Before Bond: Sean Connery’s early years

We revisit Connery’s early career in film and television, to reveal how a working-class Scottish actor became a suave English icon – from our October 1992 issue, in memory of the late Sean Connery.

1 November 2020

By Geoffrey Macnab

Sight and Sound
Sean Connery
I believe that Connery touches us because he personifies the best qualities that came out of the post-war upheavals in Britain. The reform of education, the busting of the BBC’s monopoly and so on allowed a lot of talent to flourish… he also represents something timeless. His persona reaches back and touches a tradition in British life. I can best define that by suggesting characters he could play better than anyone else: Captain Cook, Thomas Hardy, lsarnbard Kingdom Brunel, Torn Finney, W. G. Grace, Keir Hardie, Drake.From John Boorman’s introduction to Sean Connery: His Life and Films by Michael Feeney Callan (London 1983)

Mountain McClintock is as weary and hackneyed a fictional character as they come. He is a shambling, inarticulate boxer, the unbeaten hero of more than a hundred fights whose career is on the skids. He has damaged his eyesight, and the doctors have told him to hang up his gloves. Now, it seems, all his past glories are forgotten and he must stoop to earn a living. 

This feature originally appeared in our October 1992 issue

McClintock is lured by unscrupulous promoters, who want to trade on his name, into the humiliating world of show wrestling. Here, the champ suffers the ultimate indignity: he is dressed up as a clown and is made to gambol round the ring like a performing bear, as if mocking his own strength and majesty.

Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight was broadcast live on American television in the mid-50s, with Jack Palance in the leading role. For all its mawkishness, it was much acclaimed. Along with plays like Paddy Chayevsky’s Marty, it was viewed as a new kind of drama which went against the grain of mainstream television and dared to show tragedy and failure, to be resolutely downbeat, even if that meant upsetting the advertisers.

A year or two later, the BBC made its own version of Serling’s tale. Palance was asked to reprise his performance, but contractual obligations forced him to drop out at the last moment. In his place, ten days before the broadcast, the producers brought in a struggling young Scottish actor and former bodybuilder. With its sense of something Celtic, saturnine and monumental, there could hardly be a more appropriate name for a Sean Connery character than Mountain McClintock.

Jacqueline Hill as Grace and Sean Connery as 'Mountain' McClintock in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1957)
BBC Archive

Despite the frenzied atmosphere of live television drama and the necessity of learning a long part in barely more than a week, Connery managed to keep calm, always one of his hallmarks, and his “oddly wistful” performance was well received. There were kind notices in the Listener and the Times and Connery was suddenly in demand. Very shortly afterwards, having turned down offers from the Rank Organization, he was signed up by Twentieth-Century Fox on a seven-year contract.

It would be fascinating to see Connery in his first important role. Unfortunately, though, the BBC version of Requiem for a Heavyweight wasn’t considered worth preserving – and so one can only speculate as to what his performance was really like. But it’s hard to imagine any other British actor who could have taken over from Palance with such ease.

It’s not that the British can’t play losers the way Americans can. On the contrary, the heroic pathos of noble failure is a touchstone of our culture. From Captain Scott freezing to death in the Antarctic to Lawrence of Arabia’s motorcycling mishap, we have enshrined figures who somehow didn’t quite make it. 

Sean Connery as Mountain McClintock and Larry Hoodkoff as Charles Bo Bo Gibbons in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1957)
BBC Archive

American versions of such tales are rawer, more bitter by far. The boxer as tragic hero is a case in point: Newman, Brando, Stallone, De Niro and Robert Ryan among others have been cast as variations of the down-at-heel pugilist who gets battered, bruised or mashed to pulp in pursuit of that damned elusive American dream. Our chaps, the galaxy of flannel-trousered, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking protagonists of 50s British cinema, could never have attempted such roles: they simply didn’t have the bodies to make convincing boxers. 

