From the archives: Sean Connery reflects on his career
Sean Connery, the famed Scottish actor who was the first to play James Bond beginning with 1962's Dr. No, died Saturday at the age of 90. In EW's Feb. 17, 1995 cover story, he spoke to Benjamin Svetkey about his lengthy career and 007 legacy.
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.”
Connery is changing shirts during a New York City photo shoot — and it's downright disgusting what great shape he's in. Six foot two and 210 pounds, he looks as if he could easily beat up, say, a magazine journalist half his age. In fact, at times he looks as if he actually might. Although he's said to have mellowed over the years, Connery's reputation as a man to be reckoned with still seems well deserved. High-powered producers and directors have been known to tremble in his presence. Even his celebrity golfing buddies have called him"highly competitive."
"If I'm grouchy, it's with reason," he says grouchily. "If I have to deal with idiots, I can get cantankerous."
He can also get litigious. It's been said that next to golf, lawsuits are his favorite pastime (his most famous dispute was a protracted contract-and- money battle with Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert "Cubby" Broccoli). He's equally well known for his scrutiny of movie profits, hiring his own team of accountants to review the books of most of his movies. "I hate unfairness," he says."I find it criminal that you can enter into an agreement with somebody and then they try to steal from you in the bookkeeping."
About the only group Connery distrusts more than bookkeepers are journalists. An infamous remark he made in a 1965 Playboy interview — "I don't think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman" — was dredged up in a 1987 Barbara Walters TV special and dogs him in virtually every interview he's done since (he claims that the quote was taken out of context). More recently, he's been hounded by questions about his health. In October 1993, after years of whispered questions, the international press buzzed with rumors of throat cancer and reports of his death.
"What happened was that I had polyps on my vocal cords for about six years," he explains. "I had them lasered off each time. But thenI had a little twinge of a problem while I was doing Rising Sun. I couldn't get the timbre of my voice right. I couldn't get the variation and enunciation as comfortable as I wanted. So I went back to the doctor and he suggested radiation. I went for six weeks and didn't have any side effects or problems. Then I made the announcement that I had done radiation treatment. The publicists said not to do it, that it would set off an explosion. But I thought, If you do radiation and it's a success, why not speak about it?"
The publicists were right. To stem the avalanche of morbid gossip that followed, Connery was forced to resort to extreme measures: He literally jet-packed onto David Letterman's show, 007-style. "We talked on the phone, Letterman and myself, and came up with the idea of me coming in on that thing," Connery says. "And that was it. Now everyone knows I'm alive."
"I was going upstairs," says Connery, recalling an incident that happened several years ago at his villa in Spain, where he lives with his second wife, Micheline (they also have homes in the Bahamas and Los Angeles). "I heard my own voice coming from one of the rooms. My grandchildren were watching Goldfinger. So I sat down with them and watched for a bit. It was interesting. There was a certain elegance, a certain assurance to it that was quite comforting. There was a leisureliness that made you not want to rush to the next scene. Of course, I also saw things that could have been improved."
Not surprisingly, Connery is a tad ambivalent about his most famous big-screen alter ego. On the one hand, the character was by far the most important break of his career. When Bond mania swept the planet in the mid- 1960s, it triggered mass hysteria of almost Beatlesesque proportions, putting Connery in the heart of a raging cultural phenomenon. It made him a millionaire, a sex symbol, a global superstar. On the other hand, you get tired of all that.
"It was a case of phasing out and getting on to other things," he says. "Also, they started getting into all this space stuff. They kept upping the physical hardware. I mean, that car going through the alley on its side in Diamonds Are Forever — it just got to be too much."
"Sean is rather sanguine about it now," says longtime Connery chum and fellow Bondsman Roger Moore, "but I think there was a time when he was bored of being Bond. You do five or six of these things and people put a tag on you. It can get rather limiting."
The story of how Connery nabbed the role is a classic showbiz tale. Supposedly, producers Saltzman and Broccoli were discussing casting him for Dr. No when they spied the actor "striding like a panther" outside their window. Comparing other Bond wannabes with Connery, Broccoli later recalled, was like "comparing a still photograph with a film." But not everyone was won over: Bond novelist Ian Fleming reportedly dismissed Connery as an "overgrown stuntman" — although he later pulled an Anne Rice and accepted the casting. Today, 12 years after his final appearance as 007 in Never Say Never Again, Connery sometimes still finds himself in Bondage. He still gets sent secret-agent scripts (as does his son Jason, 31, who starred in the 1990 TNT movie The Secret Life of Ian Fleming). And, of course, he's forced to endure endless questions about Bond in every interview he grants — including this one. Fortunately, he's a pretty good sport about it.
"I think they have to create an absolutely '90s milieu for the character today," he says. "I mean, we no longer have the Evil Empire. The Chinese are knocking on the door with trade agreements.The whole world is trying to get into balance. They have to rethink the whole idea." His take on other, more recent Bonds: "Timothy Dalton has Shakespearean training, but he underestimated the role. The character has to be graceful and move well and have a certain measure of charm as well as be dangerous." He believes Pierce Brosnan, who'll be playing Bond in Goldeneye, currently filming in London, will have an easier time of it. "He's a good actor," he says."He'll add some new elements to it."
As for Connery's own future, one thing is absolutely certain. Like SPECTRE's evil overlord Ernst Stavro Blofeld, he long ago said, Goodbye, Mr. Bond. "I couldn't play him now," he insists. "It'd be silly even to contemplate. I've outlived him."And you know what they say — you only out live once.