Mark Simpson on how Sean Connery’s ‘overgrown stuntman’ sired a generation of young men licenced to thrill
So, Mr Bond finally did what Mr Goldfinger expected him to do. Even if it took 56 years.
This October, two months after his 90th birthday, Sir Thomas Sean Connery, the first, most definitive, most popular, most alluring, most stirring incarnation of the unshaken British secret agent, died.
Connery made six official and one unofficial Bond films. And of course, many more non-Bond films, some of them classics, such as Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), The Man Who Would be King (1975), and The Name of the Rose (1986).
But frankly, I’m not very interested in them.
It was his astonishing, revelatory appearance in the first Bond film, Dr No, in 1962 that stunned and changed the world. And made those other roles possible. Although he famously came to detest Bond, seeing him perhaps as a kind of insult to his own ego or simply his own freedom, Connery’s appearance in the early 1960s on the big screen as Mr Bond was by far his greatest achievement – cinematically, culturally and sexually.
The plaudit ‘Sexiest Man of the Century’ handed him by People magazine in 1999 probably made him guffaw loudly – but was in fact entirely plausible.
And this was precisely for the reason that author Ian Fleming initially disdained Connery’s casting.
“He’s not what I envisioned of James Bond looks, I’m looking for Commander Bond and not an overgrown stuntman.”Ian fleming
Dismissing him as an ‘overgrown stuntman’ and also mentioning his ‘lack of refinement’ was code for class – Connery’s lack of it. Born in the slums of Edinburgh in 1930, the air redolent from a nearby rubber factory and several breweries, his mother a cleaner, his father a lorry driver, Connery was Scottish working class through and through. With ‘Mum & Dad‘ and ‘Scotland Forever‘ tattoos from his three years as a rating in the Royal Navy to prove it.
He was discharged due to a duodenal ulcer – later claiming that it was his inability to take orders that caused it:
“I’ve never had ulcers since. Looking back it was probably my inability to take orders from officers – especially those I found had reached their position largely through privilege – that gave me ulcers.”
Fleming, who liked to be photographed cigarette holder in hand, was born in London’s moneyed Mayfair to an upper class English family, and rather than the school of hard knocks, was sent to Eton, the school for the scions of the ruling class. During the war he served in Royal Naval Intelligence as a Lieutenant Commander. He wanted Richard Todd, the smoothly handsome, stiff upper lip, ‘OK chaps!’, Squadron Leader star of The Dambusters (1955) to portray his alter ego.
Instead he got a Scottish, working class, bolshie able seaman.
And this was of course part of the thrill of Connery’s sado-exhibitionistic Bond – who exploded onto UK cinema screens a year before The Beatles released their first album. As I wrote back in 2006 on the release of the Casino Royale reboot:
Most working-class U.K. males in 1962 were licensed to marry young, impregnate their wives three or four times, and then take up pigeon-fancying. Wartime-rationing of food and luxury items didn’t end until 1954, two years before Elvis’s first hit and less than a decade before Dr. No was made – although sex-rationing continued for decades afterwards.
Connery, born and braised in slum district of Edinburgh, presents a Bond who, by contrast, is a vain, single young man jetting around the world and literally taking his pleasures where he pleases, living a glossy magazine lifestyle, albeit as an undercover agent. This lifestyle was not to come out of the secret-service closet until over 30 years later with the emergence of the metrosexual – a man whose mission was also to save the West, but by shopping instead of shooting.
If Connery’s Bond was proto-metro, he was equaly proto-sporno. Fleming’s phrase ‘overgrown stuntman’ also alluded to the fact that Connery had a body. Which was terribly, terribly vulgar by mid-century upper middle class British standards. And, for that matter, still is today.
And what a body! By underfed post-war British standards he was totally hench. Or, less anachronistically, totally Athletic Model Guild. Connery had been seduced by bodybuilding when he was 18, and from 1951 took on a professional trainer, a former British Army gym instructor. He was worth every penny.
Connery even entered NABBA’s 1953 Mr Universe contest in London, but the winner in the amateur category was American Bill Pearl. Connery abandoned his pro bodybuilding dreams when he realised that he was never going to be as big as his steak-fed colonial cousins, later saying:
“Despite what many claim, I never won any awards. I appeared ridiculous next to the winner…. I looked like a seven stone weakling.”
That seems harsh, if typically self-deprecating. Connery would likely have fared better in today’s Aesthetic/Beach Body/Board Shorts category.
But his physical culturist habits did open up another career – one that would garner him much more success, cash and attention than bodybuilding could ever have done before the invention of YouTube, Instagram and, er, OnlyFans.
The Edinburgh College of Art was in the entirely understandable habit of employing buff lads from his gym as life models. ‘Big Tam’, as he was known at the time (Connery was 6’2″ tall: a regular giant back then), was not averse to attention, nor an easy way to earn a few bob – since leaving the Navy he had worked in various manual jobs: lifeguard, brickie and even coffin polisher. So he followed his gym pals into the the posing-pouched life classes.
