Sir Thomas Sean Connery was born in Scotland on 25 August 1930. You got it, he’s 90 years young today, making him the longest lived actor to play James Bond (his successor as 007, Roger Moore, was three years senior and died just five months shy of his 90th birthday). Kind of fitting seeing as the celebrated spy’s movie incarnation started with this man. Though I bet you didn’t know that when Dr. No was released in 1962 Connery was living in my hood, the London environs of Kilburn and West Hampstead.
As the founders of film Lumière brothers discovered in Paris 125 years ago, pictures put in motion have a completely different effect than when they are static. Cinematic art is a merging of many disciplines and crafts to create a powerful visual language and emotional experience.
Where would we be if we denied ourselves the pleasure of someone’s art because they’re a deeply flawed human being?
Should we not look at Picasso’s paintings because he regularly battered his children and called women ‘doormats’?
Should we not watch Sean Connery as James Bond because he’s occasionally given the impression he had been a bit of a misogynist wife beater?*
On his dad’s side, Connery had Irish roots. His dad was Joe, a jobbing labourer in Edinburgh who married Effie Maclean in 1928. Thomas (Tommy) was born two years later in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh’s industrial district, where the grime and smoke had gained it the nickname, Auld Reekie. There was little money or prospects in Depression-blighted Britain in the Thirties and Tommy had a tough childhood. He got his first job when he was just nine years old; helping on a milk round before school, with an evening shift as well at a butchers.
Sean, as he would come to be known, was a physically strong kid, fit and good at sport, but he was restless, and keen to leave Fountainbridge behind. So he joined the Navy when he was seventeen. Although he signed up for seven years of active service he was invalided out in 1949, suffering from duodenal ulcers.
Back in the Scottish capital, Connery took up a British Legion scholarship and trained as a French polisher. He was a seriously good footballer and at one point might have decided on a professional career but he was also devoting many man hours to bodybuilding, working up an impressive physique. In 1952, he worked as a life guard at the Portobello Pool and he earned more money posing as an (almost) nude model at Edinburgh College of Art. His well-toned physique and dark good looks made him very popular: “The girls always wanted to sketch me up close, it was embarrassing,” he admitted, with modest candour.
Connery also posed for photos in myriad musclemen magazines. His coach (another body builder), suggested they go to London where his biographer Michael Callan, says Connery entered the 1953 Mr Universe competition, coming third. Records are patchy which probably explains why other distinguished sources disagree, for example, saying he went to London on his own; that he entered the junior man section; that he failed to place in the ‘tall man’ section; or even that he entered the Scottish and not the London heats. Several contemporary photos of him reveal a strong and studly body, usually shaved to within an inch of himself.
With cash running low, Connery was about to return to Scotland when he auditioned and got a job in the chorus of a travelling show of South Pacific. It paid £12 a week, almost £300 today. Connery knew and liked the theatrical world; he’d worked briefly behind the scenes in an Edinburgh theatre with a walk-on role in a play, but his acting career truly began in London, in 1953.
Around this time, ‘Tommy’ or ‘Tammy’ as he was sometimes known, became ‘Sean.’ Always a grafter, he worked hard but found himself out of work when the two year run of South Pacific ended. A few stage parts were followed by his first TV role (a brief part as a boxer in the 1956 series The Square Ring) and a film No Road Back (1957), where he played Spike, a minor gangster.
To make some extra money Connery worked as a babysitter at 46 Abbey Road, the home of Peter Noble, a journalist and film buff. The canny Scot charged 10 shillings an evening and another 10 shillings for every dirty nappy he had to change; (as Peter recalled, sometimes there were at least two). Noble got to know Sean through his friends Llew and Merry Gardner, who had a first floor flat at 67 Brondesbury Villas in Kilburn Park, where Sean lodged for a year, paying 12sh 6d a week (Roxy Music’s Brian Eno would move into No. 28 four years later, and later created parts of David Bowie’s Outside album there).
Llew Gardner was a television presenter who later worked on World In Action, and later recounted:
“My first impressions were of a very large, very hirsute Scottish young man who kept working out with dumbbells. He had a collection of pictures showing himself in body beautiful poses for which he must have shaved all over because there wasn’t a trace of hair to be seen. What struck me most about him was he was very canny, not easily impressed by those in a position to offer him money and fame.”
Gardner also recalled that Sean used to bargain with the traders at Kilburn Market over clothes and food: “He could go out and buy the cheapest piece of meat and turn out a very good stew.” When he bought a second-hand, three legged bed, the Gardners gave him thirteen volumes of the works of Stalin to use as the fourth. “I imagine it was the first time that Stalin had ever been screwed that way.”
Connery was living with the Gardners when Requiem For A Heavyweight went out on the BBC on 31 March 1957. It told the story of an ageing boxer at the end of his career. In Fountainbridge his parents watched their son on a brand new television set. “By Heavens, that was smashing,” said Joe. Sean went home to NW6 after his performance, celebrating with a typical meal of stew and a glass of beer. The reviews were generally good, The Times praising his “shambling and inarticulate charm.” Unfortunately any recording of this broadcast has seemingly been lost.
