to cast as Bond, an Eton-bred Englishman, the last person into the box would have been me, a working-class Scotsman. And I didn’t particularly have the face for it; at 16, I looked 30.”

Most of Fleming’s choices for the role were either too expensive (in the case of Cary Grant) or turned the part down; some believed the entire “James Bond” concept would flop and wasn’t worth the risk.

But audiences said yes to “Dr. No.” Connery’s performance helped nurture a box-office hit, justifying the production of four more Bond films in quick succession, in which Connery played the suave, martini-loving British spy.

In addition to 1962′s “Dr. No,” Connery starred in “From Russia with Love” (1963), “Goldfinger” (1964), “Thunderball” (1965), and “You Only Live Twice” (1967). After a brief hiatus, he returned for a role in “Diamonds are Forever” (1971) before retiring from the Bond series with “Never Say Never Again” (1983).

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Connery as James Bond, posing next to his Aston Martin DB5 in a scene from "Goldfinger." (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images)
Connery as James Bond, posing next to his Aston Martin DB5 in a scene from "Goldfinger." (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images)

Successful as the James Bond series had become, Connery was loathe to stay part of it for too long. He welcomed the paychecks, but didn’t want to become a commodity synonymous with the franchise ― especially as the series made increasingly more use of death-defying stunts.

“There are a lot of things I did before Bond ― like playing the classics on stage ― that don’t seem to get publicized. So you see,” he told Playboy, “this Bond image is a problem in a way and a bit of a bore, but one has just got to live with it.”

“I’m not into hardware, rockets and extraordinary guns that can blow 50 people away at once,” he told “Entertainment Tonight” in a 1995 interview. “I have no real interest in that, it’s what really got me out of the Bond films — they all went in the same direction. It’s a personal thing.”

He had good reason: In addition to putting him through scenes that required he swim underwater with sharks, directors once strapped Connery to a table in “Goldfinger” for a hair-raising scene in which a “laser” nearly cut him in half.

Lacking real lasers, a crew member armed with an acetylene torch crouched under the table to create a laser-like effect instead, stopping just three inches shy of cutting into the terrified actor’s groin.

Once, he actually did get hurt. During preparations for “Never Say Never Again,” Connery recruited Steven Seagal to help him train for a scene involving martial arts. “I got a little cocky because I thought I knew what I was doing,” he told Jay Leno in 1996, “and he broke my wrist.”

Following the Bond series, Connery played a master swordsman in “Highlander” and a Franciscan friar in “The Name of the Rose,” both released in 1986. A year later, Connery took on the affect of Jim Malone in the mobster thriller “The Untouchables,” for which he won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best supporting actor.

Connery was nominated again for a Golden Globe in 1989, this time receiving a best supporting actor nod for his role as Professor Henry Jones in the classic “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.” (Incidentally, that was the same year People Magazine deemed him the “sexiest man alive.” When he learned of the award, Connery quipped: “Well there aren’t many sexy dead men, are there?”)

Just one year after Indiana Jones, Connery played an integral part in yet another instant classic, “The Hunt For Red October.” In the movie he portrayed a Soviet submarine captain named Marko Ramius who piloted a stealth submarine in a high-stakes game of nuclear-armed, Cold War-era chess with the U.S. Navy.

His career continued with “Rising Sun” in 1993, “The Rock” in 1996, “Entrapment” in 1999, “Finding Forrester” in 2000, and “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” in 2003.

During that time, Connery was also frequently lampooned on the repeating Saturday Night Live sketch “Celebrity Jeopardy,” where he was presented as a hilariously crude prankster by actor Darrell Hammond.

Connery retired from acting after “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” a decision he stood by in a 2010 interview with the Scotsman after dealing with assorted health problems. Though directors flirted with the idea of asking Connery to play a role in the rebooted Bond movies featuring Daniel Craig, they ultimately decided against it.

Despite his numerous achievements on the screen, Connery ― always fiercely, proudly Scottish ― said his biggest honor came in 1999, when he helped open the Scottish Parliament. Connery, who attended the ceremony in Edinburgh wearing full Highland dress, called it the “most important day of his life.”

“Today is a momentous day for Scotland,” he told reporters. “We’ve waited 300 years for this, and it can’t be more momentous than that.”

Connery wears full Highland dress and his medal after he was formally knighted by the queen in July 2000. (Photo: David Cheskin/PA Archive)
Connery wears full Highland dress and his medal after he was formally knighted by the queen in July 2000. (Photo: David Cheskin/PA Archive)

So deep was his love for Scotland that he reportedly was passed over for knighthood in 1997 due to British concerns over his nationalism. At the time, the BBC notes he’d been donating £4,800 a month to the Scottish National Party and supported an independent Scotland.

Those concerns apparently abated. In July 2000 ― once again, wearing Highland dress ― Connery knelt before the Queen at a ceremony in Scotland and became “Sir Sean.”

“It’s one of the proudest days of my life,” Connery said after the ceremony. “It means a great deal for it to happen in Scotland.”

In April 2011, at the age of 80, Connery announced he’d decided to withdraw from making public appearances, telling The Scotsman he intended to spend more time on the golf course instead.

True to his word, following the decision, Connery ventured into the public eye far less, though he did make a regular habit of attending the U.S. Open and accompanying Roquebrune out.

Connery is survived by Roquebrune and by his sons Jason and Stephane.

In 1996, during his acceptance speech for the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award, Connery reflected on his career and told the applauding audience:

I’ve made a lot of films, some of which I’ve forgotten, and some of which I’ve tried to forget. But in the course of this strange thing we call a career, I’ve traveled to scores of exotic places, I’ve met many interesting people, kissed dozens of beautiful women, and have actually been very well paid for it, and I am most grateful.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.