Legendary Scottish actor Sean Connery hasn’t appeared on movie screens since 2003, when he starred in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But why would somebody so famous retreat from the industry which made him a star? And what exactly was it that made him stay away from the big screen?
Connery is best known for being the first actor to portray James Bond, of course. And his contribution to that franchise can hardly be overstated. Indeed, Ian Fleming, the author of the original Bond novels, liked Connery’s performance so much that he decided to make Bond half Scottish in You Only Live Twice, the twelfth book of the series.
But Connery was never just Bond, either. In fact, he played Indiana Jones’ father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Robin Hood in Robin and Marian, a dragon in Dragonheart as well as plenty more. Yet despite the fact that the actor was still winning awards and good reviews in his later years, he made the decision to walk away from it all.
Interestingly, back when Connery was just starting out as an actor, he very nearly didn’t accept role of James Bond; he didn’t want to be tied down to a whole film series, you see. If he’d have said no, of course, his life may have been very different – but he said yes in the end.
Once Connery had taken the role, though, he didn’t really seem to enjoy it. Indeed, he badmouthed the character to the press and to his inner circle. And in the 1992 biography Sean Connery: Neither Shaken Nor Stirred, Michael Caine said, “If you were his friend in these early days, you didn’t raise the subject of Bond.”
In fact, Caine explained that Connery simply hated being associated with just one role – no matter how popular it was. The actor continued, “He was, and is, a much better actor than just playing James Bond, but he became synonymous with Bond. He’d be walking down the street, and people would say, ‘Look, there’s James Bond.’ That was particularly upsetting to him.”
And it was while Connery was still playing Bond that he did the infamous 1965 interview with Playboy. In it, he again brought up that he didn’t enjoy being associated with the character. He said, “There are a lot of things I did before Bond – like playing the classics on stage – that don’t seem to get publicized. So you see, this Bond image is a problem in a way and a bit of a bore, but one has just got to live with it.”
Then, when asked how long he planned to remain in the movie industry, Connery gave a vague answer. He said, “I have no idea how I’ll feel or what I’ll be like or what I’ll be doing even five years from now. I’m eternally concerned with the present. I’ve been working my a** into the ground for 21 years, and I’m just coming up for air now.”
Connery added, “I find there are two sorts of people in the world: those who live under a shell and just wait for their pensions, and those who move around and keep their eyes open. I have always moved around and kept my eyes open – and [have] been prepared to raise my middle finger at the world.”
But, you see, those answers are not what made Connery’s Playboy interview so notorious. Instead, it was the actor’s response to the question, “How do you feel about roughing up a woman, as Bond sometimes has to do?” And Connery’s response shocked many. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” he said. “Although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.”
Yet the interview may have been forgotten about over time if Connery had ended it there – but he didn’t. The star said, “If a woman is a b**ch, or hysterical, or bloody minded continually, then I’d do it. I think a man has to be slightly advanced, ahead of the woman. I really do – by virtue of the way a man is built, if nothing else.”
Connery then went on to compare his attitude to Bond’s. He added, “I wouldn’t call myself sadistic. I think one of the appeals that Bond has for women, however, is that he is decisive, cruel even. By their nature women aren’t decisive – ‘Shall I wear this? Shall I wear that?” – and along comes a man who is absolutely sure of everything, and he’s a godsend.”
Connery’s comments in that Playboy interview followed the star around for the rest of his career. And although he was still very successful after Bond, allegations of domestic violence sprung up around him. Yes, in 2000 biographer Geoffrey Wansell claimed that, in 1965, Connery beat up his then-wife, Diane Cilento, when he saw her flirting with a waiter.
In fact, in 2005 Cilento made claims of domestic abuse against Connery. She released an autobiography that year, you see, where she alleged that her husband had hurt her both mentally and physically. The actress-cum-writer wrote, “There was physical contact, but it’s important to see it in context. You’ve got to remember he was probably twice my weight.” For his part, Connery always denied the claims.
Nevertheless, from the 1960s to the early 2000s Connery was still a huge star. He did his last Bond movie, Never Say Never Again, in 1983 and then moved on to other work. In 1988, for instance, he took home a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in The Untouchables. And one year later, he was voted People’s “Sexiest Man Alive.”
But despite his success, Connery always seemed to dislike the promotional side of being an actor. In fact, in 1971 – around the time that the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever was due to be released in cinemas – he told The Guardian, “Usually I hate interviews because I end up boring myself listening to me talking all the time.”
Interestingly, too, getting into arguments on set, or threatening to walk wasn’t uncommon for Connery at the height of his fame. While filming 1986’s Highlander, you see, he reportedly almost left the set after nearly being hit with a sword. But that was nothing compared to his alleged behavior while working on cult classic Zardoz.
According to director John Boorman, Connery was not very cooperative behind the scenes of the 1974 movie, which was only his second venture after finishing up with James Bond. Speaking to Vulture 40 years later, Boorman told a story about Connery having to redo a scene in which he was wearing heavy makeup.
Boorman said, “Sean hated makeup, hated anything touching his skin.” But for this one particular scene, he needed to be in makeup and was seemingly “very grumpy” about it. The director described how unfortunately, at the end of the day, “the assistant camera-loader opened the camera and exposed the film. So we had to do the process again.”
Connery couldn’t contain his anger, Boorman said, and was allegedly violent. He continued, “Sean wouldn’t believe me; he thought I was teasing him. When I convinced him that we needed to do [the scene] for the third time, he went after this camera-loader and nearly killed him. It took three grips to restrain him.”
