When I was born, Roger Moore was already playing James Bond, so as a kid he was the one I associated with 007. It wasn't until watching Siskel & Ebert that I learned they were not big fans of Moore's version because they deemed it inferior to the original man who played Bond, Sean Connery. Being the first doesn't always mean the best, but in 30 years from now, if there was a poll on who is the one actor to epitomized Bond, I'm confident Connery would win by a landslide. Through the power of the mighty VHS, I eventually tracked down most of the early James Bond movies and instantly understood why Connery was held up as the ultimate Bond.
My first-time seeing Sean Connery on the big screen was probably the Terry Gilliam directed Time Bandits, an adventure story about a young boy following a group of dwarves who travel through time stealing various historic treasures. I wasn't aware that Connery was a big star when watching him play King Agamemnon, but even as a young kid, I could tell this was a guy who brought a powerful screen presence. I loved that movie because I was an imaginative kid who loved anything to do with sweeping adventures and epic journeys, but the movie really stuck out with it colourful and memorable characters. While I loved thinking that I was the kid on the adventure and was the fan of the thieving dwarves, I remember Agamemnon being a powerful and memorable character even if he didn't have significant screen time.
The younger me was sold on Connery being a movie star and he would end up being a major part of several action adventure movies in the 1980s that I wasn't yet allowed to see but really wanted to like The Highlander (I love my fantasy no matter how ridiculous it looked), Outland (I was down with anything vaguely resembling Star Wars) The Untouchables (duh, every young kid is down with cops and robbers) and The Name of the Rose (Medieval historical epics basically looked like fantasy movies to me). I tracked down each of those movies eventually when I got older and thought the quality varied, but one thing that was clear was Connery's mere presence elevated even the silliest of plots.
This isn't to say that Connery delivered powerhouse performances every time, but even if he leaned into his reputation to get him through a movie sometimes, it was always clear he was a mega movie star whose charisma and presence commanded the big screen. There is a reason that movies often turned to him for mentor roles as they hoped some of that magical star power could be passed on to rising actors like Christopher Lambert and Kevin Costner.
The most genius 1980s casting of Sean Connery was as Professor Henry Jones, the father of Indiana Jones in 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It was brilliant putting together two of the most iconic adventure stars with Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones sharing the screen with the original James Bond. I didn't appreciate the casting back in 1989 as a sort of passing the torch of major action adventure stars, and also now know that had to be a major reason for the casting, considering Connery is only twelve years older than Ford so he doesn't actually work logistically as the father figure. If you wanted star power and meshing of two pulp adventures than it was a perfect pairing. One of the fun things about the two sharing the big screen is that Spielberg partly directed Raiders of the Lost Ark as an answer to not being able to make a Bond picture. It was fitting that the two stars finally came together in this series.
To the credit of Connery, he didn't shy away from making himself the comic relief in the movie and played against some expectations as most of the movie he was less than competent as he stumbled his way into success. He avoided becoming a parody or pure joke due to the authority and commanding presence he naturally conveyed, and you knew despite a few goofs, the senior Jones was someone to respect and admire. He also had such a great chemistry with Ford where they played off each other smoother than creamy peanut butter and strawberry jam that it is a shame they didn't team up for other buddy adventure movies. At least, Connery got to be in the last ever Indiana Jones movie. . . yep, last one. . . there were no more. . . Last Crusade wrapped up the series just like for Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter finished those movies forever and ever.
By the 1990s, I was well-aware that Sean Connery was a living screen legend and as a young movie buff, knew I wanted to track down all his past work and all new releases were must-see events. One of his most significant movies of the '90s was one of his first in The Hunt for Red October. On The Movie Breakdown we joked about how Connery didn't even attempt a Russian accent or ever bother changing his voice to fit his nationality in movies. But his imposing and confident demeanor made him spot-on casting for rogue Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius and his performance is one of the reason the thriller was so tense and engaging to the point it still stands up as one of the best spy movies.
Speaking of spy movies, jumping back a few decades, Connery is a major reason why James Bond became such a cinematic icon and still one of the major global box office juggernauts. Connery credited Bond's massive success on arriving at the perfect time when audiences were moving past the major wars of the past decades and tiring of a life of rationing and 'getting-by', and they now had this suave super-spy living in luxury and success. It was fantasy and wish-fulfillment, but also slightly grounded as they dealt with issues like Cold War and terrorism, but the good guy always won. But you can't discount how crucial Connery was for Bond becoming a global phenomenon, as he embodied the Bond character and set the template of what we expected from the superspy for decades.
The 1990s ended up being reinvention of Connery where he started finding himself in the lead of big thrillers and action movies like The Rock, Entrapment, and Rising Sun. He was a kick-ass older gentlemen decades before Liam Neeson or Sean Penn. His pedigree as Hollywood royalty always added a panache to what would have been disposable action movies and helped giving bad-ass cred to stars like Nicholas Cage and Wesley Snipes who got to act along side him.
The sign of a big star is when they're giving what would be one small throw-away scenes but it feels epic with their presence, which is what happens when Sean Connery made a surprise appearance as King Richard in an uncredited role for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. It was a moment even in my younger years that I saw as a passing of a torch like moment, especially since the movie was likely leaning on the fact the iconic Connery played an older version of Robin Hood in 1976's Robin and Marian.
There may be some that take issue with me writing such a long tribute to Connery or devoting the entire upcoming episode of The Movie Breakdown to his movies. Praising him as one of the biggest movie stars ever that elevated his movies and genres is not the same as approving of his life and values. I believe that I can enjoy many of his movies without it being an endorsement of his personal life. There are many sources that point to the fact that Connery was likely a wife beater and many interviews that show him to be a brutal misogynist. I am not hiding away from this aspect of his life, but I think it is possible to acknowledge a significant career in movies without approving one the darker and uglier parts of a person's life. Connery represents a certain era of masculinity and swagger that was captivating to many, but also brought some toxicity and vileness that seems to finally being ushered out with new generations. He was a man of his time, and like any human of any time, he was complicated.
Connery was one of the first big movie stars I encountered in my life. Some movies that I hold dear are because of his presence and he brought a power and charisma that is unmatched. His performances played a huge role in my growth as a movie fan and many of his works are some of the true classics of cinema. But I also know that he isn't the type of man that I would model myself after and his reputation in his personal life is one that I am uncomfortable. I feel that I can balance both those parts of his life and still be thankful for the good that he brought to the movie landscape.
RIP Sean Connery August 25, 1930 to October 31, 2020.