Who could imagine Kenneth More or Dirk Bogarde or even big Jack Hawkins stripping off their suits and ties and brogues and climbing into the ring? That particular holy triumvirate was far too well bred for the dirt and squalor of a 15-round slugging match. (It’s surely significant that we find it easiest to characterise these British stars in terms of their clothes and not their physique or screen presence.)

Gilt-edged fable Connery was different. He was no chap. A working-class Scot, his progress from Edinburgh milkman to front-rank movie star is a standard journey in Hollywood folklore, but has few parallels in the annals of British cinema. His is a classic rags-to-riches tale, one which has long since achieved a mythic status, but is worth repeating for all that.

Sean Connery

Thomas ‘Big Tarn’ Connery was born in Foutainbridge, Edinburgh, in 1930. It’s not quite clear when and why he changed his name to Sean. One account suggests he borrowed it from the movie, Shane. (There is a certain irony in the idea of the big Scotsman taking his name from Alan Ladd, the most diminutive of all the Hollywood stars.) 

Connery’s father drove vans. His mother was a char lady. He spent his childhood in an overcrowded tenement flat: as a wee’un, the story goes, his cot was the bottom drawer of a cupboard. When he was eight years old, he was delivering milk in the mornings and helping out in a baker’s shop in the evenings. He left school at 13 and worked as a cement mixer, a bricklayer, a steel bender, a lorry driver and a coffin polisher. 

He served two years as a sailor before being invalided out of the navy with duodenal ulcers. But then he discovered his body. He started to pump iron, became a lifeguard at Portobello swimming pool, and moonlighted as an artist’s model at Edinburgh College of Art. His body was his commodity, his ticket to success.

This in itself marks an interesting tension. On the one hand, Connery’s image is of a dour, reserved man with a Calvinist attitude towards work who achieved success through sheer toil. On the other, he is an exhibitionist who became famous by offering his body as a fetish object. He is at once an idol of consumption, a cut-out figure to be admired for his looks, and an idol of production, someone whose solid achievements are a spur to others, an example to be emulated. 

When he was lured back to play Bond in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971, he demanded (and got) what was reputedly the best deal given any star since Mary Pickford. He donated most of his fee to a Scottish Educational Trust, and insisted United Artists finance two further films of his choice. The first of these (the second is yet to be made) was Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972), in which he played the far from sympathetic role of a policeman corrupted by many years of service who loses his rag when confronted with a supposed child molester. 

It was one of his best performances, but seemed an unlikely choice of role for a star so concerned about his appearance that a few years later he would sue a magazine which had the temerity to suggest he was overweight. (Connery won his case: he was able to prove that his waistline was the same when he made Never Say Never Again in 1983 as it was in 1962.)

Connery was an archetypal Scot who made his fortune playing an archetypal Englishman. His press releases and biographies, with their emphasis on his deprived upbringing and big heart, often read like a second-rate piece of fiction concocted by the Mcllvanney brothers, William and Hugh, who have been writing novels and filing sports reports about Scottish working-class heroes, bare-knuckled boxers and premier-league football gods, for donkey’s years. The impression that Connery’s life story was written by these Celtic bards is reinforced by the throwaway line that Matt Busby once offered him a contract, worth £25 a week, to play for Manchester United.

Connery with his co-star Janet Munro on the set of Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)

Star stories are meant to be gilt-edged fables. As the sociologist Leo Lowenthal observed, “the mythology of success contains two elements, hardship and breaks”. Connery’s exemplary rise abounds in both. An official version, though, was moulded in the early 60s to fit the whims of Messrs Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. 

Thirty years ago, this duo launched the search for James Bond with all the predatory showmanship of a David Selznick on the prowl for his Scarlett O’Hara. Trevor Howard, Cary Grant, Richard Burton, Patrick McGoohan, Roger Moore (two years older than Connery) and even David Niven were touted as possible 007s. In the end, Connery was chosen, ostensibly because he was ‘unknown’, and his star persona would not dent or erode Bond’s appeal. 

