It is 44 years since Sean Connery appeared as an aging Robin Hood in Richard Lester’s under-estimated Robin and Marian. There was a great deal of weary groaning and geriatric puffs as the great man reacquainted himself with the merry pensioners. Eleven years later he won an Oscar for playing the “veteran” cop in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. He has been playing the geezer since before many of today’s marquee idols were born. For decades magazine polls faked shock when they revealed that the “sexiest man alive” was in his fifties, sixties or seventies. We should, thus, not be surprised to learn that Connery today celebrates his 90th birthday.
He will, of course, always be best remembered as the first person to play James Bond on film. A recent poll for the BBC once again — to the surprise of nobody — voted him the best 007 of the bunch. There was always a strain of parody in the films, but Connery brought a sly gravity to the role that nobody has since managed. He is having a laugh. But that doesn’t mean he won’t kick your head in.
Connery was far from being an obvious choice for the role. Ian Fleming, snobbish author of the source novels, inclined towards the suave, upper middle-class David Niven (who went on to play a variation of Bond in the pastiche Casino Royale). That actor was already brushing 50, but he was, in Fleming’s terms, “one of us”. Sean Connery was a working-class lad from the Fountainbridge district of Edinburgh. He could hardly have been less suited to the role. Many legends have gathered around the selection procedures. But the fact that he was cheap mattered. The original budget for Dr No, released in 1962, was a modest $1 million. Patrick McGoohan, star of the TV show Danger Man, was considered, but he disapproved of the sexual immorality and Connery, already a modestly successful second-biller, somehow slipped into the part. In 1959 he was shaming himself in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Now he was the spirit of the age.
The films gathered greater success with each episode. Critics who had questioned his casting were won over. Fleming, whose love of success overpowered his patrician instincts, also came around to the man who began his working life as a milkman. Just as John Le Carré came to see George Smiley as Alec Guinness, Fleming got bits of Connery lodged in his brain. When, in 1964, he wrote a premature obituary for Bond in You Only Live Twice, he made sure to note that the character’s father was Scottish. To that point we had seen him as the archetypal English patriot.
Connery was not easily prised from the role. Following George Lazenby’s lukewarm turn in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1969 (good film, iffy Bond), he returned, now bewigged and saggy round the tummy, for one more official turn in Diamonds Are Forever. In 1983 he appeared in the rogue production Never Say Never Again.
Despite the looming shadow of 007, Connery did manage to establish a career and a public persona beyond the role. He was excellent opposite old mate Michael Caine in The Man Who Would be King. He was hulking as Agamemnon in Time Bandits. Though only 12 years older than Harrison Ford, he sparkled as the hero’s dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That decision to accept the position of aging hunk proved lucrative. In the blink of an eye, he went from vigorous thug to avuncular greybeard.
Meanwhile, the real Connery gathered all sorts of controversy about him. It was regarded as enormously hilarious that he supported the Scottish National Party despite living in Marbella. (He reacted to accusation of being a tax exile by pointing out that he paid £3.7 million in taxes between 1997 and 2002.) Connery has been fielding questions about sexual violence since appearing to condone hitting woman in a Playboy interview from way back in 1965. He has always maintained that the quote was taken out of context. “My view is I don’t believe that any level of abuse against women is ever justified under any circumstances. Full stop,” he later said.
Connery nonetheless celebrates his advance on a tenth decade as an avatar of old-fashioned masculinity. His role as James Bond — hating the Beatles at the height of the their success — helped position those attitudes within inverted commas. He went from playing grumpy young men to grumpy old men. He became the most famous Scot in the world. Peter Jackson tried to lure him into the role of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. Fans have wondered if he might return to Indiana Jones. But Connery isn’t playing.
“If anything could have pulled me out of retirement, it would have been an Indiana Jones film,” he said. “But in the end, retirement is just too damned much fun.”