007/ 50: “My name’s Bond, James Bond” #1 ~ Connery and Eon’s Bond begins (1962)
“I admire your luck, Mr…?”: luck had nothing to do with it, the casting of rough, tough Scotsman Sean Connery as 007 in the first significant James Bond film Dr No was a stroke of calculated genius – even if it certainly didn’t appear to be a trump move at the time
On October 5 1962, a critical, pivotal event took place, something that would ensure the cultural zeitgeist – if not the entire world itself – would never be the same again. For it was on this day that the cinematic James Bond was arguably born, with the world premiere of the first Eon-produced 007 film adventure Dr No being staged at the salubrious Odeon Cinema in London’s ritzy Leicester Square.
And rolling up at the venue that evening (surely the biggest night of his professional life to date) was the man who was playing the British superspy himself, Sean Connery. If anything was likely to prove a fly – nay, a scary, creepy-crawly tarantula – in the big-screen Bond’s ointment before he’d really got begun then, by rights, it should have been Connery. To many an observer at the time, his casting as the three-dimensional incarnation of author Ian Fleming’s hero had raised more than a Roger Moore-style eyebrow. Why? Because – and, as we’re talking about Sean Connery here, it almost seems impossible to contemplate this – the Big Tam was a nobody. He’d been plucked from relative obscurity to lead a $1million-budgeted Anglo-Hollywood action adventure; it was a big risk with bells on and it could have gone tits up. But, of course, it didn’t.
Indeed, unquestionably the casting of Connery was one of the reasons why Dr No went on to become such a box-office triumph, setting the whole 007 tyre-slashing Aston Martin wheel in motion. But given his lack of standing in the movie business, how on earth did he land the role? And given his relative lack of leading man acting experience, how come was he such an instant, indubitable success? This, my friends (the latest post in this blog’s continuing series celebrating the movie Bond‘s 50th anniversary), is that story.
Connery primarily owed his casting – and, arguably, success – as James Bond to three men: Dr No‘s producers Albert R ‘Cubby’ Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, and its director Terence Young, but certainly not to the character’s original literary creator Ian Fleming. When the latter heard the Scot had landed the role, he apparently dismissed him as an ‘overgrown stuntman’. He would eventually reverse this opinion, but taking a look at Connery’s credentials you can understand where his priggish, even snobbish stance came from.
Hailing from the hard, working-class Edinburgh neighbourhood of Fountainbridge, Thomas Connery had earned his nickname ‘Big Tam’ by, well, growing bigger and taller than anyone else. Unsurprisingly, aged just 18 he’d begun body-building and by 21 had competed in the Mr Universe competition. Vocation-wise, he’d had odd-jobs as a lorry driver (his dad’s profession), a milkman, a boxer, a lifeguard, a coffin polisher, an artists’ nude model and he’d enjoyed/ endured a stint as a seaman in the Royal Navy. He eventually discovered his true calling when he helped out backstage at Edinburgh’s Kings Theatre and then won a small chorus line role in a touring production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. It was during this tour that, while playing football against a provincial town team, he famously caught the eye of Manchester United’s legendary manager Matt Busby, who supposedly offered him a £25 a week contract with the club. Connery turned it down; it was an actor’s life for him now.
Bit-parts in British films followed (for which he adopted the stage name Sean, actually his middle name), including the Stanley Baker vehicular vehicle Hell Drivers and Action Of The Tiger (both 1957), the latter of which, like Dr No, was directed by Terence Young. The following year he landed a major role in Paramount Pictures’ melodrama Another Time, Another Place opposite Hollywood actress Lana Turner, with whom he had a brief affair and the result of which was fisticuffs (won by Connery) with Turner’s gun-wielding boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato – who just happened to be a heavy working for LA gangster Mickey Cohen.
Mixing it up, Connery’s next starring role was as far away as anything from demonstrating a hard-man persona; it was in the Disney Irish whimsy-themed musical Darby O’Gill And The Little People (1959), in which he not only sang, but also played opposite leprechauns. And as the ’50s slipped into the ’60s, he took on Classical roles, featuring prominently in British TV productions of Anna Karenina (1960) and Shakespeare’s Henry IV (1960) and Macbeth (1961).
So far so good. Connery was slowly but surely building up a catalogue of work that could have resulted in him becoming a recognisable face on UK TV; a tough guy who’d escaped the rough and ready streets of Scotland’s capital for the respectability of the jobbing actor. What happened next, of course, changed all that. Having signed a contract with film studio Twentieth Century Fox, which he soon discovered had merely left him on the shelf like so many Hollywood hopefuls who’d done the same (his biggest role thanks to this contract was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance in 1962’s war epic The Longest Day), his agents earned their corn like never before – and surely like never since – when they set him up for a meeting with two gentlemen named Broccoli and Saltzman.
