The news of Sean Connery’s death first broke in Japan. From there, the story was picked up by a South African newspaper, then bounced over to Europe, where a French radio station began beaming the obit to half the continent. * ”My wife’s friend was in Belgium and nearly fell out of bed when she heard,” says a decidedly undead Connery, settling into a chair in his Los Angeles office one day last month. ”She phoned up our house in a panic. My wife told her, ‘Dead? Oh, no. He’s just out playing golf.’ ”
In the immortal words of Ian Fleming, you only live twice — and Connery’s making the most of it. Since his exaggerated demise more than a year ago, he’s completed three films back- to-back, playing a medieval king, a fire-breathing terror, and-in the biggest stretch of the bunch — a pacifist Harvard Law School professor.
Opening nationwide this week is Just Cause, in which Connery stars as Paul Armstrong, an aging attorney who returns to the courtroom for the first time in 25 years to save a death-row inmate from the electric chair. In May, he slips into royal robes to play King Arthur in First Knight, with Richard Gere as Lancelot and Julia Ormond as Guinevere. Then, next year, he lends his voice to the big-budget Dragonheart, speaking for the Jurassic-style computer-generated featured creature, with Dennis Quaid costarring as the last dragon slayer.
”It’s a stupid scenario, doing three films one after another,”says Connery, his Scottish r‘s rrrolling like the misty moors near his old Edinburgh home. ”I did The Man Who Would Be King, The Wind and the Lion, and Robin and Marian all one after the other. It was like pushing a quart into a pint bottle. But when you find something you want to do, you do it.”
At 64, Connery has been doing it for almost four decades now, acting in everything from war dramas (The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far) to space Westerns (Outland) and gangster flicks (The Untouchables)-not to mention a certain series of spy thrillers (”The name is Bond — James Bond”). Unlike other British actors of similar vintage — Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole — Connery has managed to maintain his status as a top-dollar A-list movie star even as he approaches the brink of Social Security eligibility. Much more impressive, he’s kept up his credentials as an international sex symbol.
”Sexy? God, yes,” says Ormond. ”As a kid, he was always my favorite Bond. Then you meet him, and he has this very powerful presence. He’s totally in command. But he’s also very gentle.”
Connery’s character in Just Cause is a long way from the martini-sipping secret agent of his youth. An anti-capital punishment intellectual, he doesn’t even throw his first punch until the film’s final reel. Instead, the movie gets its testosterone from Laurence Fishburne, who plays a semi-corrupt Southern cop, and Blair Underwood, who plays the accused killer Connery defends. There’s also Kate Capshaw as Connery’s wife and Ed Harris as an imprisoned serial killer who’s so over-the-top nutty he’d give Hannibal Lecter the heebie-jeebies.
For an actor whose early career was so ferociously physical — Connery was once a Mr. Universe contestant — you’d think the transition to Man of a Certain Age would have been a bumpy one. Not so, says Just Cause director Arne Glimcher: ”As Sean’s gotten older, he’s become much more subtle. He can say more with a raised eyebrow than most actors can with a whole paragraph of dialogue.”
”I don’t know if it was deliberate or not, but what he’s done with his career is just amazing,” agrees Just Cause producer Lee Rich. ”He’s a leading man in his sixties. How many other actors can say that?”
For Connery, the metamorphosis from youthful action hero to venerable film lion was so smooth he barely noticed it. ”I think the fact that one’s hair disappeared early made it easier,” he offers. ”I never had a ‘transition problem.’ I’ve always played older. I played Harrison Ford’s father (in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) and Dustin Hoffman’s father (in Family Business). And this year, I’m going to be 65. I’m hardly going to get into a weight program and do Tarzan. I could have the best body sculpting in the world, but I’m never going to be James Bond again.”