Sean Connery: 10 greatest roles as screen icon dies aged 90

As the legendary actor dies, Ed Power runs through his best ever performances

Saturday 31 October 2020 15:18 GMT
The Independent runs through Sean Connery’s greatest screen roles
The Independent runs through Sean Connery’s greatest screen roles (Rex Features)

Cinema has lost a true icon with the death of Sean Connery. The actor, who has passed away aged 90, was the first and finest James Bond – a mercurial hero with dancing eyes and a dangerous smile.

Connery was also one of the few actors who could escape such an all-defining role with seeming effortlessness. Far from the peak of his career, Bond was merely a starting point as, through the decades that followed, he lit up the screen as a tough guy, a kindly monk, a space sorcerer in glowing orange cod-piece and Indiana Jones’s dad.

He was always playing Sean Connery in a way – and it was never less than irresistible. Here is a countdown of his 10 best performances (and yes, we have put all the Bonds together).

10. Finding Forrester (2000)

Connery’s penultimate Hollywood feature is a gently moving tale of a friendship between a JD Salinger-esque reclusive author (Connery) and a basketball player (Rob Brown) with aspirations to be a great writer. Gus Van Sant lays on the syrup and, in telling the story of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks with a streak of genius, the film feels like a retread of his Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. Nonetheless, Connery, about to turn 70, is wonderful as a man who has seen and done it all, that trademark gruffness suffused in melancholy.

9. Zardoz (1974)

Connery with man-bun and moustache in a surreal and very 1970s sci-fi epic directed by John Boorman? Who could resist? He spends much of the movie romping around in bright orange Y-fronts while the plot seems to have been stolen from the liner notes of a prog-rock record. Yet Connery is never less than compelling opposite Charlotte Rampling. She seems completely baffled. He, however, dives into the mania head first.

8. Time Bandits (1981)

Connery was, as already pointed out, often accused of playing variations of himself over and over. However, he radiates an unexpected charm as Greek king Agamemnon in Terry Gilliam’s surrealistic comedy about a young boy who finds himself hopscotching across the centuries. Essentially it’s Monty Python inventing Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – but Connery’s warm and respectful performance helps elevate the film above mere sci-fi eccentricity. Gilliam was chuffed to get him, too.

“Michael Palin and I wrote the script and there’s a scene with a Greek warrior when he’s defeated the Minotaur,” Gilliam would recall. “He pulled his helmet off and revealed himself to be none other than Sean Connery or ‘an actor of equal but cheaper stature’. That’s what was actually written in the script with no intention of ever getting Sean Connery.”

7. The Rock (1996)

Sean Connery in ‘The Rock’ (Rex)

One of the more ludicrous Nineties action movies and an example of Connery maintaining dignity as all around him are struggling to be heard over explosions and gunfire. The Rock is producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson and director Michael Bay with the pedal all the way to the floor. And it features the heavenly match-up of Connery and Nicolas Cage (before he had turned into a nostril-flaring self-parody).

Connery exudes seismic gruffness as a former SAS commander joining forces with Cage’s FBI special agent to liberate Alcatraz from marines gone rogue. His character is the only person to have ever escaped the island prison while a preposterous subplot has him mending fences with an estranged daughter. Absurd and gripping.

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6. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

“It IS you Junior!” Connery was just 12 years older than Harrison Ford when the two teamed up as father-and-son Henry and Indiana Jones. It’s a pairing forged in B-movie heaven and watching the two stars berate and nag one another while battling Nazis and pursuing the Holy Grail will never grow old. Connery had retired from acting by the time Spielberg came to make the ghastly Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in 2008 – and surely didn’t regret turning the director down.

5. The Hunt For Red October (1990)

Connery was on a roll in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was never more imperious than when playing a Soviet nuclear submarine captain in this pacy adaptation of the Tom Clancy bestseller. Granted, his Lithuanian accent leaves something to be desired. But nobody has ever looked as impressive in a fur hat with a USSR naval insignia as Connery does here. And he enjoys crackling chemistry with Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan, airlifted aboard Typhoon-class sub Red October as Connery and crew attempt to defect.

4. The Untouchables (1987)

Sean Connery in ‘The Untouchables’ (Rex)

An Irish cop with a Scottish accent proved a winning combination for Connery, who bagged a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Brian De Palma’s gangsters v G-men masterpiece. As you would want and expect from a De Palma film starring Robert De Niro as Al Capone, The Untouchables is completely over the top.  But there is style to its silliness and Connery is roaring on all cylinders as Jimmy Malone, mentor to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness. He also has the opportunity to deliver one of his finest ever monologues: “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.”

3. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Connery and Michael Caine are the perfect double act in John Huston’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling novella about two rogue soldiers from British India who try to pass themselves off as divine entities in a remote province of Afghanistan. Connery never looked more impressive on screen than when stomping about here in a pith helmet, with magnificent mutton chops. There’s a chilling conclusion, too, as his supposedly divine Daniel Dravot is revealed to have feet of clay and flesh that bleeds all too easily.

2. The Name of The Rose (1986)

Connery could go “small” as well as “big” in his acting and is sensational as a Franciscan friar with a streak of Sherlock Holmes. As William of Baskerville, he teams up with Christian Slater’s novice Adso of Melk to solve a murder mystery at an abbey in Northern Italy. Adapted from the Umberto Eco novel, the film poses deep questions about faith and morality, while functioning, too, as a thrilling whodunnit. And it wouldn’t have worked without Connery, excelling as a man of God negotiating the perils and contradictions of the mortal world.

1. Goldfinger (1964)

Sean Connery with Margaret Nolan in ‘Goldfinger’ (Rex)

More than 50 years on, Connery is still the definitive Bond and inheritors of the role are forever doomed to wrestle with his mould-setting performance. All his Bond movies were classics – with the possible exception of 1983’s non-canon Never Say Never Again – but the consensus is that Goldfinger is first among equals.

Connery’s genius was to combine menace with a twinkling Celtic wit. His Bond was a loaded weapon. Yet there was a wryness to his performance that told you that both spy and actor were in on the joke.

Sliding into Connery’s tuxedo, other actors would try and largely fail to combine the deadliness with the humour, typically erring too far one way or the other. When we think of James Bond this is what we think of: Sean Connery ordering a martini, holding a Walther PPK double-action pistol or, as in Goldfinger, zipping around in an Aston Martin DB5. Wherever Connery is now, it’s tempting to imagine him back at the wheel, a knowing smile on his face, eyes narrowed toward the horizon. 

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