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Explained: How Sir Sean Connery set the template for James Bond

Sean Connery, the first Bond in the official franchise from Eon Productions, has died at age 90. A look at what led to his selection for the role, and how he helped craft a definitive identity for the iconic character

Written by Kabir Firaque , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: November 2, 2020 7:00:50 pm
"Bond, James Bond" — Sean Connery introduces himself as the iconic character in 'Dr No' (1962).

Sean Connery, who died on October 31 at age 90, will be best remembered for defining the character of James Bond on screen. While Connery had a long, successful career as an actor who played a variety of other roles, we look here at the template he set for the Bond character:

Bond before Connery

Although he was the first actor to play Bond in the “official” series (the films that come out of Eon Productions, UK), Sean Connery was not the first Bond when all films are considered. Another actor, Barry Nelson, had played Bond before Connery, but that film was not from Eon and, therefore, not “official”. Nelson’s film, Casino Royale (1954) — there are three ‘Bond films’ with that name — is largely forgotten today. It is not Bond as we know him; the spy is depicted as American rather than British.

Ian Fleming, who wrote 14 James Bond novels, visualised the spy as resembling the singer Hoagy Carmichael. When planning its first Bond film, Dr No (1962), Eon Productions and Fleming were inclined towards a British actor.

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“Certainly, the screen identities of most of the actors initially considered for the part of Bond —James Mason, Trevor Howard, David Niven (Fleming’s preferred choice), Richard Burton, and James Stewart — reflected a tendency to assimilate Bond into the tradition of English ruling-class heroes,” the British sociologist and author Tony Bennett wrote in ‘The International Journal of James Bond Studies’ in 2017. Stewart, in fact, was American.

Connery for Bond

What swung the choice in favour of Connery, a Scottish actor who was then a long way away from international fame, was the need to appeal to a wider audience, particularly in America. Connery was cast for his rugged masculinity over Fleming’s choice of Niven, said Lisa Funnell, co-author of ‘Geographies, Genders, and Geopolitics of James Bond’, and editor of the anthology ‘For His Eyes Only: The Women of James Bond’.

FILE – In this file photo dated April 11, 1971, renowned British actor Sean Connery, famous for his role as secret agent James Bond 007, relaxes at the River Room of the Savoy Hotel in London, after coming back from “The Grave” to take his famous Bond role in the United Artists film version of the James Bond story “Diamonds Are Forever”. (AP Photo/Bob Dear, FILE)

Dr Funnel, associate professor of women’s and gender studies at the University of Oklahoma, said by email: “Producers wanted to downplay some of the literary figure’s overtly British mannerisms that audiences overseas and especially in the US might find jarring. Instead, Bond was presented with a more mid-Atlantic image and given the worldwide success of his films, this was the right decision.”

Connery kept his Scottish accent, observed Stephanie Jones, lecturer in film, television and media studies at Aberystwyth University. “Curiously, on the release of Dr No there was some confusion among UK film critics about whether Connery’s accent was Scottish, Irish or Northern Irish; he certainly wasn’t English or American and this gave him an outsider appeal,” Dr Jones said, by email.

Also in explained | The name’s Bond, Tracy Bond — the legacy of James Bond’s wife, and the actor who played her

James Bond actors

Bond in Connery’s image

While every actor in that role has brought in his own personality traits to the Bond character, it was Connery who set the template for the well-dressed spy who could be ruthless as well as charming.

“I’d suggest that Connery is, like Ian Fleming’s Bond, representative of an ideal post-war masculinity, a clever mix of suave elegance and tough masculinity,” said Monica Germanà, author of ‘Bond Girls: Body, Fashion and Gender’, and senior lecturer in English literature and creative writing at Westminster University. “Connery’s Bond doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, but never loses his cool. He could be ruthless with his enemies, and those who betrayed him, including Bond-Girl villains such as Fiona Volpe [‘Thunderball’ (1965)], who pose a hazard to his mission, and life. But he can also be a tender — and sexy — lover,” she said.

READ | When Sean Connery turned down Manchester United

FILE – In this undated file photo, Sean Connery, as James Bond, poses in an event for the movie ‘Thunderball’. Scottish actor Sean Connery, considered by many to have been the best James Bond, has died aged 90, according to an announcement from his family. (AP Photo, FILE)

Dr Funnell described how Connery helped craft the identity of the global, popular culture icon: “Connery could pull off any look; from the classic tuxedo to a blue onesie, he looked confident in professional settings and comfortable in highbrow places of leisure. In addition, Connery’s delivery of classic lines like his introduction of ‘Bond, James Bond’ and ‘I must be dreaming’ helped to shape the (sardonic) wit of the figure. Finally, through his performance, Connery interjected a mixture of snobbery and violence that has come to define the character.”

Connery versus Bond

Connery was the only actor who came back as Bond after being replaced — twice. The first time, he quit after the fifth film, ‘You Only Live Twice’ (1967). He had some issues with producer Albert R Broccoli, and had found the attention from Japanese media while filming to be “invasive and suffocating”, Dr Funnell said.

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FILE – In this file photo dated Sunday, Jan. 21, 1996, Sean Connery is honored at the Golden Globe Awards, in Beverly Hills, Calif., USA, when he received the Cecil B. DeMille Award. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, FILE)

Connery was replaced with the Australian actor George Lazenby in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ (1969) — the latter’s sole appearance as Bond. In 1971, Connery returned as Bond in ‘Diamonds are Forever’. It would be his last film in the “official” Bond series — but not his last appearance as Bond.

READ | Top 5 Sean Connery films you should watch

In 1973, Eon Productions replaced Connery with Roger Moore. This upset Connery, who was so possessive that he resurrected himself as Bond 10 years later, in an “unofficial” film. ‘Never Say Never Again’ (1983) is a Hollywood production, and a remake of 1965’s ‘Thunderball’.

“He is the only actor to play the character across 3 decades and remains a fan favourite to this day!” said Dr Funnell.

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