Following the sad loss of Sean Connery at the age of 90, A. J. Black talks about what the legendary Scottish actor meant to him…
We all have them. They’re all different. They all mean something unique. The childhood hero, the person in the public eye who inspires you, is a special and personal thing for us all.
I was never one to have too many heroes to the extent of extreme fan worship. Many years ago, I worked with a chap who was obsessed with two lesser known American character actors (Adam Baldwin and Brad Greenquist, who weirdly will be popping up again on my next Alias review…) to the degree he would follow them around and collect any and all memorabilia. Fair play, it made him happy. But I have never been that obsessed with any one person. TV shows and movies? Sure. Anyone reading this knows I have spent more time in my 38 years thinking about and watching The X-Files, Star Trek and James Bond than is probably healthy. Yet it didn’t always extend to the people involved in those properties.
Sean Connery was rare, for me, in being the kind of actor and persona who did serve as something of a formative icon in my younger years. His loss, at the princely age of 90 years old (having not long celebrated his birthday), is not one to mourn as a tragedy of the like we saw with Chadwick Boseman this summer. Yet in my piece talking about how his death had affected me, I mentioned my dread at the day we lost Connery, because like Roger Moore—whose death I also vividly remember as another childhood hero—this one means something to me. It does feel like losing a part of your own life and, as my friend Zach Moore recently commented to me, it’s “hard to believe we now live in a world without him”.
It is indeed. He was a unique breed in many ways. We will never see his like again.
You are going to see a litany of obituaries and pieces devoted to telling the story of his life, so I’ll avoid that and just talk about what Connery meant to me.
As I said in the Boseman piece, my Bond was always Roger Moore. Growing up, the ‘60s Connery Bond films were the ones I watched the least. You’ll have to forgive me – as a teenager I was growing up with the modern gloss and spectacle of the Pierce Brosnan era, and films like GoldenEye made Dr. No or Diamonds Are Forever look quaint in comparison. This isn’t an opinion I hold now with age (Dr. No has weathered beautifully and while Diamonds remains tosh, it has a glorious score), and I certainly believe many people my age would have revered his Bond, but I just missed that zeitgeist. He last played Bond when I was just a year old, in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, and while I adore much of that film, I didn’t see it until many years later.
So, for me, it wasn’t Bond that cemented my love of Connery, unusually.
Before the rise of the internet, the transformation of home video into DVD and the ubiquity of the second hand DVD store where you could buy films cheaply, all of this before the streaming revolution of course, we had the video shop. Every Wednesday, in the mid-90s, my Dad would take me after school up to our local store where I would choose two or three VHS tapes to rent. I wasn’t a horror junkie or video nasty fiend. I was all about action and adventure movies, and if I wasn’t renting Die Hard with a Vengeance or Crimson Tide, I was obsessed with watching The Rock (yes, I was in love with a Michael Bay film, but it’s his only great one to be fair), in which Connery essentially played an older version of his ‘60s 007 in all but name.
That movie was so special to me, and remains so. Connery’s performance is a joyous fusion of acerbic wisdom, roguish charm and masculinity which turns the film from a standard Bay action flick into a bombastic example of glorious mid-90’s, high concept excess. With his dialogue punched up by two of my favourite British writers, Dick Clement & Ian le Frenais (who penned one of my all-time favourite shows Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and ported some of their best gags from their iconic sitcom Porridge into the aforementioned Never Say Never Again for Connery to enjoy), Connery is just having a blast re-imagining his secret agent as a legend of Alcatraz. Bay’s film treats him reverentially and the audience goes along for the ride.
This turned out to be the final phase of Connery’s career but following a rather dull and serious ‘70s after he gave up 007, and a mixed ‘80s of projects that shone like The Untouchables or Highlander or fell a bit more flat such as The Man With the Deadly Lens or The Presidio, the ‘90s is packed with roles that Connery just lapped up: a Russian submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October, a detective in Rising Sun, King Arthur in First Knight, the voice of the dragon in Dragonheart (a film I adored as a kid) and let’s not forget one of cinema’s greatest cameos as King Richard the Lionheart in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Personally, I’m quite partial to his leathery, slick turn in Entrapment, which is a bit cheesy and his romance with the young Catherine Zeta-Jones stretches credulity for the nearly 70-year old Sean. I even enjoyed him in the otherwise despised remake of kitsch ‘60s series The Avengers, where he’s totally hamming it up as a Bond villain in all but name in August de Wynter. What other film would have Connery dress up as a bear?
He’s also great in Finding Forrester, which despite the existence of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (his last role and a relatively underrated film), in my head canon is the last proper Connery film performance, and he’s marvellous as a J.D. Salinger-esque genius writer and recluse tempted out of his solitude when he befriends a talented young black basketball player and gifted writer from the projects. It’s a beautiful film and Connery is delightfully irascible and moving. These roles just connected with me in a variety of ways, the charisma of Connery shining out of such roles even when the script wasn’t always there. But there was one role above all others I loved Connery for. What I consider, even beyond his James Bond, to be his finest hour on screen, in a film so wonderful if someone told me it was the last movie I was ever going to see, I could die contented.
I am, of course, talking about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
I have always attested that Last Crusade is the finest Indy movie, even beyond Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the reason is Connery’s turn as Henry Jones Sr, Indy’s bumbling and eccentric father who we at first believe to be a heroic and taciturn version of Harrison Ford’s adventurer, only for him to be a klutz constantly in need of rescuing. Connery displays an incredible gift for comic timing as he plays against type, bouncing off Ford brilliantly across the majestic script. It is one of the greatest partnerships in movie history and every time I watch Last Crusade, Connery makes me laugh and makes me cry. “I suddenly remembered my Charlemagne…” and Indy’s wistful look at his father coming back to him will destroy me next time I watch, and Henry’s final “Indiana… let it go…” is likely to have me in tears. We have to let Connery go now and it’s going to be hard.
Of course, he had been off our screens since 2003, rarely gave interviews and made scant appearances on television. There was a wonderful rumour that he might play the gamekeeper at the end of Skyfall, and it would have been an incredible final role had he taken it on, but it was never meant to be. There are also plenty of stories about Connery’s personal life that were less than flattering but, well, nobody knows the truth of such things unless they knew the man personally. I never did and don’t intend to judge him in that way. All I know is that Sean Connery’s films, and his charisma and underrated talent as an actor, gave me more joy across my life to date than I can express, and will continue to do so for the years I have left.
For that, I can only thank him and hope that his legacy survives as one of Hollywood’s greatest stars of the 20th century.
Nobody did it better.