Veteran directors reflect on making movies with Connery
Sidney Lumet on ‘The Offence’ and ‘The Hill’
Lumet directed five Sean Connery movies — none of them Bond pictures. Their first collaboration, “The Hill,” is widely regarded as one of Connery’s best performances. It was also a deliberate attempt to distance himself from 007.
“What Sean was doing in the Bond movies is the best of high-comedy acting,” Lumet says. “Now those of us who know about acting didn’t just take it as the exploitation of a persona. It was real acting, so when ‘The Hill’ fell into my lap, the idea of Sean for it was sensational because I knew he was one hell of an actor.”
Connery continued to alternate serious acting roles with fresh installments in the Bond franchise, reteaming with Lumet in the early 1970s on “The Anderson Tapes” and “The Offence.”
Lumet recalls, “UA wanted Sean to do two or three more Bonds, so they were negotiating, and he said, ‘Look, what I’d like is to produce a picture, maybe two, but they’re put pictures.’ In those days, what a put picture meant was the company had nothing to say about it. A budget was picked — in this instance, it was $1 million — and then whatever Sean wanted to do for that million, he could do. They would have no approvals of script, director, cast, what have you, and that’s how ‘The Offence’ happened.”
“The Offence” is a serious actor’s movie. Connery plays a veteran police detective who snaps. In the opening scene, he beats a suspected child molester to death, then goes home and screams at his wife.
“Not your average Christmas picture,” Lumet says with a laugh. Nor was it the work of someone worried about alienating his fan base. “There was never a moment’s discussion of that crap. Sean knew exactly what he was getting into and went, shut his eyes and dived off the board without checking whether there was any water in the pool.”
Rather than letting the movie find its audience, UA opened “The Offence” at the Odeon Leicester Square, a massive theater in London. “They were exploiting James Bond,” Lumet sighs. “The only thing missing from the ads was him with a pistol in his hand.”
The movie closed after four days, stalling the U.S. release for more than a year. When it finally did open, the distrib buried it at “a bad house that played Indian movies mostly.”
They would go on to make two more movies together, “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Family Business,” but Lumet still regrets that “The Offence” never got a chance.
“I’m very prejudiced about Sean, because I adore him personally and love his talent,” he says, “but I think it’s his best acting job, period.”
John McTiernan on ‘The Hunt for Red October’
Producer Mace Neufeld wanted Sean Connery to play the captain in “The Hunt for Red October,” but the studio had issues with the actor’s Scottish accent.
“Don’t worry about it,” director John McTiernan told them. “The authority with which he speaks is more important than a specific accent.” They relented, and “Hunt” became the first of two movies McTiernan made with the star (following up with “Medicine Man” two years later).
Accent aside, Connery had his own way of making his relationship to the Russian submarine crew look convincing.
“The first morning, Sean demanded that the A.D. come to see him at the edge of the set, and he just screamed blue murder at the A.D.,” McTiernan says. “Sean doesn’t have outbursts, but it terrorized all the little Russian kids, so that from then on, whenever Sean walked within five feet of them, each one of them involuntarily tensed up, like his sphincter went tight, which worked perfectly.”
Part of Connery’s authority came from the special brush-cut hairpiece (inspired by playwright Samuel Beckett) that McTiernan had to convince Connery to wear.
“After Bond, he went through this sort of honesty phase where he had to demonstrate to everybody that he was bald,” says McTiernan. Where other actors sometimes operate on insecurity, Connery was just the opposite, incredibly comfortable in his own skin. “He didn’t want to be one of those guys getting old and denying his age. It’s a much deeper vanity about the nature of his character, his nature as a man.” —
Peter Hyams on ‘Outland’
“The key to Sean is zero guile,” says Peter Hyams, who directed the actor in “Outland” and “The Presidio.” “He’ll look you in the eye, and as long as you’re not full of crap, he’s your best ally in the making of a movie that you could ever have.”
But first, you have to earn his respect. On “Outland,” Hyams says, “I remember one of the first days that we were working together, we were shooting a very important closeup. I had a 20-watt bulb at the end of a string, and as we were blocking it, Sean said, ‘What’s that string for, boy?’ and I said, ‘Well, half your face is in shadow, and what I want to do is catch a pinspot of light reflected in your eye.’ He (grunted), didn’t say a word.
“The next morning, he said, ‘I want to see dailies.’ I said, ‘Fine,’ and he said, ‘I want to see them now, boy.’ When he came back, I was setting up the shot, and he turns to me and says, ‘Where’s your light bulb, boy?’ And then he actually stopped calling me ‘boy’ and started calling me ‘coq’ ” — a sign that he’d moved up in the actor’s esteem.
Irvin Kershner on ‘A Fine Madness’
“I was the one who worked with him right after he quit doing Bond,” Kershner says. Sean Connery had just wrapped “Thunderball” and was looking for something very different, so Kershner convinced him to do ‘A Fine Madness,’ a zany comedy about a womanizing poet in New York.
“There were a lot of other actors who wanted to do it,” he says, “but Sean had charisma, and I needed a poet. I learned that he loved poetry, wrote poetry, so it sort of fit together.”
Warner Bros., on the other hand, was expecting something very different.
“Jack Warner didn’t understand the picture at all,” Kershner says. “Before I went to New York, he called me into his office and said, ‘OK, kid, plenty of it,’ and he held up his fingers like a gun — pow, pow. He thought we were doing another Bond picture. This was as far away from Bond as possible. It was a very peculiar story, quite funny in places and weird, with a chimpanzee and a crazy doctor, you know, the whole thing.”
Kershner remembers a hot-tub scene Connery shared with Jean Seberg. “Jean came in, and she was wearing tights with little black things over the nipples. It looked ridiculous. Sean called me over, and he whispered in my ear, ‘Get me a cold champagne bottle and two glasses,’ so I sent out for it. They got out of the tub, and they just talked and drank. I came back, everything was fine. He talked her out of everything. This is Sean.”
Kershner and Connery remained friends, and when Connery had the chance to remake “Thunderball” through Warner almost two decades later, he asked for Kershner. Ironically, the man who had once helped him distance himself from Bond would be the one to direct his last 007 outing, “Never Say Never Again.”
“I was never a Bond fan,” Kershner says. “I loved Sean, but that kind of action didn’t get to me, and so I tried to make it more of a character piece, which is very difficult to do with Bond. Have you ever read an Ian Fleming book? They’re lousy stories, not very good. But Sean was a pleasure to work with. The man is the pro of all time.”