In 1961, Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman started Eon Productions with one goal:
To produce a movie based off of Ian Fleming’s spy novels. In 1962, Dr. No was released.
The men needed somebody to play the lead, and they did not choose a big name.
They chose a ruggedly handsome Scottish actor who’s career to date had been highlighted by Macbeth in a TV movie and second billing in a forgotten film called Operation Snafu.
And he was so brilliant that two years later when Fleming himself decided to explore the background of James Bond more thoroughly, he made the famous spy Scottish.
Connery as Bond
Connery starred in no less than seven Bond movies: Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever and Never Say Never Again.
That last movie was twelve years after Diamonds Are Forever. Connery had moved on from the role. Bond had already been recast twice. In 1969, Bond was recast as George Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is widely (and perhaps unfairly) considered to be the worst of the movies. Lazenby got the blame and the studio went back to Connery for Diamonds Are Forever.
After that, Connery really did want to move on. He was likely afraid he would be typecast as Bond forever. For the next movie, Live and Let Die, he was replaced by an equally amazing actor, Roger Moore. The argument about whether Connery or Moore was better rages to this day amongst fans, even eclipsing arguments about more recent actors.
Moore was no doubt cast because of his wonderful performance in the 1960s spy-fi series The Saint (which was never as popular as The Avengers and didn’t have a strong following outside the US, but which is worth looking up). He also did seven Bond movies.
But in 1983, something odd happened. That odd thing was Never Say Never Again. And the movie existed solely because of a rights battle.
Somehow, the rights to the 1961 novel Thunderball ended up in the hands of Kevin McClory. And yes, it had already been filmed once, in 1965.
McClory wanted to do it again, but by this time his relationship with Eon had soured. He had the rights.
What he didn’t have was the star: Moore was under contract with Eon.
Connery had been hired by McClory to help with the script. His intimate familiarity with Thunderball and with the character probably caused McClory to involve him. And producer Jack Schwartzman offered an easy solution.
Just get Connery to do it.
Connery agreed…on the condition that he got script and casting approval.
What the movie also lacked was a title.
Micheline Connery teased her husband by saying he said he would never do this, so how about Never Say Never Again.
And Connery did one last Bond movie, at the age of 52.
Connery Post Bond
No doubt one motivation for why Connery quit the franchise was that after seven movies he was feeling typecast. It was a legitimate concern: After The Saint and his Bond movies, Moore disappeared for five years and did little of significance again. (While many consider Moore the best Bond few would argue that he was the better actor).
Connery, on the other hand, moved on, although not all of his roles were, shall we say, well chosen (more on that later). He got to play Robin Hood, he was flamboyant and brilliant as Ramirez in Highlander (with the side irony that he was playing a Spaniard in Scotland). And he also became well known for his role in the classic submarine movie The Hunt For Red October.
He also got to play, ironically, King Richard, and King Arthur. He was even briefly in the MCU. He was a fantastic Allen Quatermain.
It was his cameo as King Richard that gave me a bizarre and indirect connection to Sean Connery: He showed up riding a white horse that looked incredibly familiar. It either was, or was a dead ringer for, a horse I had taken some lessons on! The horse was, by the way, named “Drummer.” And yes, it was completely feasible it was the same horse.
Oh, and he played Bond one last time in 2005…voicing the character in a video game.
He had, in other words, a good career post Bond, although when he died it was Bond for which he was still remembered.
That One Movie
I already mentioned that not all of Connery’s roles were well chosen.
In 1974, three years after Diamonds Are Forever, Connery was presumably looking for work.
The joke is that he was pretty desperate.
He was hired by John Boorman Productions for a low budget science fiction movie that was basically a Lotus Eaters riff. The movie’s budget was $1,570,000…only $300,000 more than Bond was paid for Diamonds Are Forever. That’s per IMDB. I’ve seen even lower figures elsewhere.
But hey, he was the lead. That had to count for something, right.
And this movie is remembered by many despite a box office take of 1.8 million in US and Canada (IMDB, on the other hand, reports a worldwide gross of under $7k, but that actually seems low).
This movie, though, shows up in Tumblr memes. It’s what’s generally known as a “cult classic.”
Which means a movie that is so terribly wonderfully bad that people love it.
The movie’s title is Zardoz, and one of the running jokes about it is that the only way to truly appreciate this flick is to reverse engineer the specific cocktail of drugs they were clearly on when they made it.
But it does feature Connery chasing around shooting people wearing nothing but a bright orange loincloth.
If there wasn’t a pandemic I have to admit that my way of honoring Connery right now would have been to invite my friends who haven’t seen this movie to a watch party and suggest they bring potent alcohol. Or maybe we could go to the house of somebody who lives in DC, where shrooms are now legal…
But this movie just goes to prove that the best of actors can end up in…situations. It’s not nearly as bad as the infamous Incubus mind.
Sean Connery passed away at the age of 90. While he was reportedly not the best of men (he was as much of a womanizer as his famous role), he was a brilliant actor.
Who was also willing to run around chewing the scenery in an orange loincloth. And that says quite a bit about him.