A few years after Sean Connery shot to international stardom as Agent 007, he told an interviewer that his goal for the future was simple. "I suppose more than anything else, I'd like to be an old man with a good face, like Hitchcock or Picasso. . . . They know that life is not just a popularity contest."
At 69, Connery can safely be said to have attained this goal. And it was perhaps no accident that the faces he used as examples happened to be crowned with bald heads. Although tonight's tribute to him at the Kennedy Center Honors will focus on his movie career, he also could be cited for boosting the sex-appeal index of older men, especially bald older men.
Connery, alone of this weekend's five honorees, declined through his press agent to be interviewed. The uniquely American honor is being given to Connery--who has never lived in the United States--because he is a "living icon," according to Kennedy Center Chairman James A. Johnson. The 23 previous foreign-born winners have at least been residents of the United States.
You could argue that Connery's career reflects an American aesthetic, however, even though he is widely known as a Scottish nationalist and has a permanent home in Marbella, Spain. His early years sound like a Scottish version of "Angela's Ashes": raised in an Edinburgh tenement that had no hot water and a communal bathroom; started work delivering milk at the age of 9; left school at 13 to earn money for the family coffers. His father was a long-distance truck driver and his mother was a domestic.
That a person with neither education nor background should make his reputation as upper-class James Bond, an Eton-educated sophisticate, is a tribute to the transformative skills of an actor. Looking at the 1962 Connery, then 32, in the first Bond flick, "Dr. No," however, it seems equally probable that he was cast more for the way he filled out a tuxedo than for his acting skills.
But Connery did not want to make his career as a male bimbo. His non-Bond roles are not pegged to any one class or type--his 1987 Oscar-winning role (for supporting actor) in "The Untouchables" was as an Irish street cop in Chicago; he was a scholarly father in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" (1989) and this year a romantic copycat burglar in "Entrapment."
There have been more than six dozen movies, covering virtually the whole spectrum of film archetypes from adventure to art, documentary to comedy. He was a psychiatrist in Hitchcock's lame thriller "Marnie" (1964), a con man in "The Man Who Would Be King" (1975) and an Irish don in "Family Business" (1989). One of his personal favorites, reportedly, is "The Offence" (1973), in which he played a troubled police detective disturbed by his pursuit of a child molester.
The screen loves his 6-foot-2 frame, batwing eyebrows and honey-on-sandpaper burr. And fans have accepted him in other roles, despite his 20-year on-again, off-again, seven-film relationship with Mr. Bond. "Mister Kisskiss Bangbang," they called him in Italy. "I don't really suppose I'd like Bond if I met him," Connery said in the early 1960s. "He's not my kind of chap at all."
Maybe. But he was certainly Connery's ticket out of the obscurity of a seven-year third-rate movie career and into the Hollywood power crowd. Connery can command high fees and even produce movies himself ("Entrapment," for example), and can take himself off to his homes in Marbella or the Bahamas whenever he wants.
His hiring--without an audition--for the part of Bond in "Dr. No" has become an oft-told tale. "We spoke to him and saw that he had the masculinity the part needed," co-producer Harry Saltzman told the Saturday Evening Post in 1964. "Whenever he wanted to make a point, he'd bang his fist on the table, the desk, or his thigh, and we knew this guy had something. When he left, we watched him from the window as he walked down the street, and we all said, 'He's got it.' We signed him without a screen test."
Despite his humble beginnings, Connery was fortunate to have had some important mentors early in his career. One was Terrence Young, who directed him in a small part in the British film "Action of the Tiger" (1957), a really terrible political adventure flick that starred Van Johnson and Martine Carol. Connery asked Young whether he should continue with his career. Young told him to "keep on swimming" and he'd find him a good part in a better film. That turned out to be "Dr. No."
Another mentor was an actor-teacher-director named Robert Henderson. In his early twenties, after winning a third-place ribbon in the Mr. Universe contest, Connery landed a chorus job in a British touring production of "South Pacific" in which Henderson had a part. Connery was also being courted by the Manchester United soccer team. He went to Henderson for advice. "He said, 'If you're 22 now and you go play soccer, it'll take you a year or two to get onto that team, and if you don't make it, that's it, it's over and then what are you going to do? As an actor, you could go on forever.' So I thought about that . . . and decided to do another year on the tour of 'South Pacific,' " Connery told Premiere magazine in 1990.
Henderson also gave Connery reading lists, and during his year on the road, the young man who had left school at 13 spent his afternoons in local libraries and his evenings in the theater. He read all of Shakespeare, James Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Marcel Proust--as well as basic acting texts by Konstantin Stanislavsky. He worked on his diction with a clunky Grundig tape recorder, tamping back his Scottish burr. That was also when he became Sean, instead of Thomas Sean Connery, according to the All Movie Guide.
It's just a shame there is no video of Sean Connery joining the Seabees singing "There Is Nothin' Like a Dame."
"South Pacific" was already a break for Connery, who had left a three-year stint in the British navy at 19 when he came down with ulcers. (His two tattoos, acquired in the navy, say "Scotland Forever" and "Mum and Dad.") He'd used his disability pay to study furniture polishing. He also worked at the Edinburgh Evening News melting down lead type, at an art school modeling his buff physique, as a lifeguard, as a steel bender and as a cement mixer. After the musical, he got work in television and then went on to movies.
One of the world's most famous Scotsmen (and an enthusiastic practitioner of the national sport, golf) as well as a fervent supporter of Scottish nationalism, Connery nonetheless chooses to live as a tax exile in Spain. He has never been knighted, unlike the Beatles, reportedly because in a 1965 Playboy interview he suggested that the occasional "openhanded slap" in domestic situations wasn't so bad. He has long since repented and recanted that statement.
"I have a temper, a violent side, which I use as an actor," he said in a 1987 New York Times interview, "though whether it's been ammunitioned by childhood or other factors, I'm not absolutely sure. I only became fully aware of the unfairness of it all when I got out and had something to compare it with. In some ways it's easier to relate to the things that happen later in life than earlier: setbacks, trusting in people who turn out to be absolute swine, the death of a good friend, the death of a parent. I know for instance that the death of my father had an absolutely devastating effect on me."
Connery has donated large sums of money to causes that interest him: the Scottish Educational Trust, the National Youth Theatre of Britain. Lately he has also become a theatrical producer, backing productions of the play "Art" in London and New York--to critical and financial success. His French-born wife, Micheline, whom he married in 1975, saw the play in Paris and bought the rights. It won a Tony Award last year.
Connery has a son, Jason, from his first marriage to actress Diane Cilento. Micheline has three children from her first marriage.