It’s an unusual sight for James Bond fans. Standing in a gloriously green Technicolor field by a California stream intended to pass for Ireland, Sean Connery cuts a more rugged approximation of Walt Disney masculinity, taking breaks between a swing of his scythe to sing, “She’s my dear, my darling one, my smilin’ and beguilin’ one, I love the ground she walks upon my darling Irish girl.”
To be charitable, Connery’s attempt at an Irish lilt was no more convincing in 1959’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People than it would be three decades later for his Oscar winning turn in The Untouchables. Nevertheless, there was something charming, beguiling even, about both performances, with the musical one proving strangely important to Connery getting the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007.
That might be in large part because Dr. No producer Cubby Broccoli anticipated Fleming, like many in the British press, would have a distinctly negative opinion about Connery playing James Bond. While both Connery and the fictional 007 character served in the Royal Navy and boasted a natural athleticism, Bond received a formal education at a boarding school and the University of Geneva (also where Fleming happened to study); Connery was working class from Edinburgh, Scotland, having worked as among other things a milkman, a coffin-polisher, and a ditch digger to make ends meet.
The “ditch digger” element stuck in Fleming’s mind, who allegedly still referred to Connery as such in 1961. He certainly called Connery an “overgrown stuntman” instead of Commander Bond. Yet there was something about Connery that was instantly winning, whether in a tuxedo or in the perhaps more honest image of a scythe-swinging farmer, modest singing voice and all.
That was clearly Cubby Broccoli’s conclusion after considering the six-foot and two-inch Scotsman again while screening Darby O’Gill in Los Angeles. Broccoli had previously met Connery while the young actor was filming Another Time, Another Place (1958), a movie where Connery reportedly physically disarmed a real-life gangster when he started waving around a gun on set. Broccoli liked Connery, as did Terrence Young, who would direct the first-ever theatrical James Bond picture, Dr. No.
So Broccoli sat down one day in a private screening room in LA to watch Connery’s Walt Disney debut. In that picture, Connery plays Michael McBride, a strapping young lad who has eyes for his “darling Irish girl,” Katie O’Gill (Janet Munro). It’s a supporting role to a film about leprechauns and banshees, pots of gold and ghostly carriages headed for the afterlife. It’s a Gaelic folktale given the Disney treatment.
And in it, as per John Cork and Bruce Scivally’s James Bond The Legacy, Broccoli “thought he saw something worthwhile.” So he reached out to his wife Dana Broccoli and asked if this Connery fellow had much sex appeal. The obvious answer was “yes.” It was Dana who encouraged Cubby to cast Connery as 007. Connery had that effect. Although what apparently sealed the deal was another meeting with Harry Saltzman present. After the meeting, as Saltzman and Broccoli watched Connery cross the street from their window, Saltzman observed, “[He moves] like a big jungle cat.”
Of course Connery went on to define coolness and sophisticated masculinity for the next several generations. Still the only James Bond in millions of fans’ eyes, Connery brought to life Fleming’s suave but chilly 007, and he added a boyish sense of humor and smoothed over his working class edge. Whereas the James Bond of the page had the finest opinions on all the finest things in life, Connery’s Bond implicitly earned them from hard experiences, if not hard-living.
The actual refinement, however, owes as much to Young as Fleming. For the director of three of Connery’s six Broccoli and Harry Saltzman-produced Bond adventures actually lived some of the fabulousness those movies traded in. Like the literary Commander Bond, Young served in the Second World War, albeit as a tank commander instead of a naval one. Young was wounded twice, and after the service embraced a taste for adventure and fine living. The director was notorious for picking directorial projects that would give him the most jet-setting international travel. Even when Young wasn’t working he lived in Switzerland while keeping apartments in Rome, Paris, and London.
With the casting of Connery, Young took the Scottish actor under his wing. It was Young who introduced Connery to the legendary Turnbull & Asser to select custom designed shirts and turnback cuffs (better for quickly undressing); it was also Young who had his personal tailor Anthony Sinclair cut all of Connery’s Dr. No suits; and Young accompanied Connery to all the finest restaurants in London’s Mayfair area, teaching the younger man how to order wine, judge champagne, and move through such crowds.
Some would unfairly argue Connery impersonated Young’s style when creating Bond’s. However, it would be more accurate to say he blended it into his own rough edges—the same edge that snobs in the press (or in the skepticisms of Bond’s creator) fretted over. Rather than being born with a silver spoon, Connery’s 007 seems to have earned it, and knows how to brandish it with a singular balance of humor and ruthlessness. No actor who has worn 007’s tuxedo has ever come so close again.
The combination also impressed Fleming, to the point that in his penultimate Bond novel, and the last published in his lifetime, the author revealed 007’s father was Scottish and from Glencoe, and that Bond attended boarding school at Fettes College in Edinburgh—after he was kicked out of the English Eton College because of “girl trouble” with a maid. Even today, Connery’s legacy lingers over Daniel Craig’s 21st century Bond, both in the off screen imagination and the on screen canon, with Skyfall revealing Bond’s ancestral home was in the Scottish Highlands.
Not bad for a humble singer in a Walt Disney movie. Which, by the by, still makes Connery also the best of the singing Bonds.