Big Tam and ex-pats: an on-set Connery confers with Bond creator Ian Fleming (l) and goofs around with Fleming’s Jamaican neighbour and one-time possible Dr No, Noël Coward (r)
The Italian-American Broccoli, formerly a New York lawyer, and the Quebec-hailing Canadian Saltzman, who liked to see himself as something of a cinematic showman, had already been in the movie business for years, albeit working separately. In 1961 they came together and formed Eon Productions, a company set up specifically to make film versions of the Bond novels (their Danjaq company – named after both men’s wives, Dana and Jaquie – was set up as a holding company for the films’ intellectual properties).
Broccoli had previously co-founded and run Warwick Films with producer Irving Allen. Warwick was based in London and used many British film professionals as crew-members on its movies (such as future Bond alumni Terence Young, screenwriter Richard Maibaum, cinematographer Ted Moore and stuntman/ stunt arranger Bob Simmons) in order smartly to save money and, thus, well, make more money. Turning out the likes of the Rita Hayworth starrer Fire Down Below (1957), Warwick was finally sunk by the box-office turkey that was The Trials Of Oscar Wilde (1960) – its accurate, but controversial homosexual themes ensuring early ’60s American censorship killed its publicity. Broccoli then was soon looking for a new Britain-based opportunity. He didn’t have to look very far.
Harry Saltzman had moved his family to Britain to further his career as a theatre producer and had quickly entered the film business. In then forming Woodfall Film Productions with dynamic young director Tony Richardson (who would go on to direct 1963’s Best Picture Oscar winner Tom Jones and marry Vanessa Redgrave) and leader of the ‘Angry Young Men’ playwrights John Osbourne, Saltzman had played a spear-heading role in launching the ‘kitchen sink’ genre of late ’50s/ early ’60s UK cinema – he personally produced both the acclaimed Look Back In Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). Yet, always ambitious, he had wanted to make films that would turn a bigger profit and in 1961 he was sure he had found just the vehicle.
Having read Ian Fleming’s 1959 Bond novel Goldfinger, he had become convinced 007 was what he was looking for. Despite notorious legal disputes arising from an aborted screen-treatment for a big-screen Bond adventure knocked up by Fleming, fellow writer Jack Whittingham and eccentric film producer Kevin McClory (which saw the latter two gang up on the former when he turned the treatment into the 1961 novel Thunderball with no formal credit to either of them – read more on that here), Saltzman approached Fleming to buy the film rights of all his novels. The author assuaged and Saltzman got what he wanted (with one or two limitations), albeit for a mere six-month option and at a very pricey $500,000; always the gambler, though, he was confident he could get a first film set up within that half-year window.
- One evening before Dr No‘s premiere, the first broadcast took place of ITV’s classic spy-fi series The Saint (1962-68), starring, of course, one Roger Moore
- On the exact same day as the Dr No premiere, The Beatles’ very first single Love Me Do went on sale in the UK
- Just nine days after the premiere, the Cuban Missile Crisis began, which saw the United States and the Soviet Union come perilously close to tumbling into nuclear war, only for both to blink at the last moment – in a sort of ‘life imitates art’ manner, Dr No’s evil plan aimed to accelerate the tensions between the US and USSR and push them to nuclear war
In actual fact, Broccoli too had been interested in pursuing Bond as a big-screen project, but Irving Allen had maintained that the character and his adventures weren’t even good enough for television (Fleming’s first novel, 1953’s Casino Royale, had been adapted into a one-hour TV drama in 1954, which had been pretty forgettable) – Allen had even met with Fleming and snubbed both him and the opportunity to buy the rights for Warwick Films. But now Warwick was no more and, thanks to a meeting with legendary screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, Broccoli learned Saltzman had bought the rights and approached him. Call it destiny, call it kismet, call it a fait accompli… call it what you will: Saltzman, the relative filmmaking novice with the ‘outside of the box’ thinking, was a natural fit with Broccoli, the hard-nosed and relatively successful industry insider; the former not willing to sell any part of the 007 rights to the latter, they agreed to put Bond on the silver screen together and, yes, chose to adapt the 1958 novel Dr No as their new company, Eon’s first.
And, in one of their canniest moves, Broccoli and Saltzman gathered around them a crew of filmmakers especially familiar to the former from his previous projects, including (as mentioned) Maibaum, Moore, Simmons and – most significantly for this tale – Young. For it was thanks to their masterstroke of hiring Terence Young as helmer of the film that the leading actor they cast as Bond went on not just to play the role, but truly inhabit it.
Speculation, wishful-thinking and, quite frankly, myth-making has been at work since the very beginning on who could have, was in the frame to and ‘should’ have played Bond. Word has it Fleming had always favoured his friend David Niven, who gets a mention in the 1964 novel You Only Live Twice as ‘the only decent man in Hollywood’ and would play one of several Bonds in 1967’s crazy spoof comedy version of Casino Royale, which ironically was co-scripted by Wolf Mankowitz. He was also apparently keen on Cary Grant – supposedly the latter would only commit to one film rather than a potential series, but surely in the end Broccoli and Saltzman would have concluded he was too old by 1962 anyway. Other names that have been bandied about include later Bond Roger Moore,who was committed to TV’s The Saint (1962-68), Patrick McGoohan on the strength of his spy drama series Danger Man (1960-68) and – rather unlikely, yet given the number of times he’s admitted to it in public, it’s probably true – future BBC newscaster Peter ‘Swingometer’ Snow auditioned too.