As for the poor camera-loader, Boorman said that thanks to his brush with Connery, he’d had to change jobs. The director added, “This had become such a famous story in the film business that this guy couldn’t get a job or anything. So he changed his name and is working as a commercial cameraman now.”
Zardoz, meanwhile, didn’t do well with critics, and neither did some of Connery’s later films. Though he had a lot of hits, such as Robin and Marian, he also had flops – with Meteor and Five Days One Summer being just a couple of these. But come 1989 Connery played one of the non-Bond roles that he’s still best known for: Indiana Jones’ father, Henry Sr., in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
That year, Connery spoke to the Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine about his career. He said, “I’m not quite as branded or destroyed by the association with Bond as I once was. There’s no question it was getting in the way of my decisions to do anything else. The strange thing was how long it hung around, but it doesn’t bug me as much as it used to.”
Connery, then, was Steven Spielberg’s first choice for who should play Indiana Jones’ father. But once again Connery was reluctant to take on a character. He told the magazine, “I was rather disappointed [when I first read the script]. When I voiced my reservations about it, [Spielberg] was, I think, a bit surprised.”
But of course Connery did do the movie – and he enjoyed it, too. The actor told Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine, “I think the essence of the fun for me is the pleasure. The greatest pleasure is when the whole team is working and then what you’re all trying to do works. When a film set is harmonious and everybody has the same similar intention and goal, it’s terrific.”
In the same interview, Connery yet again considered the future of his career, adding that at this point in time, he still enjoyed acting. The star said, “As long as I still have that there I’m perfectly happy working. The day I wouldn’t have that enthusiasm or that sort of appetite, then I will look in another direction,”
And in the end, Connery did appear to lose his passion for acting. The filming of his last movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, was by all accounts a disaster. Connery had in fact turned down roles in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings, so he apparently didn’t want to miss out another huge hit. However, this plan certainly didn’t go smoothly.
Yet Connery was an executive producer on the film, so he was allowed to make changes to his character, Allan Quartermain. In the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel by Alan Moore, for instance, Quartermain was an opium addict – but Connery refused to have that aspect included in the movie.
What’s more, Connery and director Stephen Norrington reportedly fought for creative control of the film. And at one point an alleged fight over a prop gun led to Norrington closing down the set for the day and almost coming to physical blows with the actor. Rumors then spread that Connery, not Norrington, was editing the film – although that turned out to be a lie.
In the end, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a critical flop upon its 2003 release. It received the very low score of 17 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the review aggregator website. Yes, famed film critic Roger Ebert said the film was full of “inexplicable motivations” and “general lunacy.”
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen essentially marked the end of Connery’s acting career. And in June 2006, while being awarded the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award, he announced that he was retired. People had been holding out hope that he might appear in a fourth Indiana Jones movie, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Elsewhere, in 2008 Connery gave a very blunt interview with GQ in which he slammed the whole movie industry. The star said he was “fed up of dealing with f***ing idiots” – and there was more. The actor added, “For years there has been a widening gap between people who can make films and people who can’t. Too many people are afraid to say, ‘I don’t know.’ They get in and out quick and too many don’t know what they are doing.”
In the same interview, Connery said it had been “a hard decision” to not do another Indiana Jones movie with Spielberg. He explained, “There wasn’t really a good story to tell about the father this time around.” But he added, “It was great to see [Harrison Ford] in action again, and the movie had some wonderful effects. I don’t think [Spielberg] can make a bad film.”
Connery also spoke about the newest actor to play Bond, Daniel Craig. This came after the interviewer suggested that Craig’s Bond was considered to be “something of a return to the glory days of the Connery era.” Then the actor replied, “That’s quite flattering because the last film was terrific, and [Craig] did an absolutely marvellous job.”
In 2008 Connery also released an autobiography, Being a Scot, but it was sadly a flop. Ironically, Roger Moore, the actor who succeeded Connery in the role of James Bond – and whose performance Connery had criticized in the media – outsold the retired star with his book, My Word Is My Bond.
And Michael Caine, one of Connery’s best friends, told The Telegraph in 2011 that he assumed the actor would never return to movies. The former said, “I phoned him the other day, but we never see each other because he doesn’t move around a lot now. He won’t make another film now. I just asked him. He said, ‘No, I’ll never do it.’”
However, Connery actually did star in another film in 2012. It was titled Sir Billi, or Guardian of the Highlands, and it was Scotland’s first CGI movie animation. Connery provided the voice of the title character, a skateboarding veterinarian who sets out to save Scotland’s last beaver.
However, Sir Billi also didn’t do well – to put it mildly. It actually ended up being released in only three cinemas across Britain. Variety declared that the film “lacks the looks or charm of even the most rudimentary CG offerings being made today, as if not only the animation but also the plot and characters were spat out by off-the-shelf software.”
Connery does still pop up in the news these days, but in relation to politics, rather than acting. You see, when the U.K. was undergoing a referendum in 2014, the actor campaigned for Scottish independence. The media was quick to point out, however, that Connery didn’t actually live in Scotland anymore.
But will Connery ever return to acting? He did announce, while the fourth Indiana Jones was in production in 2007, that he was tempted to play Henry Jones once more but that “retirement is just too much damned fun.” And to be fair, he never seemed to give the impression that acting was all that enjoyable.