Director Terence Young, who pressed for him to get the lead role in “Dr. No,” said Connery had a presence and a quality he’d only noticed in one other actor – Clark Gable. But little in Sean Connery’s early life prepared him for international stardom, and in retrospect he seems to have come to the movies after trying virtually every other job first.
Born Tom Connery on Aug. 25, 1930, he grew up in the Edinburgh working-class suburb of Fountainbridge, in the shadow and smell of the rubber factory where his father worked. The family lived in the attic of a tenement building with no electricity or running water.
Connery’s school voted him “Boy Most Unlikely to Succeed.” But he liked sports – football, cycling and rowing – and the movies. He would sell empty jam jars to pay for a ticket, and later would entertain his friends by acting out the films he had seen. He left school just before his 14th birthday, worked as a milkman, and then enlisted in the Navy for a 12-year stretch – only to be discharged after a year when found to have peptic ulcers.
Back in Edinburgh, Connery went back on the milkround, trained as a French polisher and worked as a swimming-pool lifeguard. His meager income was supplemented by jobs as a bouncer at the local dancehall, a model at the Edinburgh School of Art (for which he had to shave his hairy chest) and a stage hand at the Kings Theatre. Eventually he wound up laboring in the print room of the local newspaper.
Connery first trod the boards in 1952 as a (non-speaking) court usher in a touring production of “The Glorious Days,” a celebration of Queen Victoria, starring Anna Neagle. He had also become interested in weightlifting and bodybuilding and entered a Mr. Universe contest in London, where he won a bronze medal. While down South, he also landed a job in the chorus of a touring production of “South Pacific,” for which he was paid £14 a week. By the end of the run, he had graduated to a small speaking role, decided to become an actor “because it was fun,” and changed his first name to Sean.
An early sign of the feistiness that was to power his later career emerged at his audition for “South Pacific.” When his turn came, and he was asked “What are you?” – i.e. an actor, singer or dancer – the young Connery replied, “I’m a bloody man. What do you think I am?”
Back in London, however, the world of showbiz wasn’t exactly queueing up for the freshly monikered Sean Connery. He survived on large pots of stew which would last a week and by babysitting for showbiz columnist Peter Noble. Finally, he was contacted by Robert Henderson, an American writer-actor-director he’d met on “South Pacific” who was now at Q Theatre, in the southwest burbs of London.
Q had been set up in 1923 to encourage new talent: alums included Vivien Leigh, Peggy Ashcroft, Margaret Lockwood, Joan Collins and Roger Moore. Connery was again cast as a court usher, this time in Henderson’s production of Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution,” and also appeared at Q in Jean Anouilh’s “Point of Departure” and Dolph Dorman’s “A Witch in Time.”
The then-new medium of television provided a further source of work. Connery’s small-screen break came in 1957, in a BBC production of “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” about a champion boxer at the end of his career. Jack Palance, who had played the role on U.S. television, was forced to drop out of the U.K. version at the last minute and Connery, who’d had boxing lessons as a kid, stepped in – to good reviews. During this period, he continued to do legit: in Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” in which he played the tyrant King of Thebes, Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie,” “The Sea Shell” by American playwright Jess Gregg, and Pirandello’s “Naked” opposite actress Diane Cilento, who was later to become his first wife.
Meanwhile, TV parts were becoming more substantial: John Proctor in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” J.M. Synge’s “Riders to the Sea,” and Anouilh’s “Colombe.” He was also Hotspur in BBC productions of “Richard II” and “Henry IV,” Vronsky in an adaptation of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and Alexander the Great in Terence Rattigan’s “Adventure Story.” For the last, he had to wear a curly blond wig, but the Times critic was still moved to compare him to “a young Olivier.”
After his performance in the TV “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” Connery had found himself wooed by both Rank and 20th Century Fox, eventually signing a seven-year contract with the latter. But it was to lead to only one role Stateside, and several spells of being loaned out. He was the villain in “Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure” (1959), shot in Africa, and appeared briefly in the Europe-lensed epic “The Longest Day” (1962), as a soldier on the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
A meatier part came Connery’s way in “Another Time, Another Place” (1958), playing a BBC war correspondent with whom Lana Turner’s American journalist has an affair. However, the pic met with a hostile response: One London broadsheet opined of Connery, “He will not, I guess, grow old in the industry.”
In 1959, Connery briefly went to Hollywood for Disney’s slice of Irish whimsy, “Darby O’Gill and the Little People,” then returned to Blighty to play a hitman in “The Frightened City” and a dim-witted soldier in “On the Fiddle” (released in the U.S. as “Operation SNAFU”).
By 1961, Connery was 31. He was a promising actor who, noted insiders, had been under-used through no fault of his own. For several years, the British film industry had been in one of its periodic troughs, but the mood was slowly changing, however, with the rise of “kitchen-sink” drama and regionalism, where Connery’s lingering Scottish accent would no longer be a liability.
The big career irony was that the working-class kid from Edinburgh was not to trampoline to fame on the back of this so-called New Cinema movement – but as the arrogant, snobbish and echt-English secret agent James Bond.
Terence Young had already directed Connery four years earlier in “Action of the Tiger,” and he championed the actor over others in the frame for the lead role in “Dr. No.” Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli had seen him in “The Frightened City” and “Darby O’Gill,” so Connery was far from being an unknown quantity.
After meeting him, as the story goes, Saltzman and Broccoli went to the window to watch him walk away – and from his leonine gait, they instantly knew they’d found their 007.