BUENOS AIRES -- "You get certain actors and actresses," says Sean Connery, almost shouting over the din of a set where the measured anarchy of moviemaking is at full pitch, "who rise to prominence in cyclical periods -- Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino. Once you are in that sort of club, as it were, you're with-it."
Connery, at 59, is about as with-it as an actor could be. Known throughout the world for his portrayal, starting nearly three decades ago, of a certain British secret agent (whose name now makes him wince), Connery is in the midst of a second flowering. Roles -- and accolades -- are pouring in at a frantic pace.
A bare-bones re'sume' might read something like "Hunk makes good, hunk goes away to pupate, hunk returns transmogrified into actor." But like a lot of simple stories, this one isn't.
He always worked at his acting, he says: "The James Bond films were hugely successful and highly commercial, but they weren't as easy as they looked." He never went away: "I've been working pretty steadily for 30 years." And the aura of hunkdom clings as strongly as ever to a man named by People magazine last year as the sexiest on the planet -- though his reaction to that unsolicited U.S. title is: "Thank God I'm in Argentina."
Connery has spent mid-May in Buenos Aires with actor Christopher Lambert and director Russell Mulcahy filming "Highlander II," sequel to a 1986 film (about sword-wielding immortals) that had only middling success in the United States but did very well at box offices overseas. Shooting was arranged to require only two weeks of Connery's time, a concession to his busy schedule.
Saying he's "busy" is like saying Connery looks good for his age, or for anyone's age -- true enough, but a criminal understatement. The man is everywhere.
His beat-cop-turned-anti-mob-crusader in Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" three years ago won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. His performance as Prof. Henry Jones in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" last year was widely seen as a gem. He anchors one of this year's big draws as the brooding Soviet submarine commander Ramius in "The Hunt for Red October."
Smash after smash after smash. He also gets an asterisk for Sidney Lumet's "Family Business," which despite starring Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick, was a commercial disappointment.
Not yet released is the film version of John le Carre's glasnost-era spy thriller, "The Russia House," in which Connery plays an idealistic, alcoholic British publisher who is buried alive by affairs of the heart and questions of nuclear-war theology. Months down the road will come the release of "Highlander." In the meantime, Connery will try to make his residences in Monaco and the Bahamas feel like more than just mailing addresses.
"When one gets into this kind of cycle, home is where the work is," he says. "On 'Russia House' I suddenly found myself in Russia, in Portugal, in London, in Vancouver, all on the same movie."
But he says he loves working, even if he does not love quite all the movies he has made. "I think that over the years, 60 percent is a good average." Is that his personal average? "Well, I simply mean that it's a good average, one I think an actor can be proud of."
All this recent activity has left two distinct images of Connery, Sean Then and Sean Now.
Sean Then is the complete rake, dark-haired, dangerous, dashing in black tie, shaken-not-stirred martini at his elbow while he dominates the baccarat table with his casually tossed-out snippets of perfect French and his sly sideways glances that set the contessa all aflutter.
Sean Now has softer edges. The hair is mostly gone (although for his role in "Highlander" he wears a flowing hairpiece gathered in a ponytail), and what remains has long since turned to silver. He is taller, around 6 feet 3, and slimmer than he looks on screen, especially in his recent films, which leave the impression that he has put on a bit of weight. Still, age has given him a new solidity. If Sean Then dazzled the camera, Sean Now quietly commands it.
Undiminished, perhaps even enhanced, are the glint in the eye, the set of the jaw, the arch of the brow that establish presence. "There are only seven genuine movie stars in the world today," Steven Spielberg was once quoted as saying, "and Sean is one of them."
If there is a new Connery role, it is that of the Older Mentor who still can summon a bit of fire when the situation demands -- Jimmy Malone in "The Untouchables," Baskerville in "The Name of the Rose," Henry Jones in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," Ramirez in the "Highlander" films.
But he resists any new typecasting or labeling -- "I don't think you can identify any continuing character" -- and says he is led to film projects by his taste, not by the multimillion-dollar salaries he routinely commands or some elusive calculation of box office potential.
"I don't think anybody is terribly good at predicting whether a film is successful," he says. "I think it's successful if you make the film that you thought it was. If you think a project is interesting, if you think it's a challenge, if you think it helps you progress in some way, then you go ahead. If not, then there's not really a great deal of point in doing it.
"If you just want to be commercial -- well, that's a main reason I got out of the James Bond thing."
The "Bond thing," the near-total melding of actor and character that for a while produced a kind of hybrid being, Sean-Connery-as-James-Bond, used to rankle. But Connery says he's finally left it behind. "That's over," he responds to an invitation to talk about the old days, patiently but with a tone that brooks no further inquiry. "It's been done so much that I really don't want to get into it."
On the "Highlander" set he accepts the tedium of running through the same action three, four, five times in a row with what seems almost a lunch-bucket-workaday mentality. When there is a technical glitch with a whirligig device crucial to a climactic scene, he waits along with everyone else, no complaints -- but he paces a bit, fidgets a bit, wants to get on with it. The crew is solicitous to an outlandish degree. He has never been thought of as temperamental in the Movie Star sense, but neither does he have a reputation for suffering fools gladly.
