LOS ANGELES -- Sean Connery at 60 seems to relish the gag his colleague and fellow Britisher Michael Caine pulled on him at this year's United Kingdom Oscars. It's an affectionate spoof that required precise timing on Caine's part, geared to the sort of assignments that have become Connery's lot in advancing age.
Connery was there to accept the Life Time Achievement Tribute Award from the British Academy of Film & Television Arts. Caine caught up with him backstage and made a point of reminding Connery that during the past year Connery had played father-figure types to both Harrison Ford (in the third Indiana Jones thriller) and Dustin Hoffman (in "Family Business").
"So then Michael said to me," Connery recalled the other day in an interview, 'Y'know, Sean, if only y'd kept it up with the weight training, you could've gone on to play Arnold Schwarzenegger's father!'"
After his stint at James Bond, Connery might have gone on to play prior-generation support to any number of matinee-idols. But no, Connery has built a career upon the defiance of popular expectations, and so he followed through earlier this year as a Soviet military maverick in John McTiernan's enormously popular "The Hunt for Red October."
And now Connery comes forth as a thoroughly convincing romantic leading man to Michelle Pfeiffer in "The Russia House," an adaptation of the John le Carre espionage novel. The brainy espionage thriller is MGM/Pathe's best shot at cornering a hunk of the Christmas moviegoer market.
Opposite Pfeiffer, Connery is nobody's Dad. With the same authority we have seen in John Wayne, Vincent Price, Gregory Peck, James Stewart and Cary Grant, Connery has displayed an aggressive grace in aging on camera. The older, the more in control.
He dismisses his 1987 American Oscar -- for a supporting turn in Brian De Palma's "The Untouchables" -- as having been bestowed "for all my years of patience, I suppose. But I value that Oscar. It got people thinking, "Maybe the old duffer can act, after all.'
"I should like to believe that one improves at one's craft as one gets older," Connery added, measuring his words carefully before spilling them. "But whatever improvement that comes, that's a direct function of however much enthusiasm one is willing to invest in the craft.
"I haven't really measured the time I have spent at the craft. I call it a retention of enthusiasm. I know when it was I started [in the chorus of a 1951 London stage production of "South Pacific"] and when it was I began cracking the leading-man ranks [a good guy in "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" and a bad guy in "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure," both in '59], and I know how hard I am capable of working.
"But I know that I have felt sufficiently inspired by the material, generally, that I haven't been concerned with watching the clock and the calendar.
"The people who see James Bond," he added, citing the role that first brought him fame, "as the beginning of and the end of what I am capable of delivering -- well, that's their problem; it's not my problem."
"My next film is as yet untitled. [Screenwriter] Tom Schulman -- he's the fellow who wrote 'Dead Poets Society,' y'know -- is more concerned with getting the story right than with coming up with a catchy title that the studio heads would probably want changed anyway.
"But it's a story about a doctor -- that's my part -- who's on a research expedition into this jungle. Along comes a woman on a similar venture. They wind up getting involved more than professionally, out there in the jungle. We wind up a lot like Jane and Tarzan. I've always wanted to play at being Tarzan, so all that remains now is to see whether I can make such a portrayal work at this 'advanced' age of mine!"