Connery was signed by 20th Century Fox but bided his time in Kilburn for work to materialise. He landed the role of Mike in Action Of The Tiger (MGM, 1957), but the director Terence Young believed the film would flop and told a disappointed Sean: “Just keep at it and I’ll make it up to you.” Four years later Young kept his word when he was sent the script of a film called Dr. No.
In 1958, Sean moved a short distance across the bustling Kilburn High Road to the quiet 3 Wavel Mews, off Abbey Road, and a mere five minute’s walk from the slightly noisier Gascony Avenue where I lived for most of my twenties and thirties. Connery’s new home – which he bought with the help of film director Jill Craigie – comprised three rooms above a garage. Julie Hamilton, daughter of Craigie and step-daughter of Labour politician Michael Foot, moved in with him.
Local directories show ‘T. Connery’ at Number 3, who started renovations around the time he began work on Another Time, Another Place (Paramount, 1958). He also returned to serious body building: his close friend and fellow actor Ian Bannen, often stayed at Wavel Mews, recalling that Connery “had all the equipment and he was deadly earnest about it, sometimes it was like a gym.”
Sean had always favoured a motorbike for personal transport and he still did. Bannen again: “It remains in my memory only because he was always falling off. Didn’t seem he could go down a bloody road without hitting some tree or something.’ Bannen moved into No. 3 when Connery was offered a major part in Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), which was filmed in the US. The ‘little people’ of the title were leprechauns and it was Connery’s first big hit. He must be dreaming.
Bannen left Wavel Mews when Sean returned from Hollywood and started converting the garage space below the flat into a sitting room. More stage and TV work as well as several films followed: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), The Frightened City (1961), On the Fiddle (1961) and a small part in The Longest Day (1962). But for Connery, “the storms of uncertainty were about to abate, to be replaced by a tempest of frenetic adulation and unstoppable fame.” Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman offered Terence Young (not their first choice), the chance to direct Dr. No.
“I’m looking for Commander James Bond, not an overgrown stunt man.” was 007 creator Ian Fleming’s cutting response on first meeting
Daniel Craig Sean Connery. He was in the running for the role of Bond, but so were many other British actors with far stronger pedigrees: Cubby Broccoli’s choice Cary Grant, but also David Niven and Patrick McGoohan (Danger Man and The Prisoner), plus established British stars Richard Johnson, Rex Harrison, Michael Redgrave, Trevor Howard and Roger Moore, who would finally bag the role in Live And Let Die). Tipping the scales in Connery’s favour was possibly the fact Broccoli’s wife had seen Sean in Darby O’Gill and told her husband his “macho aura was inescapably attractive”. In other words, he had sex appeal. A dangerously seductive brutal sex appeal.
When Connery started testing, United Artists cabled Broccoli and Saltzman, “see if you can do better” but the Eon producers were already committed to the Scotsman. Sean signed a multi-picture deal through to 1967’s You Only Live Twice, and his casting as James Bond was announced on 3 November 1961. Quoted figures for the fee Sean received for Dr. No range from £3,000 to as high as £25,000, (equivalent to £50,000 to £420,000 today).
Connery was ‘groomed’ extensively to fit the part. A top notch London tailor Anthony Sinclair was hired who described Sean as having perfect figure on which to hang clothes. When asked how he would manage to conceal Bond’s shoulder holster under his armpit without ruining the line of the suit, Sinclair replied: “When you have fitted a famous magician with full evening dress to hide all those damn doves he carries about him for his act, Mr. Connery’s armpit holds no fears for me.”
The photograph above was taken in Wavel Mews in December 1961, shortly after signing the 007 deal with Eon. Motorbikes had seemingly been abandoned in favour of fast cars like the Porsche 356. Connery had twisted his knee on an icy patch in the Mews, en route to filming Dr. No in Jamaica. While some quarters believed Fleming’s novels almost unfilmable, Connery always believed the film series had all the ingredients of a hit: ‘I just sat tight and waited.’
He didn’t need to wait very long. Connery’s first glimpse as Bond soon became the most famous self-introduction from any character in movie history. Three cool monosyllables, surname first, a little curtly, as befits a former naval commander. And then, as if in afterthought, the first name, followed by the surname again – for all the world as if we needed it narrowed down, and wouldn’t recognise one of the world’s most famous fictional brands. Connery carried it off with icily disdainful style at the baccarat table, in full evening dress with a cigarette hanging from his lips.
The introduction was a kind of challenge, or seduction, invariably addressed to an enemy. And the subtly anglicised Edinburgh accent (and once established he would soon drop it and refuse point blank to do accents of any kind), which appeared to soften or muddy those monosyllables, encouraged legions of comics and pub bores to think that they, too, could do the voice.
