CREDIT: BOB PENN/SYGMA/SYGMA VIA GETTY IMAGES
Sean Connery played many parts over his six-decade career. A Berber warrior (who happened to speak with a Gallic burr) in 1975’s The Wind and the Lion. Eliot Ness’ right-hand man in The Untouchables (which won him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1988). An aging art thief in 1999’s Entrapment (who ends up stealing Catherine Zeta-Jones’ heart). But, of course, the role that Connery will most be remembered for — the one that put his ruggedly handsome face on the pop culture Mt. Rushmore of the 1960s — was the guy named Bond, James Bond.
Connery died overnight in his sleep at the age of 90 in the Bahamas, the BBC reported Saturday, noting that he had apparently been unwell for some time. He played 007 in six official films, starting with 1962’s Dr. No and ending with 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. But nobody since has done it better, at least according to the one doing it now. “Sean Connery nailed it from the beginning,” Daniel Craig told EW in 2006. “Bond’s single-mindedness. His toughness. His ruthlessness. He wasn’t infallible, but he always knew the answer, always new exactly what to do in any situation. And he always knew how to wear a suit. He pulled it all off with such glamour. And that’s really the essence of the character. Always has been.”
As it happens, Connery was not everyone’s first pick to play Bond. Author Ian Fleming wanted David Niven, while one suit at MGM wired the producers, “Do not care for Connery… we can do better.” There was certainly nothing in Connery’s background that hinted he’d be good at playing a suave secret agent. His mother was a cleaning woman and his father a factory worker; Connery’s early career in Edinburgh, Scotland, included gigs as a lorry diver and coffin polisher. Prior to playing Bond, what few on-screen credits he did have — like a leading role in the 1959 English leprechaun comedy Darby O’Gill and the Little People — hardly seemed preparation for playing what would become the most durable action hero of the 20th century.
But from his first moment on screen in Dr. No, when Connery lit a cigarette at a Baccarat table and introduced his character last name first, he defined James Bond. Much of the sophistication he brought to the role came from the tutelage of Dr. No director Terrence Young, who famously instructed Connery on the joys of fine dining and custom tailoring. But Connery understood the essence of the character right from the start. “Whatever Bond does, he has to appear to have a reasonable intelligence,” he explained to EW in 1995. “He has to be graceful and move well. He has to be a dangerous person. He has to have a certain measure of charm. And he has to make it all look effortless.”
That effortlessness became more difficult to achieve as Connery continued with the role through the 1960s, in movies like From Russia With Love and Goldfinger. (Little known fact: Connery was not a fan of the Aston Martin sports car that all but became his costar in Goldfinger. “I just didn’t think it was anything special,” he told EW). Tensions with coproducer Cubby Broccoli, mostly over money, contributed to Connery’s decision to leave the role after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, although he would slip back into 007’s tuxedo once again for 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, and Sony’s unofficial 1983 Thunderball remake, Never Say Never.
Bond producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli said in a statement Saturday they were “devastated” by the news of Connery’s death. “He was and shall always be remembered as the original James Bond whose indelible entrance into cinema history began when he announced those unforgettable words — “The name’s Bond… James Bond” — he revolutionized the world with his gritty and witty portrayal of the sexy and charismatic secret agent. He is undoubtedly largely responsible for the success of the film series and we shall be forever grateful to him.”
Connery’s choices after Bond weren’t always winners. As Zed in the 1974 apocalyptic sci-fi movie Zardoz, he traded the tux for a space-age cod piece. But over time he carved out a post-007 resume that kept him at the top of the A-list for decades. Along with prestige parts in big ensemble pieces (1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, 1977’s A Bridge Too Far), he took on major roles in plum Hollywood productions, like 1975’s Kipling-inspired adventure The Man Who Would Be King (playing a power-mad soldier of the British Raj), and 1976’s Robin and Marian (playing an aging Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian). Even as he settled into his 60s, when big roles tend to dry up for balding action heroes, he still commanded above-the-title parts in big tentpoles. He played Indiana Jones’ dad in 1989’s The Last Crusade, a Russian submarine captain in the 1990 Tom Clancy mystery The Hunt for Red October, Wesley Snipes’ “sempai” in 1993’s Rising Sun, and a master escape artist in the 1996 Alcatraz thriller The Rock.
There might have been a couple more super-size parts in Connery’s final act, but he famously turned down Morpheus in The Matrix, as well as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. “I didn’t understand them,” he explained to EW on the set of 2003’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which turned out to be the last live-action movie Connery would make. He announced his retirement from acting in 2005, and spent his remaining years at his home in the Bahamas, writing his autobiography, Being a Scot, which was published in 2008.
Connery, it’s worth noting, had died once before. In 1993, a false obituary was published in Japan. It was picked up by a South African newspaper, then bounced over to Europe, where a French radio station beamed the report across much of the continent. “My wife’s friend was in Belgium and nearly fell out of bed when she heard,” Connery said. “She phoned up our house in a panic. My wife told her, ‘Dead? Oh no. He’s just out playing golf.’”