“Seanorry” is the affectionate nickname his family call Sean Connery, according to brother Neil, a sly reference to the Connery industry that follows in the wake of Scotland’s tough guy movie star. ‘King of Scotland’ is another given by supporters and adversaries alike of our most high profile fan of self-governance.
I took it to be a sobriquet 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, but above all, a real man.
There’s a large blown up photograph in a local pub of what appears to be Connery as a barrel maker among friends enjoying themselves – it’s his father, Joe – two peas in a pod.
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. Connery is such a man.
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 black Labrador, there was no surprises when I met Connery properly, at his Marbella home, before he moved to the Bahamas and retirement. I had written a story-line for a screenplay about a famous Scot and he liked it enough to ask that I develop it for him.
“Avoid hokum stuff”, he advised on my ability to return with a good script, that from a man who played in films packed with sentimentality.
I had assessed his character pretty well, it was 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. And he left me with serious debts. But he did have a pauky sense of humour. (Cue ironic laughter.)
On being street smart
He may be uneducated but he’s 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 the point where they shun the public? It happens suddenly and comprehensively. The drawbridge gets pulled up, walls built, moat deepened, and old friends dumped. Agents and lawyers warn them to keep people at bay. Adulation can corrupt, and some members of the public are best avoided, but dump friends and colleagues whom have known you for years and want nothing but your friendship?
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. I don’t mean grumpy, I mean bad tempered. There’s a bully there. 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 course still in golfing gear to speak his lines before camera, and exit back to the golf club.
A sad misogynist lurks just 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 cringe-worthy patronising line. “This is man talk, honey. Run along.” (Slaps girl on butt as he hustles her off, screen right.) Bond’s attitude to women was a product of the times and of author 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.
The real man is on the screen
A Fine Madness, one of Connery’s earliest films, almost forgotten, has Connery badly miscast as a “mad genius” of a boozy New York rhymer, a beat poet, 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 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 company.
Connery went on to support Scotland’s self-governance. That we can applaud. Most entertainers avoid talking politics. Not Sean. He gave confidence to those that follow after him – if the Big Man can do it, so can we. Severely uneducated, but a quick learner, he had William McIlvanney and other novelists write his speeches.
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-line that shifted the coastline at Connery’s house. He had to get large boulders craned in and placed along the beach side of his house to tame the waves.
Cheated by the studios
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. Connery refused to forget it.
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 goddamn lawyer,” was Connery’s advice to me. “They all steal from you,” he added. And he was right.
You have to admire a person for demanding to be paid. He worked for it. It was in his contract. And to those who complain he is a tax exile, I say, as a USA Green Card holder paid by studios who gather the money first, he gets taxed at source.
After paying the tax man, movie 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 get on
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 mean machine
A strange thing about Connery’s office, it was impersonal. Not a single film poster, award, inscribed book, or 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”, his spine damaged in a fight sequence.
After sampling a fifteen year-old malt I brought him as a gift, I asked Connery why he never bought the Aston Martin DB5 driven in Goldfinger.
“Ah kept hittin’ mah head aff the roof.” Ah yes, why had I not thought of that? He is over six feet by two inches, after all. And he is not a car man, no flash sports cars. He drives a very large boxy Toyota SUV, or did when I knew him. It has a high ceiling.
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 charismatic 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 memorably – and he said no to the professor in Jurassic Park, a role taken by Richard Attenborough, with a poor Scottish accent. But he did accept and play to perfection Indian Jones’s dad. I still enjoy watching reruns on television.
An advert too far
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 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 cut and paste 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 view
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. He could act, mostly authority figures. He’d done his stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
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, the bottom half wasn’t so good.
Ian Fleming disliked Connery as the choice for his alter-ego. Fleming was an arch snob. He preferred the debonair David Niven, an actor who liked to say he was born in Kirriemuir, Scotland, but was actually born in London. Producer Cubby Broccoli signed Connery up against the studio’s advice. 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. He carried real authority.
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, best of all playing detective types, from Bond, via a medieval monk, to an expert in Japanese culture.
“Ah’m useless at accents,” he admitted to me. 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 – and a lot of men, even heterosexual ones like me. In his later years he came clean about his bald head and a paunch, a great favour to actors sporting toupees, or comb-overs, and hiding a ballooning stomach beneath a big loose shirt.
I saw him recently, standing alone yards from me at Edinburgh Airport on an empty footpath. I saw an old man, colour leached from his eyes. I did not speak to him.
The end of an era
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, ask Tom Stoppard. There are others. He’s mean. No getting away from it.
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 my flood of despair. Two years unpaid work wasted.
A man’s a man for a’ that
For all that, Connery remains a guiding example of what can be achieved by an ambitious Scot so long as people can make money out of you.
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, a movie star who brought tremendous kudos to his country.
For supporting Scotland’s liberty, you can excuse Seaonorry anything ….. almost!
Sean Connery died, aged 90, in November 2020.
In 2020, Scotland’s governing party, the SNP, provided the cash to establish a dry wall film studio in Leith, Edinburgh. One of the two managers is Jason Connery, Sean’s son. I must ask him why his dad opted out of the project he asked me to produce and which I delivered to him in great shape, fully financed. Jason was there. He knows the reason.