(As Tony Bennett and Janet Woollacott observed in Bond and Beyond, there was another dimension to the casting. Sean’s guttural burr lent Fleming’s hero an international appeal that a fey, effete public-school Bond might not have had: Bond, played by Connery, could be portrayed as “a ‘man of the people,’ stalking within the Establishment but distinguished from it iconographically in terms of physical appearance… and voice”.) Publicity proclaimed, “Sean Connery is James Bond.” He was the star as trademark: he was to connote Bond and nothing else.

Sean Connery and admirers

The producers didn’t mind the stories about his tough childhood or his bodybuilding, but they discreetly drew a veil over his previous acting career. In fact, by the time he was cast in Dr. No, Connery was already an established actor. His first appearance on stage was with Dame Anna Neagle, when he was an extra in a production of Sixty Glorious Years at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh. The fustian matriarch of British cinema, cast by her husband Herbert Wilcox as Edith Cavell or Queen Victoria in a string of tasteful, patriotic middlebrow potboilers, made a neat foil for Connery, who, as Bond, would represent an altogether different (but arguably complementary) kind of Englishness. Bond was the renegade kind of adventurer, the man who would be King, on whose shoulders Queen Vic’s empire was built.

In the early 50s, arriving like many other penniless or fortune-seeking Scots in London, Connery won a bronze medal at a Mr Universe contest in the Scala Theatre. He was subsequently cast in a touring production of South Pacific, and was taken under the wing of a venerable old Thespian, Robert Henderson, who prescribed him a stiff diet of highbrow literature – Stanislavsky, the whole of Proust, Thomas Wolfe. Just as he had catered for his muscles with the dumb bells, now he assiduously cultivated his mind: this was self-improvement taken to extremes.

Although he didn’t receive much formal training, Connery studied for three years with Yat Malmgren, a Swedish dancer. Despite his difficulties in finding work – his pronounced Edinburgh accent grated on the nerves of numerous casting directors – he was more interested in movement and gesture than in elocution. He had the conviction that information on screen could be conveyed visually: it did not need to be spelled out. 

This, perhaps, goes some way to explaining why American audiences, notoriously suspicious of the British accent in all its manifestations, were prepared to accept him. He knew how to move gracefully. Moreover, he didn’t share the contempt for cinema evinced by so many of his contemporaries, who seemed to regard the medium as a useful money-spinner but a very second-rate thing by comparison with the stage.

Hell Drivers (1957)

Connery made his film debut in 1956 in No Road Back. The following year, he had a bit part in Cy Endfield’s Hell Drivers. Opposite Patrick McGoohan and Stanley Baker, actors in a similar mould, he played one of a gang of reckless lorry drivers who haul ballast at breakneck speed down England’s leafy byways. This was predictable casting: Connery as a working-class villain. Lead roles tended to be kept for better mannered chaps.

Although his was a relatively minor part, he was given the opportunity to strut around in his leather jacket to good effect, and to get involved in a bit of brawling and drinking. In hindsight, Hell Drivers, which was a clunking failure at the box office, seems a brave attempt to break British cinema out of its quaint, gentrified manacles, to try to tap some of the energy of Hollywood films like The Wild Ones, or The Wages of Fear from the continent.

Connery’s first ‘breakthrough’, with Requiem for a Heavyweight, didn’t give his career the boost that might have been expected. Fox had little idea how to use him and left him languishing under contract, occasionally hiring him out to other studios. Thus he appeared opposite Lana Turner in Another Time, Another Place (1958) and was the romantic interest in the whimsical Disney fable of 1959, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Playing opposite children is one thing, playing opposite garden gnomes quite another.

