Sean Connery, the Scottish actor best known for his portrayal of James Bond, has died aged 90. The cause is not yet known.
He was admired by generations of film fans as the original and best 007, and went on to create a distinguished body of work in films such as The Man Who Would Be King, The Name of the Rose and The Untouchables.
Born Thomas Sean Connery in 1930, he grew up in the tough Fountainbridge area of Edinburgh and left school at 14 to work as a milkman for the Co-op. In 1948, he joined the Royal Navy, but was later discharged on medical grounds. He began bodybuilding aged 18, and got work as a life model, among many jobs, and entered the Mr Universe contest in 1953, though he did not win. Having been interested in acting for some time, Connery used his Mr Universe visit to London to audition for a stage version of South Pacific, and landed a role in the chorus.
His acting career then took off: first in rep theatre and then small roles in TV shows such as Dixon of Dock Green and The Jack Benny Program. His first credited film role arrived in 1957, playing a hoodlum in the 1957 British thriller No Road Back. However it was a BBC version of Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight that provided his breakthrough lead role, playing a boxer facing the end of his career in the ring. His film profile increased as a result, with support roles in Hell Drivers, a lorry-driving thriller starring Stanley Baker, and Action of the Tiger, directed by Terence Young, with whom Connery would later reunite on Dr No.
Connery landed a substantial role in the war-set melodrama Another Time, Another Place in 1957 opposite Lana Turner, then a huge Hollywood star; in a widely retold anecdote, he reportedly came to blows with Turner’s lover, notorious gangster Johnny Stompanato, after the latter suspected the actors were having an affair.
But it was his casting, at the age of 30, in the first film adapted from Ian Fleming’s series of James Bond novels that cemented his screen status. Reportedly at the insistence of producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s wife Dana, Connery got the role in Dr No over better known actors due to his “sex appeal”. Despite initial misgivings, Dr No was a huge success, not the least because it had been produced, cautiously, on a comparatively low budget. Released in 1962, it was a hit in Britain, but also did well commercially in the US.
Connery went on to appear in four more Bond films in succession, between 1963 and 1967: From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. His dramatically increased star status also allowed him to take films outside the series, notably the psychological thriller Marnie for Alfred Hitchcock, and The Hill, a military-prison drama directed by Sidney Lumet. However, his increasing disenchantment at playing 007 saw him drop out of the next Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and he was replaced by Australian actor George Lazenby. However, Lazenby’s tenure lasted only the single film, and Connery was lured back for Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 with an enormous fee.
Connery refused to return again – though he did participate in Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Bond film released in 1983 that resulted from a legal battle undertaken by Thunderball co-writer Kevin McClory, again with a huge fee. Connery was now secure in a high-price, high-status existence, allowing him to work on a number of widely differing projects. He took the lead in John Boorman’s bizarre sci-fi fantasy Zardoz, acted alongside Michael Caine (a longtime friend) in the Kipling adventure yarn The Man Who Would Be King, played a middle-aged Robin Hood in Robin and Marian, and a crime-solving monk in the Umberto Eco adaptation The Name of the Rose.
In the ensuing decades, he retreated largely to colourful supporting roles. He won his only Oscar in 1988 for his turn as principled Irish beat cop Malone in The Untouchables; he played Indiana Jones’ feisty father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and a renegade Russian submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October. After a difficult experience making The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, during which he reportedly clashed repeatedly with director Stephen Norrington, Connery “retired” from acting in 2003, and refused an offer to join the cast of the fourth Indiana Jones film in 2007, saying “retirement is just too damned much fun”. However, he did complete one more film, voicing the title role in the Scottish-made animation Sir Billi.
Throughout his career, Connery made no secret of his support for Scottish independence, and became a high-profile member of the Scottish National party, taking part in party political broadcasts in the 1990s and appearing alongside then-leader Alex Salmond. His politics reportedly led to the Scottish secretary Donald Dewar blocking plans for Connery’s knighthood in 1997, but the honour finally came three years later. However, as Connery had moved away from the UK in the mid-1970s, his substantial financial contributions to the SNP were ended after legislation disallowed funding from overseas residents.
Connery was married twice: first to Australian-born actor Diane Cilento between 1962 and 1973, and then to French-Moroccan painter Micheline Roquebrune in 1975. He is survived by Roquebrune and his son by his first wife, actor Jason Connery.