(Around the same time the ‘Naked Civil Servant’ Quentin Crisp was also doing modelling for life classes in London – sans the bodybuilding.)
The Edinburgh artist and promoter Richard Demarco was perhaps Connery’s first fan, finding his looks inspiring and his company enlivening:
“I was a student at the art college at the same time he was a life model. He inspired me. You weren’t supposed to talk to the artist’s models, but I got away with it because I knew him. He and I used to spend lunch breaks together… as an artist’s model he was the perfect example of a young Greek God.”
Demarco has also reportedly described young Connery as “very straight, slightly shy, too, too beautiful for words, a virtual Adonis”. Googling around doesn’t provide much context, and it’s not entirely clear whether ‘straight’ here refers to his posture, plain-dealing or his sexuality – perhaps all three.
Demarco claims he nudged Connery in the direction of acting, telling him to try out for a part as a guardsman extra in a production of Sixty Glorious Years in Edinburgh. Big Tam got the job, his first appearance on stage.
Likewise his participation in Mr Universe might have left him without a trophy, but it did push him up the showbiz ladder a bit further: another competitor tipped him off that the London Drury Lane production of South Pacific was looking for ‘muscular men’ to play US Navy sailor chorus boys in the Drury Lane production of South Pacific. Ironically, given how his bodybuilding dreams were dashed by the pumped Americans, he was cast because his size meant he ‘looked American’.
It was during his nautical-themed time in South Pacific that Connery decided that the actor’s life was for him. He was taken under the wing of fellow cast member Robert Henderson, an experienced middle-aged American Thesp, who gave him an improving reading list that included Stanislavsky, Wilde, Ibsen, Proust and Thomas Wolfe.
Despite his earthy Edinburgh accent wasn’t proving popular with 1950s British casting directors, perhaps fearing dreaded English assimilation, Connery wasn’t very interested in elocution – and his accent was to remain pretty much unchanged throughout his half-century career. Whatever nationality he happened to be playing. But he did take ‘movement lessons’ from a Swedish male dancer, Yat Malmgren for three years. Something that was to prove to be of great use to him in the visual and global medium of movies.
After South Pacific, he landed a series of small acting parts on stage, TV and film, mostly playing boxers, hoodlums, lorry drivers and welders. His first starring role came in 1961 in Adventure Story, a BBC TV play based on the stage play by Terence Rattigan about Alexander the Great and his conquest of Persia. Both Rattigan and Alexander were famous fans of ‘Greek love’ – Alexander famously ‘yielding’ to his life-long friend’s Hephaestion’s ‘thighs’. But Rattigan was very ‘discreet’, and this was mid-century BBC – so there wasn’t much of that in the script, save as a subtext for Classicists.
(Camp trivia #1: Alexander’s friend/lover Hephaestion was played by future Dr Who companion William Russell. Camp trivia #2: The other great alpha male bewigged sex object of the 1960s screen, William Shatner, also played Alexander the Great a couple of years later in a 1963 pilot for US TV that wasn’t picked up.)
Connery’s dynamic Alexander provoked praise. The Times observed: “certain inflexions and swift deliberations of gesture at times made one feel that the part had found the young Olivier it needs”. (You can watch scenes here.)
Those ‘movement classes’ with the Swedish dancer, along with all that bodybuilding in his early years, were finally paying off. When he met with producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman to discuss the role of Bond, Broccoli’s wife Dana overruled their objections.
“Women – and men – will love him,” she said. And she beckoned the pair over to the window to watch Connery as he crossed the street outside, and told them: “He moves like a panther.”
She was right, of course. Just as right as Fleming was wrong.
After Connery’s death last month, Dana’s daughter and – in a sign of the changed world since the 1960s – James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli released a statement acknowledging that he was largely responsible for the success of the film series. Adding that Connery had “revolutionized the world with his gritty and witty portrayal of the sexy and charismatic secret agent.”
She was as right as her mother had been six decades previously. It was Barbara Broccoli who insisted, against many naysayers, that Daniel Craig step into 007’s bespoke suit in 2006, in Casino Royale. And out of it into a pair of powder blue Speedos. Casino Royale saw the belated realisation of the sex object promise of Sean Connery’s Bond, squandered by his stodgy successors: Bond finally became his own busty Bond girl.
As I wrote back then:
But perhaps the most proto-metrosexual aspect of the first James Bond is that he is also a sex object almost as ravishing as any of the ladies he ravishes, almost as fetishized as any of the objects of desire he toys with: a playboy we would like to play with. Raymond Chandler might have famously described the Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels as “what every man would like to be and what every woman would like to have between her sheets,” but the original screen Bond, for all his masterfulness, was a voyeuristic pleasure that men might want between their sheets and women might want to be.