As 007, he was an instant, staggering success – conveying exactly the right dangerous sexiness and borderline-sociopathic capacity for disciplined violence – much mocked, much drooled over. Though the character was written by and as an Eton educated man of means (Fleming was indeed a “terrible snob, admitted Connery), the former milkman was the working-class Bond, a Bond who had come up through the ranks, though director Terence Young reputedly schooled him in the ways of classiness: how to dress, how to light a cigarette.
Connery’s natural muscular power and wry humour modified the elegance and eccentricity of Bond in just the right way, and Fleming was sufficiently impressed to fabricate Scottish roots for Bond in subsequent books.
As much as The Beatles, it was Connery’s charismatic Bond who kept alive Britain’s postwar amour-propre. Does Britain appear to be waning pathetically on the world stage? Oh no. Great Britain is still powerful – but in secret, you see, like 007. Connery’s Bond created the notion that the soft-culture brand image, the tricks and the toys, the gadgets and the cars, could be just as potent as real power and wealth.
And in the Swinging Sixties, Connery’s James Bond was about as dangerous and sexy as it got on screen – until directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Sidney Lumet came along, and saw how Connery’s on-screen menace could be taken to the next level.
He played the iconic role seven times, in Dr No (1962), From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967) and then two afterthought Bonds, the campy Diamonds Are Forever (1971), when his “hairline” appeared suddenly to come forward after some years of retreat, and Never Say Never Again (1983), effectively a bootleg retread of Thunderball.
Sean’s public image was merged with that of 007, and he accepted this burden with the same dangerously simmering resentment and controlled anger that made him such a glorious success as Bond. While luck played a part in his rise to stardom, there’s no doubt that Connery always worked extremely hard to achieve success. He was knighted in July 2000.
Once Dr. No cleaned up at box offices around the world, Connery left London NW6 for and went west to W3. There he splashed out (£9,000 and renovated the 12-room Acacia House on Centre Avenue, overlooking the local Acton Park. This move reflected his career success and more particularly, his recent marriage to Australian actress Diane Cilento, who was expecting their son and future actor Jason Connery.
My grandmother remembered an elderly friend of her mother’s who lived in Acol Road. One day she tripped and fell over on the pavement in West End Lane. She was helped to her feet by a tall, good looking man with a strong Scottish accent. He picked up her shopping and walked her home, even offering to make her a cup of tea. No prizes for guessing who he was.
I even very briefly met the man myself, though not in the same local London streets that my family had trod for decades, but in Edinburgh, Connery’s hometown, of all places.
In 2003 I returned from a year’s sabbatical in The Netherlands and wasn’t sure if I wanted to live in London again. Brighton, Bristol and Edinburgh were on my city shortlist of alternative options, and that year I travelled to the Scottish capital for the first time. I remember leaving Harvey Nichols in the city centre and spied a familiar looking fella walking casually and looking slightly lost but almost completely incognito. It was 007 himself.
“Hello Mr. Connery!,” I said, slightly gobsmacked and not quite believing it was the local hero himself. “Shouldn’t he playing golf in Marbella or somewhere?,” I secretly thought to myself, though of course I dare not say it. But I’m sort of glad I said something, anything to this legendary figure – and didn’t try to introduce myself formally. Turned out he was far from putting his feet up.
“Hello there,” Sean replied, with the tiniest hints of a smile.
Unlike other men of his age, Connery seemed to have got taller with his years, and I remember almost leaning back to look up at him, as if trying to see the flagstaff atop a famous building – although that was maybe just natural awe.
He then proceeded to ask me if I knew where a local television studio was. Me, a humble tourist. And this time I was in his hood.
Sadly, this was pre-smartphone so no GPS, no camera, and absolutely no chance I could assist him, much to my chagrin. Fancy that though, Edinburgh’s most celebrated son asking this wee Sassenach for directions just a couple of miles from where he was brought up! It later emerged he was on his way to film a promo spot for his then current film The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which would, alas, turn out to be his cinematic swansong. Extraordinary career, extraordinary man, and the greatest movie star Scotland’s ever likely to produce.
Happy birthday, 007. Cinema would have been a lot duller without you.
* Cricklewood NW2 raised Lynsey de Paul Lynsey conducted an affair with Connery in the late ‘80s and later admitted she “wasn’t aware of Sean’s violent side when I was with him, but I was quite horrified when I read that he had said it was OK to hit a woman. And if what Diane [Cilento, Sean’s first wife] said wasn’t true, then why has he never denied it? At the time, 49 MPs condemned him in the House of Commons and I couldn’t believe that a man I had once had feelings for could behave in such an irresponsible manner. I immediately contacted him and invited him to donate some money to a home for battered women, which he wouldn’t do. So I did a kiss ’n’ tell for money and I gave it to a women’s refuge in Chiswick, which kept it running for a year.”
My gratitude and sincere thanks to westhampsteadlife.com