Sean Connery was the most durable movie star the UK produced in the second half of the 20th century.
The Scottish actor, who has died at the age of 90, won fame playing James Bond, the suavely rugged superspy hero of Ian Fleming’s novels. He smirked through cold war showdowns, licensed to kill and to ladykill, in the name of freedom and democracy. He made seven Bond films between 1962 and 1983 but was never content, even in early years of success, with being typecast as a glamorous playboy. He worked hard to become an increasingly skilled and versatile actor for directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Brian De Palma and Steven Spielberg, and he amplified his public image to become a spokesman for off-screen causes, notably Scottish Nationalist.
In 2000, 12 years after winning an Academy Award for The Untouchables, he received a knighthood. The accolade was all the more notable for previous reports that he had been passed over because of his militant championing of Scottish nationalism.
As an actor he never lost his Scottishness. His accent retained a much-imitated Celtic burr whether playing time-travelling nobleman in Highlander, a Russian submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October or any of many American roles in which he declined to adopt a full-blown US accent. Instead he skilfully varied character through mannerism and physical movement, excelling in roles as diverse as the sadistic husband in Hitchcock’s Marnie, the Arab chieftain in The Wind and the Lion, an autumnal Robin Hood in Robin and Marian and the hero’s crusty, swashbuckling dad in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Connery’s own story was classic “rags to riches” tale. Born in Edinburgh in 1930, he was the son of a truck driver and a cleaning lady. Leaving school as a teenager to join the British navy, he later became a bricklayer, lifeguard and undertaker’s assistant. Bodybuilding led to modelling work, thence to a part in the chorus of a production of South Pacific in 1954. He was a jobbing actor in repertory theatre and on television throughout the 1950s, sometimes buoyed by his good looks to leading roles as in a BBC adaptation of Anna Karenina.
Everything changed in 1962 when the search for a macho pin-up to play Fleming’s spy hero ended with producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli tapping Connery. There had been speculation that Bond would be played by an established star such as Peter Finch, James Mason or Cary Grant. Instead the role made Connery an established star.
Dr No was a box office sensation and Connery imprinted himself on the role with his groomed machismo, dry one-liners and wry reaction shots. He made four more Bond movies in the 1960s (From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice), alternating them with excursions into contrasting films such as Marnie, The Hill (as a tough, crewcut soldier) and A Fine Madness (an eccentric New York poet).
In the 1970s and 1980s he stretched himself in every direction: thrillers (The Anderson Tapes); adventure epics (The Man Who Would be King); science fiction (Meteor; Outland); whimsical costume yarns (The Name of the Rose). The Untouchables brought him his only Oscar — he profited from a David Mamet script to give a finely pitched performance as an Irish cop (for once essaying a non-Scottish accent) caught up in prohibition era turmoils.
Off-screen, Connery became voluble on a range of subjects touching his career, background and interests. He crusaded for a more hardheaded, ambitious British film industry and took an increasingly executive role in his own movies. He sparked controversy with offensive remarks that excused slapping women and he identified himself with the cause of Scottish devolution, winning the hearts and minds of compatriots even as some complained that the tax exile confined his visits home to film festivals and golf tournaments.
He was married twice, to actress Diane Cilento, with whom he had a son, actor Jason Connery, and then Micheline Roquebrune, to whose three children he was stepfather.
Other honours and accolades have included a Bafta special award in 1990, the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh (1991) and, in the US, the Cecil B DeMille award at the 1996 Golden Globes. In 1987 France made him a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.
His last roles tended to be less action man and more eminence grise, but the Connery blend of true grit and grace remained all the way through 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.