"When somebody is on a short shooting schedule like Sean, you have to plan extremely carefully," said Bill Panzer of Davis-Panzer Productions, the firm that is making the film. "Sean comes to work. ... He is a no-nonsense professional. He is here to do a job and get it done, and he wants everyone around him to have the same attitude."
Connery says he has a passion for good writing, and recently he's seen his share -- David Mamet wrote "The Untouchables," Tom Stoppard did the screenplay for "The Russia House." His schedule, he says, leaves little time for overall assessment of the state of the art. "I'm working so much that I don't get to see that many movies. But 'Mutant Ninja Turtles'? And it's a huge success. Well, I won't comment on the film because I haven't seen it."
The eyebrows go up. "Turtles."
He was born Thomas Connery, son of a truck driver, in Edinburgh, and raised in working-class tenements. He dropped out of school at 13, did a stint in the Royal Navy and entered show business, so to speak, in 1953 as a contestant in the Mr. Universe pageant. He lost, but discovered acting and got his first break as a member of the chorus in a production of "South Pacific."
Advised that an actor should be literate, he went to the library and read. Conscious of the need to refine his voice, he read into a tape recorder. He did a BBC production of "Requiem for a Heavyweight" and several forgettable appearances in films for 20th Century Fox, which had signed him, before getting the fateful call from producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman.
"Bond. James Bond" was born in 1962 -- the real deal, not George Lazenby, not Roger Moore, certainly not Timothy Dalton.
Paid just $16,500 for the first Bond film, "Dr. No," he now is in the mega-salary range. Money is important, he has said, because he's "been ripped off so many times." But over the years he has at times worked for next to nothing, if the project was right, and without a lot of fanfare he has donated heavily to some charities, particularly the Scottish International Education Trust Fund.
For some time Connery has been bothered by a problem with his throat, and at one point he had some nonmalignant polyps removed. At times his voice takes on a parched tone, and he seems to try to conserve it, using it sparingly.
From 1962 to 1973, Connery was married to actress Diane Cilento. The marriage produced a son, Jason, now 26 and an actor himself, who in a kind of Oedipal twist was picked to star in a made-for-TV film about Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books.
Connery is an avid golfer, and in 1970 was playing in an amateur tournament in Morocco when he met Micheline Roquebrune, a French painter. After both arranged divorces from their spouses, they married in 1974. The union is said to be a happy one.
A couple of years ago, Barbara Walters aired an interview with Connery in which the impression was left that he thought it was perfectly all right, if hit by a woman, to return the favor. He has little to say about the offending quote except that it was "taken completely out of context" and that the producers of the show were "looking for something that just wasn't there."
"They got what they wanted, I guess," he says. "What is really pathetic is that the American people would be at all impressed by something so meager."
In star-struck Buenos Aires he has been pursued endlessly by the local paparazzi, with reporters digging to find out the style of the furnishings in his hotel suite ("very warm") and chasing him at a soccer match when he showed up unannounced. He and the rest of the cast of "Highlander" were invited to chat with President Carlos Menem, who reportedly offered to play a cameo.
Through it all Connery has struck a tone of polite interest. Most free afternoons he has managed to escape to play a round of golf.
But he is not lacking in opinions, particularly about Hollywood. "I have many good friends there," he says, but it also seems to be the home of most of the fools he suffers least gladly of all.
"It's a very tight city, because of what's always going on, everybody in everybody else's pockets," he says. "Every time they have what they call a change in management you see the same people -- they move from MGM to Paramount to United Artists, and then MGM becomes United Artists, and so on. I've had more than my share of lawsuits with Hollywood, which I've always thought was not conducive to voting by the Academy."
He describes himself as something of an outsider. "If I lived in Britain or in the U.S., I suppose I would become more a part of one scene or the other," he says. "But I live neither here nor there. I don't really identify with being British or American. I don't have a press agent. I just go on with the work."
Connery says some of his flops flopped because this studio head or that distributor "didn't know what to do with the film." In the past he has had harsh words for the producers of the Bond series, and recently he reportedly had to buy his way out of a film production of playwright Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" because he could not reach agreement with the producers about a schedule that would accommodate his throat problems.
But despite what could be called a chronic Tinselitis, it is with what sounds like studied nonchalance -- and perhaps a touch of genuine pride -- that he mentions his Oscar for "The Untouchables," which, he says, came not so much for his work in that one film as "for a body of work over the years."
"Thirty years earlier I had gone to the Academy Awards with John Wayne and Maurice Chevalier, just to watch," he says. "I hadn't been physically present at the ceremony since, until the night I won."
He says he is "interested in finding something" to direct, and was all set to go on an Australian project before the deal fell apart. Until that comes up, he plans to continue working at a pace that would break the back of actors half his age.
"Some careers are longer, some are shorter," he says. "I've been able to work since 1960 -- that's 30 years. ... If the material is very good stuff, it takes me along."