Sir Sean Connery’s tough upbringing before achieving 007 fame

E.L. Hamilton
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The first James Bond, Scotland’s Greatest Living National Treasure, People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of the 20th Century,” knighted in the year 2000: In contrast with all the amazing accolades he achieved, Sir Sean Connery overcame some pretty humble beginnings.

Thomas Sean Connery was born in Edinburgh in 1930 to a cleaning woman and a lorry driver, who frequently spent the few shillings he earned on drink.

The boy’s first bed was the bottom drawer of a dresser (a not uncommon solution back in the day); the family’s flat didn’t have electricity or hot water. He had one brother, Neil, eight years his junior.

Connery during filming for “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971. Photo by Mieremet, Rob / Anefo – Nationaal Archief CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Their neighborhood was known as the “street of a thousand smells” thanks to the pervasive stench of the local paper mills and breweries.

“We were very poor,” Connery has said, “but I never knew how poor because that’s how everyone was there.” Called Tommy as a youth and Big Tam as a 6’2’’ teenager, Connery left school at age 12 and earned a pound a week at his first job delivering milk.

Connery in 2004 at a Tartan Day celebration in Washington D.C. with members of the USAF Reserve Pipes and Drums

Connery served in the Royal Navy for three years, though he was discharged on medical grounds with ulcers. While in the Navy, he did acquire two sentimental tattoos: “Scotland Forever” and “Mum and Dad.”

After his stint in the Navy, Connery held a variety of odd jobs. In addition to returning to the milk-delivery co-op, he worked as a lifeguard, a bricklayer, an artist’s model, and a coffin polisher.

Sean Connery, British actor, wearing a red-and-black jumper and a white shirt, circa 1960. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Reaching his full stature at an early age, Connery was into physical activity. He started bodybuilding at age 18, trained seriously, and even entered the “tall man” division of the Mr. Universe contest, coming in third.

He was so skilled playing soccer (that is, football in the UK) that a scout from Manchester United spotted him and offered him a chance to compete professionally.

Connery turned down the opportunity because he saw that soccer players rarely played past age 30 and he considered himself already “old” at 23.

Sean Connery at the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival. Photo by Stuart Crawford CC BY-SA 3.0

Connery’s first job in the theater was back stage, an experience that whetted his appetite for acting. He auditioned for and won a small role in the chorus of a production of South Pacific at the Drury Lane Theater in London.

It was then that he became Sean Connery, rather than Tommy.

Connery and his wife, Micheline Roquebrune, in 1983. Photo by: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo – Nationaal Archief CC BY-SA 3.0 nl

Over the course of a couple of years in the production, he rose in role ranks, eventually landing the lead. During this time he also met the actor Michael Caine, with whom he’d have a life-long friendship.

He was still having such a hard time earning a living as an actor, however, that he also worked as a babysitter.

Sean Connery in 1999. Photo by Georges Biard CC BY SA 3.0

The late 1950s saw Connery in a number of mostly minor roles in British TV and film. His big break was landing the iconic role of Bond, James Bond, in the first movie in what would turn out to be an extremely lucrative spy-thriller franchise: Dr. No. (As agent 007, Connery, who’d begun going bald in his 20s, always wore a hairpiece.) Sequels followed almost immediately, setting Connery’s star in Hollywood’s firmament.

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As it happens, Bond’s creator, the novelist Ian Fleming, was not keen on Connery in the role at first. “He’s not what I envisioned,” Fleming reportedly said.

Sean Connery feigns shoving a vanilla ice cream cone in retired Lt. Col. Charles Russhon’s face during the production of “Thunderball.”

The author complained that Connery reminded him of an “overgrown stunt-man.” But both Fleming’s wife and the producer’s wife managed to convince their husbands that Connery was the right man for the part.

It was during the Bond years that Connery met and married Diane Cilento, with whom he had a son, Jason.

They were divorced in 1973. Connery then married Micheline Roquebrune two years later, with whom he still lives today.

Connery at the 1988 Academy Awards

Though he inhabited the Bond persona, Connery became tired of being defined by 007. He took on other serious parts with prestigious directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma.

His role in 1987’s The Untouchables won him his only Academy Award, for Supporting Actor. He made indelible contributions to such hit films as the Indiana Jones series and The Hunt for Red October.

An obsessive golfer, Connery owned a chateau in Provence, France, for 20 years, hoping to build a golf course on its surrounding acreage; he sold it to a German developer who finally realized the golfer’s dream.

Connery starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie

Connery officially retired from acting after his last film, 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, although he lent his voice to the animated film Sir Billi in 2012.

Related story from us: Young Sean Connery earned the respect of a notorious Edinburgh gang by beating up six of its members at once

Now 88, he rarely makes public appearances, although he did attend last summer’s U.S. Open and is sometimes seen strolling the streets of New York City with the help of a caregiver, a long, long way from a dresser drawer in a cold flat on a stench-imbued corner of Scotland.

E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City