“Seanorry” is the affectionate nickname his family call Sean Connery, according to brother Neil. ‘King of Scotland’ is another given by supporters and adversaries alike of our most obvious fans of self-governance.
I took it to be an soubriquet for all the babble and flummery, the unwanted attention that flies around celebrities at the height of their fame, such is stardom. At one time he and his then wife, Diana Cilento, were bigger news than Burton and Taylor. Life must have been bitter sweet, feted one day, hounded the next.
I was born same place as Connery, Fountainbridge, Edinburgh. The pleasure of knowing a local lad make good was tangible, the talk of neighbours, the chat in pubs, a lad who once drove a milk cart and horse who was now cinematic gold. Big Tam Connery was a local hero, and better still, an international celebrity and a real man.
The man behind the public image
There is a saying that it is best not to meet one’s heroes because invariably their public persona is totally different from their private personality. I have an example.
A hobby of the Reverend Charles Dodgson, (Lewis Carroll) author of the classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was taking photographs of little girls without their clothes, nude, some wearing their clothes. Little girls were his obsession. No surprise the heroine of his wonderful fantasy is a little girl. (It was the first novel to include the end surprise, it’s all a dream, a misstep copied in movies ever since.) There is no recorded evidence he went further when photographing young children. Nevertheless, today he would be arrested to face court action.
Sometimes you have to set aside a man’s private life in order to appreciate his public achievements. So it proved with my experience of knowing and working with Connery.
Greeted by a pack of tail wagging Labrador, there was no surprises when I met Connery properly, at his Marbella home, before he moved to the Bahamas and retirement; I had assessed his character pretty well, it was all up there on the screen and in interview but it didn’t stop him being a whopping disappointment as a man. In time, after a few more meetings, I found him to be overly-cautious, slow-witted, distressingly paranoid, and ultimately unreliable. But he did have a pauky sense of humour.
On being street smart
Now, he may be uneducated but he is acutely street smart. No one dare cheat or cross him. They will live to regret it. I did all I could to protect his integrity, his reputation, and his privacy but it was not enough. I’ll come back to that characteristic later with an anecdote.
Why and when do stars reach that point where they shun the public? When it happens it happens suddenly and comprehensively. The drawbridges get pulled up, walls built, and old friends dumped. No doubt agents and lawyers warn them to keep people at bay. True, some members of the public are sociopathic, to be avoided, but friends and colleagues?
Suspicion of flattery soon possesses a movie star’s attitude to newcomers. It takes a special kind of person to handle fame in anything approaching a rational manner. Dodging the negative side of international publicity, getting recognised and mobbed wherever you go, paparazzi following your every movement, short-changed by fat, cigar chomping producers, your character traduced by the celebrity press day in, day out, all that is bound to make a man shy of people, quick to judge and dismiss them.
That aside, constant media attention increases your commercial viability. “They will pay me ma value,” he emphasised to me, proving loss of privacy when world famous has its compensations.
The dark side
Connery is certainly curmudgeonly. No matter what he is engaged in doing he seems perpetually wishing he was on a golf course. Stories are legion of him coming off a golf course still in golfing gear to speak his lines before camera, and exit back to the golf club.
A sad misogynist lurks under the surface. “Whenever I see a pretty girl it’s always sexual,” he let slip on a documentary. (Like the fawning idiot he was, the interviewer never followed up on that Freudian slip.) Connery is on YouTube interviewed by the American newscaster Barbara Walters stating, “Some women need a slap. You give them the last word and they come back for another last word. So you give them that and they come back again … sometimes a slap is the answer.”
He slapped around a few as James Bond, and uttered many a cringeworthy patronising line. “This is man talk, honey. Run along.” (Slaps girl on butt as he hustles her off-screen left.) Bond’s attitude then was a product of the times and of Ian Fleming’s sexual fantasies. Nevertheless, movie stars take on roles that mirror a strong aspect of their personality. They feel comfortable when they think the role fits like a glove.
A Fine Madness, one of Connery’s earliest films, almost forgotten, has Connery badly miscast as a poet. The youthful, gangly actor plays a “mad genius” of a boozy New York rhymer, Samson, who has a habit of beating up on his wife, played by the estimable Joanne Woodward, wife of Paul Newman. Connery trying to spout beat poetry is risible. The wife abuse scenes are realistic. Like he says, now and again a woman ‘needs a shlap.’
Connery’s first wife, the beautiful, talented Diana Cilento, said, “slap be damned.” It was a “clenched fist.” Co-star next to Paul Newman in the revisionist western Hud, she wrote a few excellent novels after she and Connery divorced, kept faith with Jason their only child, married a successful playwright, and retired to Australia to run a theatre there.
