For Sir Thomas Sean Connery (August 25, 1930-October 31, 2020)
Every age needs its signature hero. It’s often hard to say who invents the style. It’s not always the one who makes it popular. But I can’t think of any direct prototypes for Sean Connery’s 007.
Born in Edinburgh, Thomas Sean Connery was half-each Irish and Scottish, which means full Gael in my book. His circumstances were middle-class if not rough. They called him “Big Tam” (Scots for “Tom”) in his youth. He hit his full adult height at 12 and lost his boyhood in another sense at 14 to a woman in uniform during World War II. A brawler and bodybuilder, Connery was good enough at soccer to be offered a contract with Manchester United, the famed “Man U.” He had also started acting. Losing at bodybuilding to Americans whose only endeavors were piling on muscle and noting that most footballers were done by 30, Connery chose stage and screen. “It turned out,” he said, “to be one of my more intelligent moves.”
Connery’s course was direct, though not meteoric. His early appearances showed few signs of the eventual 007. One New York Times reviewer praised most of the cast of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), though he found the film itself to be a Celtic cliche and Connery – “merely tall, dark, and handsome” – an animated caricature. Then came Dr. No (1964).
Even Bond’s creator, author-spook Ian Fleming, wasn’t quite sure Connery was the right fit, but with Dr. No he warmed to the idea. The world was mad for it.
Connery was never my favorite actor, nor are the Bond films my favorite series, but if you asked someone to pick cultural icon – or a male sex symbol – of his era who surpassed the impact of Connery’s 007, I couldn’t think of who it might be.
That famous poster of Connery as Bond – tuxedo-clad, with a silenced pistol poised like an ad for the merry mickey two feet under it – seems to say it all. It suited a stereotype that at least some of us have of the man every woman desires: He scares men, he attracts women, and he impresses everybody. The fact that the figure touched such a nerve in the zeitgeist must prove that there was something to it. Bond is a Playboy-era hero, a simplistic portrayal of modern manliness. More of us didn’t get it because Connery played it so well.
Physical confidence and sexual vitality radiated off of Connery. They made wonderful counterpoint of his moments of elegance, but they made him seem miscast in roles that didn’t call for them. Neither seems to have been an act. While filming with Lana Turner, Connery made her mobster/ex-Marine boyfriend feel so overshadowed that he showed up on the set and pulled a gun. Connery disarmed him, then flattened him.
A bit has been made of 007’s rough treatment of some female characters, and some rhetorical blame has been attached to the actor Connery. (“Why do women like being treated rough by James Bond?” asked a talk show host of a British guest during Goldfinger‘s heyday. “I think they just like being treated by him,” was the reply, bringing down the house.)
My schoolmates and I saw the Bond films. We understood them as movies. I don’t remember any of us thinking women ought to be treated like Bond did. We didn’t think we were supposed to blow things things up or kick, club, and cap other people, either. It all bounced off the teflon Scot, anyway.
They say Connery had two devotions in life. One of them was to his craft.
Connery was said to have despised being typecast as a violent spy. I am not sure he excelled as anything else. While Connery won his Academy Award for the role of the tough cop in The Untouchables, he could have been given one for several of the Bond flicks had they been more respected as works of art.
Connery had basically two types. He played one to transcendence and the other well. One was the resourceful man of action, a 20th century Odysseus, the man of many wiles; the other was the greying sensei to one. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. I’d settle for achieving true excellence in anything, and I admire it when I see it in others.
And could he deliver a line! Connery made wit under fire – that stroke of killing aplomb – so much a new standard that it’s attempted in almost every action-adventure film since.
Astonishingly vital into his senior years, Connery had so many late-in-life hits that he could have been said to have had three cinematic careers. He retired from acting in 2006, declining “wheelbarrows full of money” even to appear in cameos. Maybe he was starting to feel like that tattered coat upon the stick of Yeats’ poem and preferred not to be remembered that way. Dementia complicated his final years, and it was said that his last ambition was to die in his sleep in his Nassau digs, as he did on Halloween.
Know what you are and be it could be a good adage for life, which brings us to Connery’s second devotion: He was a proud Scot. He never lost touch with his Caledonian roots no matter where in the world he lived. At the ceremony in which he was knighted he wore the green-and-black tartan kilt of his mother’s clan MacLeod. This connection is worth discussing.
Even if his work on “Darby O’Gill” wasn’t a refresher, Connery would have known of the tradition that some Gaelic clans – among them O’Donoghue, MacCulloch, O’Neill, and O’Brien – had longstanding friendships with the Fair Folk, the fairies who lived under the lochs and sidhe (“shee,” burial mounds) of the British Isles. Connery’s MacLeods may have topped them all, still possessing a reputedly enchanted artifact, “the Fairy Flag,” the gift of a fairy king to an ancestor.
Some worthy chiefs like an O’Donoghue in Ireland or a MacCulloch in Scotland were rumored to have ducked death at the end of their lives, walking arm-over-shoulder with a faery drinking-pal into the nearby sidhe for a right guid willie-waught that goes to this day. Others like the Irish Oisin (Usheen) or the Scot Thomas of Erceldoune took straight up with the elfin Queen. I know 007’s choice. He’d have been just the sort the fabled Maeve or Niamh (Neeve) would have preferred to the wan poets who wrote about them. (“I want a man to hold me,” chortles Bonnie Raitt, “not some fool to ask me why.” So for the Fairy Queen.)
It’s also suspicious that it was the night of Halloween on which Sir Sean left us. Under its several names Halloween was the New Year’s Eve to Celtic societies and the traditional night when the gates to Faerie – “the Land of the Young” – lie open. Anyone might trade realms. Lastly, Halloween was also the typical day on which man-made treaties fell due. Debts were paid and deals were honored.
When someone went with the Fairies at the end of a life, something that looked like the body was left to fool the human community. Of a similar weight, this “stock” kept the illusion – the glamour – through all the ceremonies, but if the grave was breached even days later, a simple log would be found.
Her Majesty’s agent will leave us no clues. He or whatever was left in his place is ashes now. But I see the bold lad of “Darby O’Gill” or 007 in his sly prime, quipping and tipping with the Queen in her sunny halls beneath the barrow.
Fare thee well, Sir Sean. Your soul was one of those to clap its hands and sing every one of your days with us. You leave us stirred, not shaken. Now, Sláinte!