“He had a pressing engagement.” “He blew a fuse.” “[He’s] playing his golden harp.” “She had her kicks.” “See you later, irrigator.” Sans context, these lines might not sound like much, but coming from the lips of Sean Connery, they helped define the James Bond mystique and made the dry wisecrack a mainstay of genre cinema. Later Bonds adopted the cinematic quip and made it their own; eventually, so did the Ahnulds, the Slys, the Bruces, and in horror, the Freddys and Chuckys. But Connery’s ability to deliver the perfect rejoinder, the perfect kiss-off, endured beyond Bond. (Even SNL’s “Celebrity Jeopardy!” sketches, in which Darrell Hammond’s surly, savage Connery went remorselessly after Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek with your-mom jokes and willful misreadings, captured a bit of this quality.) It even lay at the heart of Connery’s comeback in later years.
Obviously, it wasn’t merely the dialogue that made Scottish Connery’s 007 so compelling. A former body builder who possessed just the right amount of self-awareness to deliver those dainty, cherry-on-top one-liners, he had animal unpredictability and urbane grace in equal measure. The latter reportedly didn’t come naturally to him; he learned it from his first Bond director, Terence Young. No matter. The Sean Connery on screen was a guy who could ease into a tux or opine about champagne, and boy, did he also look like he could hold his own in a bar fight.
That was ideal for Bond, but of course, Sean Connery, who died on Saturday at the age of 90, was a lot more than Bond. Indeed, he was the rare 007 actor (he occupied the role from 1962 to 1971, and revisited the character in 1983) who managed to reclaim and redefine his image beyond the superspy. It took some time, and it definitely took some aging. Connery did some of his best, most daring work in the years following Bond, when he was desperately trying to shed the character — The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Robin and Marian (1976), Time Bandits (1981), even the much-reviled Wrong Is Right (1981) — but that period now feels like his wilderness years, as if the manly ideal he represented in the 1960s had been overtaken by a more sinister and uncertain climate, leaving him behind his times. (And who knows what was going on in his private life? I’ve heard rumors of a scuppered memoir, resting in a vault somewhere, deemed too scandalous to publish.)
We don’t think of Sean Connery as having range; indeed, we sort of think of him as proudly not having range, keeping that lilting, shing-shong ackshent of hish even when playing an Egyptian-Shpaniard. (There is, by the way, a 65,000-member subreddit dedicated to Connery’s accent.) Upon seeing George Lazenby show up in a kilt and lace jabot highland ensemble in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service — the first Bond film sans Connery — a friend’s mom once remarked, “Sean Connery would never be caught dead in that.” But maybe she hadn’t seen John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974), in which a pony-tailed Connery shows up in a red futuristic mankini, and, at one point, dons a big old wedding dress (admittedly, he does not look happy).
When I was a kid in the 1980s, watching Thunderball and Goldfinger and You Only Live Twice on the ABC Sunday Night Movie, the word on Connery was that he had never quite managed to shake the shadow of 007. But then, right around that time, the man came back, an elder statesman finally embracing his age, and actually showing some versatility. There he was, as the compassionate, intellectual monk-detective (!) Brother William of Baskerville in the underrated Name of the Rose (1986). He also made the ludicrous, Junior Tolkien dialogue of Highlander (1986) surprisingly seaworthy. Those movies weren’t hits at the time (at least not in the U.S.), but 1987’s The Untouchables, in which he played the hard-ass veteran street-cop who takes Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness under his wing, was. (“They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” Again, nobody could deliver that kind of tough-guy poetry like Sean Connery.) So was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), in which daffy academic Henry Jones’s relentless dinging of his action-hero son effectively turned a Spielberg-Lucas fantasy blockbuster into a Hope-Crosby Road picture.
By then, his comeback was in full swing. I will never forget his entrance during the 1988 Academy Awards, amid colorful beams of light and clouds of fake smoke and, of course, the James Bond theme, to present the Best Visual Effects category; the place went bananas. (That audience also knew that he was a lock to win Best Supporting Actor later that night.) “The name is Connery, Sean Connery,” were the first things he said, over the roar of the crowd. It was almost like an acknowledgement that he could only free himself of the 007 thing if he found a way to coexist with the whole 007 thing.
Along the way, there were other great turns in movies like 1989’s Family Business and 1990’s The Hunt for Red October and The Russia House (an anti-Bond spy movie if there ever was one). He worked for years after, but for my money, Connery gave his last truly great performance in 1996, playing the only man ever to have escaped from Alcatraz and survived, in Michael Bay’s The Rock. It’s an ideal role for him, partly because The Rock is one of the most quotable movies ever. There’s nothing like Sean Connery delivering lines like, “Losers always whine about their ‘best.’ Winners go home and fuck the prom queen,” and his macho weariness makes a great foil for Nicolas Cage’s excitable milquetoast chemist. But his character is also a former spy, and the quote of Connery’s I will most remember from that film is yet another Bond callout. “I was trained by the best: British intelligence,” he says, with a perfect, apathetic twinkle. There was still a bit of Bond in there, but Sean Connery was free.