Connery went on to support Scotland’s self-governance. That we can applaud. Most entertainers avoid talking politics. Not Sean. I suspect he gave confidence to those that follow after him – if the Big Man can do it, so can we.
Being a super star doesn’t protect you from fraud or poor happenstance.
I mentioned Connery’s capacity to exact retribution if crossed. His second wife, the diminutive French Moroccan, Michelle, having an eye for sound arithmetic, spotted his accountant cooking the books. Objects appeared twice. Connery ran the accountant to ground ensuring he never practiced his trade again, the right thing to do, in my opinion. But Connery never got his money back.
On another occasion the house in Marbella, built like Fort Knox with high walls and electric gate, didn’t stop the public seeing how a movie star lives.
Connery discovered his security guard was taking people on guided tours around his house for a fee while he worked abroad. Though treated by Marbella elite for the celebrity he was, the city council still cost him distress when they altered a harbour area of beach that shifted the coastline at Connery’s house. He had to get large boulders placed along the beach side of his house to tame the waves.
Connery got cheated by the studios too.
His contract for the Hitchcock movie, Marnie, included a clause for $2,000 dollars a day, each day of over-run. It ran over schedule three days. He never got paid that excess. He complained to his agent. “Leave it, Sean. It’s your tip to the studio.” I can hear Connery, a man who probably still has his first dollar, demanding full payment: I did the extra days. I want paid or I’ll sue. And I can hear his agent reply: No one sues Jack Warner. Forget it, or you won’t eat in this town again.
I asked Connery what became of his money.
“They sent me a cheque … but it bounced.”
That’s how Hollywood lets a star know how far down the pecking order they really sit.
“If yer going to Hollywood, go for fun, and get a damn lawyer,” was Connery’s advice to me. “They all steal from you,” he added. And he was right.
You have to admire him for demanding to be paid. He worked for it. It was in his contract. And to those who complain he is a tax exile, as a USA Green Card holder paid by studios who gather the money first, he gets taxed at source. After paying the tax man stars pay an entertainment lawyer, a copyright lawyer, manager, publicity agent, accountant, and usually a bevy of house staff, ad infinitum.
This is the man his enemies forget placed all of his $5 million fee from Diamonds Are Forever in an education trust for Scotland. I secured £2,000 from it to help a talented student begin her studies at Cambridge University. For that I am grateful.
Helping those below up
There is an odd omission from Connery’s career most will not notice. It is difficult to point to an actor given their break or helped to stardom by Connery. The belligerent republican John Wayne, whom Connery is most like in character and acting range, had a host of actors and technicians who came with him in each film he made.
Sir Alec Guinness was famous for putting young talent in front of directors. (I should know; a few years before Guinness’s death I was one such ‘talent.’) Allegedly Connery ‘dissuaded’ his brother, Neil, from continuing with a starring role in an Italian action movie. Neil returned to plastering as a trade and a life’s role in the shadow of his famous brother, no doubt telling the curious, yes, I am Sean Connery’s brother.
I cannot find any trace of him helping his son, Jason, to gain roles. The Jason I met was great company, a clever, personable, articulate young man with distinct ability for light comedy, but constantly deployed as an action man, son of Sean, a mini-Bond. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t Connery’s son.” He didn’t need to say that. I could guess.
A strange thing about Connery’s office, it was impersonal. Not a single poster, award, inscribed book, memorabilia, from any of his films. You’d never know who lived there. Only an old high-back chair with stuffing coming out of it indicated its owner’s age. “Don’t sit there. It’s for my back.” He damaged his spine in a fight sequence in Thunderball.
After sampling a fifteen year-old malt I brought as a gift, I asked Connery why he never bought the Aston Martin DB5 driven in Goldfinger. “Ah kept hittin’ mah head off the roof.” Ah yes, why had I not thought of that? He is 6.2 foot, after all. And he is not a car man, no flash sports cars. He drives a very large Toyota SUV, or did when I knew him.
Turning down the best projects
In later career Connery made some stupid missteps: not taking part in Braveheart was one. All those press releases and appearances on behalf of Scotland’s self-determination and never in a Scottish movie. Highlander does not count. (Alas Braveheart came too late for his attractive youth – he could have made a sure-fire perfect Wallace, complete with full beard and physical height!)
I am told he refused the shark hunter role in Jaws, (Robert Shaw played it to memorable quality) and the professor and scientist in Jurassic Park, a role that went to Richard Attenborough, and a poor Scottish accent. But he did accept and play to perfection Indian Jones’s dad. I still enjoy watching reruns on television.