Apparently, Broccoli and Saltzman even ran a ‘Find James Bond’ contest in an attempt to cast the role (so the story goes, a model named Peter Anthony won this competition, the producers liking a Gregory Peck-esque quality to him), but ultimately this wasn’t how they found their man. As noted, it was through a conventional agent-set-up meeting that they met and auditioned Connery. Yet, by rights, the latter should have blown his chance here before he even got started on the gig.
An actor of little leading man experience on the screen, Connery ‘put on an act’ in the meeting – displaying an air of nonchalance; even tough-guy devil-may-care. That may have proved to work for him in media interviews for decades to come, but it was a definite gamble in clinching his first major film role. And yet it worked. Broccoli and Saltzman liked what they saw, heard and felt from him in that meeting. But apparently what sealed it was the way he walked; both felt his ‘cat-like’ gait (watch him move as Bond in the early films, it’s like a panther) as they watched him through the window of their Piccadilly office walk away down the street. This was their Bond, they decided.
Now enter Young. Although no doubt pleased to be working with a crew assembled from people familiar to him from his Warwick Films days, he wasn’t with the script. The producers had insisted on adapting Dr No as a detective-style adventure with science-fiction elements (almost playing down the espionage of the literary Bond, although admittedly there’s less of that in Dr No the novel than others), believing this would be the most palatable way to deliver an adaptation to the big-screen audience. Indeed, this may well have been one of the reasons they cast the ‘overgrown stuntman’ Connery – rather than perhaps a lither, David Niven-like, more Fleming-friendly actor – as their 007.
All the same, Young felt the script (having gone through several drafts already and a walk-out by Wolf Mankowitz) required more work still. Thus he charged credited screenwriters Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood and Berkely Maher to inject humour into the proceedings. In his eyes, to appeal truly to the audience, Bond needed not only to be burly, handsome and sexy, he also had to be witty, charismatic and charming – as much, if you will, Simon Templar as Richard Hannay.
This too meant Connery needed working on. The actor wasn’t a hack, far from it, but he wasn’t James Bond – certainly not Young’s vision of James Bond. So in the few short weeks before filming began, Young took Connery under his wing and introduced him to the rarefied world of tailoring (dressing him in the suits of Anthony Sinclair, his own tailor), London’s fine dining and how to move and speak like a gentleman (forbidding Connery to talk with his hands – a Young bête noir – and embellishing his cat-like walk, while softening his Scots accent to deliver the script’s witticisms).
Shooting the breeze and suiting you, sir: Broccoli chats with Dr No cast members John Kitzmiller, Sean Connery and Ursula Andress (l); Connery fitted for an Anthony Sinclair suit (r)
In fact, over the years, many have suggested that Connery’s Bond – or even Terence Young’s Bond – was Terence Young. He may be a cold-blooded killer, a man with a razor-sharp mind and an exuder of extreme confidence and unthinking bravery, but the Bond template established in Dr No is also unquestionably a man immaculately turned-out (the best possible Saville Row tailoring, never a hair out of place and minimum body movement), a true bon vivant (an enthusiast of the finest wine and food) and possessing the charm, wit and even superiority complex of an English gentleman.
You may be sceptical of Young’s domineering influence on Connery’s performance (given how much the actor has impressed in a variety of roles throughout his long career), but an insider of the calibre of the sadly departed Canadian actress Lois Maxwell – Miss Moneypenny herself – affirmed this was exactly how the director took the star-to-be in hand. She didn’t outright claim that Connery did a Terence Young impression (given Bond’s latent power, sexiness and at times brutality – that’s all Connery – he didn’t), but she didn’t get far from it.
And by the end of filming, a star-to-be Connery most certainly was. Dr No, with its fairly modest $1million budget, brilliantly inventive, nay unforgettable sets (designed by near genius Ken Adam, but partly made of cardboard) and relative unknown leading man and supporting cast, was genuine box-office boffo. Its worldwide gross of $59.6m (inflation adjusted: $440.8m) ensured it made monstrous profits for its producers and studio backer United Artists. And, of course, thanks to his performance and unquestioned screen magnetism, Connery very quickly became a bona fide moviestar.
It would, as we all know, only get better for him – and Broccoli and Saltzman. His five further Bond films – From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967) and Diamonds Are Forever (1971) – rang cinema tills to the colossal combined tune of $563m, making him and them very rich men. Well, actually them supposedly richer than him, which was definitely one of several bones of contention for the star as the series continued through the ’60s and Connery the man became practically indistinguishable from Bond the character in the mass public’s mindset. Eventually then, Broccoli and Saltzman were faced with having to pull off the seemingly impossible: cast someone else as James Bond.
But, as the negative doctor might say, no… no more – all that’s for another blog post, peeps…