… Except if Sean Connery had never made Dr. No, it’s very doubtful that he ever would have been given the chance to make such movies as The Man Who Would Be King, Time Bandits, Robin and Marian, and The Wind and the Lion. Great actors are like great guitar players: for every Eric Clapton or Buddy Guy on stage, there are a thousand equally gifted musicians who never get out of the garage. It takes commitment, determination, and a very thick skin in combination with off-the-scale talent that brings about the possibility of success. Even then, the odds are against you.
Prior to taking the James Bond gig, Connery had done a handful of appearances in movies and television shows, none that are well known. In 1957 he made his American media debut in a very brief appearance on The Jack Benny Program – “Jack Hires Opera Singer in Rome,” where he played a hotel porter. It’s in the rerun package and continues to be aired on one or more of those nostalgia decimal channels. It was Dr. No that brought him to the attention of the masses, to the surprise of the producers, to the studio, and to Bond creator Ian Fleming, who saw his master action hero as more of a Hoagy Carmichael type. After seeing the finished film, Fleming changed his mind… after counting his change.
(Note: In my opinion, singer/songwriter/actor Carmichael would have made an excellent James Bond, but he would have been a bit too old for the part in Dr. No and most certainly too old by the time United Artists made Thunderball. “What if” is the dross of all fandom.)
Cleverly, Connery parlayed his success as 007 into a career that proved he deserved to be in a paragraph that contained Humphrey Bogart, Robert De Niro, and Steve McQueen. He was courageous enough to take on roles that many found confounding – Zardoz, for example – and others where the “hero” proved to be less-than-heroic (my favorite Connery flick, The Man Who Would Be King). He showed his gentle side in Time Bandits, another of my favorites, and his age – something rarely seen from big movie stars – in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He had no problem performing with actors who were equally gifted such as Michael Caine and Harrison Ford, and he never squeezed their screen presence.
Contrary to the position held by many otherwise reasonable people, James Bond is not an ideal. He’s a hero only because he takes his job seriously, thereby saving us from extinction. Bond is a killer; it is in his job description. His attitudes towards women, which mirrored those of his creator, were obnoxious from the very outset and ugly even in its time. Yet Bond is not a conflicted character. He knows who he is and how he’s supposed to execute his responsibilities to his employer and to his nation.
It took a very secure performer to make James Bond work on the screen, to get the point across where so many other talented actors in similar roles could not. Damn near each and every actor who succeeded Sean Connery in the role echoed the studio’s advertising claim – “Sean Connery IS James Bond.”
In Connery’s hands, 007 was the effective artifact the world needed to get through growingly conflicted times. It is very difficult to evaluate our past through contemporary standards, although it is vital we do so.
At the end of the day, Sean Connery’s varied roles were mostly strong, well-centered men who were slightly out of their time but, at that very instant, desperately needed. It’s heroic fantasy, folks, and heroic fantasy is very tough to make believable.
Sean Connery did just that.