Advertising Japan’s Suntory whisky while not promoting Scottish whisky is an insult to his homeland. We can only guess the fee was lucrative. There was talk of Connery helping to establish a dry wall film studio outside Edinburgh that Connery was slow to deny. He also fronted the campaign to turn the old Royal High School at Regent’s Terrace, into a national photographic museum. Scotland had, after all, seen her sons been pioneers in the craft. But for various reasons, not Connery’s fault, it came to nought.
More recently, not one but two of Connery’s biographers walked from the commission because, “He’s not the man I thought he was.” Connery is tight-lipped and secretive about his private life – his choice. So why agree to a biography in the first place? Biography nixed, a coffee table book emerged entitled, “Being a Scot,” a potted celebration of Connery’s Scotland. More expensive tourist guide than personal insight, it failed to win the public’s enthusiasm, soon disappearing from bookshops.
A personal sadness
At this point I must register my shared judgement he made the best James Bond – ever. His physique, his grace in movement, his skill at expressing ruthlessness, and the fact that he really was acting – he had to be taught how to walk in a Saville Row suit – attest to his suitability, and his manliness.
Unlike the jokey Roger Moore, Connery never recoiled or blinked when he fired a gun. And when he wore swimming trunks you could shoot film from his toes up. Moore had to have his close ups shot from the chest up. Ian Fleming disliked Connery as the choice for his alter-ego. He preferred the debonair David Niven, an actor who liked to say he was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, but was actually born in London. Detractors ignored, producer Cubby Broccoli signed him up, and once Connery strode out of the Jamaican undergrowth to greet Honey Rider on the sea’s edge he was Bond ever after.
Connery played a cold killer of a spy that could sleep with a woman and then throw her to the wolves. Pierce Brosnan, the other Celtic player, looked as if he could work the gadgets, but not squash a bug. Connery never looked as if he could switch on a light, but hell, it didn’t matter, he was extremely plausible as a spy with a licence to kill.
The man who would be king
As an actor he was one of the few Scots fit to play kingly roles. In Hunt For Red October he was positively magisterial. The Hamilton-born actor, Nicol Williamson, got closest to Connery’s strength but had a wider emotional range, in fact, was paired with Connery in Robin and Marian, but he lacked Connery’s immense sexual charisma, and that hundred Watt smile. Connery was always right when in uniform, he carried exactly the authority needed, but best of all playing detective types of different kinds, from Bond through a medieval monk to an expert in Japanese culture.
“Ah’m useless at accents,” admitted Connery. Who cares? Humphrey Bogart, Michael Caine, Jimmy Stewart, all the best movie stars had a distinctive speech pattern that was all their own. Today almost everybody can do a Connery accent. He acquired the sibilant “s” late in his career, after heavy smoking, pipe and cigar, left nodules on his larynx.
When a young actor the contradiction between Connery’s warm brown eyes and savage clefts in his cheeks must have been an unconscious attraction for woman – not all! – and a lot of men, even heterosexual ones like me. In his later years he came clean about his bald head and a paunch which must have done great favours for other actors desperately hiding theirs, and the rest of us struggling with comb-overs, and hiding our ballooning stomachs with a loose shirt.
I saw him recently, standing alone yards from me at Edinburgh Airport on an empty footpath. I saw an old man, shorter than I remember, colour leached from his eyes.
The end of an era
Did I feel sad? No. My experience of what he considers friendship was ultimately unpleasant. I can attest to his way of raising projects and then dashing hopes. Better than me were let down at the finishing line, just ask Tom Stoppard. There are others. As I said earlier, unreliable, like many movie stars. You attend to their needs. You are invited into their company to aid their career. As far as I was concerned, as well as delivering a good screenplay, I had to protect Connery from the wolves, his integrity too, until the project was green lit, and in his lawyer’s hands.
His reputation in Hollywood was indifferent. “His integrity thing is all fake. The only important thing to him is the money!” said one top studio executive, who nevertheless was keen to finance the project. The project concerned Gorbals born street fighter and famed detective, Allan Pinkerton. The screenplay was approved and financed. Then came the big let down. To my shame I allowed a daughter to witness the flood of despair. Two years unpaid work wasted.
A man’s a man for a’ that, and a’ that.
For all that Connery remains a guiding example of what can be achieved by an ambitious Scot so long as those outside Scotland can make money out of you.
The trick is creating a Scotland where its talented inhabitants can achieve international status without being forced to leave and to live abroad, or if their vocation means working abroad for periods, be dismissed as a tax exile.
Nowadays the big screen is full of fine Scots actors. Connery was not the first Scot to conquer Hollywood, nor will he be the last, but he dominated the second-half of the twentieth century as a movie star bringing kudos to his country.
For that, and supporting the cause of liberty, you can excuse him almost anything. Almost.