Connery with Glynis Johns in Another Time, Another Place (1958)

Anyway, he seemed too dark and brooding a presence for a Disney family film. (Apparently, this was where he was first spotted by Mrs Broccoli, who noted with alarm the violent way he kissed the heroine.) Along with Anthony Quayle, he was a baddy gunning for Bond’s iconic predecessor Tarzan (Gordon Scott) in Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), but his Hollywood career seemed to stutter from false start to false start.

It was on television that he had his biggest success. His outsize personality could barely be contained by the medium: it was inevitable he would make an impression. And he was lucky with his roles. He was cast against type as Alexander the Great in Terence Rattigan’s Adventure Story. Then, in 1961, he landed the plum part of Vronsky in Rudolph Cartier’s BBC adaptation of Anna Karenina. Here, he boasts an impressive aristocratic swagger as well as an early version of the Connery moustache, and counters Claire Bloom’s cerebral performance in the central role with a certain earthy flamboyance. 

Sean Connery as Vronsky in Anna Karenina (1961)
BBC Archive

His most notable traits are his supreme self-confidence and relaxation. He is also threatening, bringing an undercurrent of malevolence and sadism to his role as Karenina’s lover which would be further explored not just in the Bond series, but most notably in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964).

At around this time Connery also played Hotspur to Robert Hardy’s Prince Hal in a stuffy BBC adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, The Age of Kings. Again, he is physically relaxed, not at all fazed by the verse speaking, and is considerably more dynamic than the leaden Shakespearian actors surrounding him. 

In 1961, he had his first starring role in films, opposite Alfred Lynch in Cyril Frankel’s On the Fiddle, a batty English comedy of the kind that would make Truffaut throw up his hands in horror. Set in the war years, it features a redoubtable list of character actors in bit parts, everybody from John Le Mesurier to Wilfred Hyde White and even Barbara Windsor. It tells of a cockney spiv, played by Lynch, who is inveigled into enlisting to avoid a court fine.

Sean Connery as Pedlar Pascoe in On the Fiddle (1961)

The cockney takes the brawny but simple-minded gypsy, Pedlar Pascoe (Connery), under his wing, and together the two try everything in their power to ‘fiddle’ the army. The relationship between gentle giant Connery and sharp-as-needles Lynch recalls that between Lon Chaney and Burgess Meredith in Of Mice and Men. Connery is encouraged to be gormless, and displays a nice line in vacant smiles and self-deprecating humour. This is as far away from Bond as you could get.

Of course, with Connery, Bond is like a boomerang. You can’t write about him without confronting that particular phenomenon. What Connery brought to Bond was a sense of classy classlessness. This, no doubt, is why Kingsley Amis so disapproved of the casting: “his face and voice are wrong for the Bond of the books who is a quieter, older, more polished and urbane sort of person altogether”. 

However closely he became identified with Fleming’s character in the public mind, Connery resolutely refused to behave like Bond. Shortly after Dr. No, he directed a hard-hitting political documentary, The Bowler and the Bunnet, about shipbuilding on the Clyde. Connery himself narrates, and spends much of the time riding around Harland and Wolff’s disused shipyard on a bicycle, wearing a cloth cap and looking for all the world like Jimmy Reid as he berates the ship owners.

The Bowler and the Bunnet (1967)

His easy switch from international spy to ardent trade unionist hints at what makes Connery the star he is – his ‘authenticity’. In a way, the fact that he lives as a tax exile in Spain and is a partner of a London merchant bank as well as a Scottish Nationalist and trade unionist reinforces this authenticity. (To be truly ‘authentic’, you need to be truly contradictory. Otherwise, you risk seeming like a copywriter’s creation.) 

As John Boorman notes, there is a whole range of characters he could play infinitely better than anybody else. However, for all his work with directors from Sidney Lumet to Hitchcock, from Brian De Palma to John Huston, that early slogan, “Sean Connery is James Bond”, continues to cling to him. An essay like this merely tries to chip away a few fragments from that startling national monument Bond has become, and to hint at the Mountain McClintock beneath.

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