His decades as a superspy may end with 'Russia House'

SEAN CONNERY: THE SCREEN'S COLD WARRIOR

January 06, 1991|By Bob Strauss | Bob Strauss,Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles

It's a classy way to end an era.

Sean Connery, the screen's embodiment of ultimate Cold Warrior James Bond, stars in what may be the last Cold War espionage movie, "The Russia House."

Based on John le Carre's best-selling novel, this cerebral,

post-glasnost spy story dispenses with most of the devices that earmarked the Bond films Mr. Connery initiated: excessive action, titillating eroticism, high-tech heroics.

Instead, it's a very adult kind of story, more concerned with mature emotions and conflicting motives than with superspy shenanigans.

It's also the first all-Western production filmed extensively in the Soviet Union. This was territory Mr. Connery knew better than most English-speaking actors, having previously worked there (with "Russia House" producer Paul Maslansky) on the 1971 Soviet/Italian co-production "The Red Tent."

Now in the midst of a career resurgence that has surpassed his 1960s Bond-driven stardom, Mr. Connery is receiving some of his best notices ever for "Russia House's" dissolute, deceptive but deep-down-decent Barley Blair, a boozy English publisher who becomes a pawn of British and American intelligence agents when a Russian dissident sends him an arms-race-shattering manuscript.

Mr. Connery expresses Blair's pickled sarcasm with masterly economy. "Sean's a genius at reduction," said actor Richard Harris, who co-starred with Mr. Connery in the 1970 coal-miner drama "The Molly Maguires." "He knows exactly how much to give to the camera, and that makes him the best film actor of our day."

The 60-year-old Mr. Connery shrugs off such lavish praise. "One should not be concerned about appearing not to be too smart," is all the Scottish actor cared to say about his technique.

Born in the Edinburgh slums, Thomas Connery joined the British navy at 15. After his discharge, he held a series of odd jobs ranging from lifeguard to coffin polisher.

By the early '50s, he was getting attention in bodybuilding competitions. Changing his name to Sean, he made some side money modeling, acting on the London stage and making sporadic appearances in British movies and TV shows for the rest of the decade.

It is said that Mr. Connery was supporting himself by delivering milk in 1962, when he was cast in the first James Bond movie, "Dr. No." Ian Fleming's fictional secret agent had a loyal paperback following, but no one expected that a preposterous film about missile hijackings and secret international crime cartels would trigger the most lucrative film series in history.

Much of "Dr. No's" success was due to Mr. Connery's winning portrayal of the pulp hero. Suave one moment, savage the next, as cunning with women as he was when getting out of inescapable traps, Mr. Connery's Bond was a sophisticated superman, a fantasy figure every Western man could aspire to be.

"From Russia With Love," "Goldfinger," "Thunderball," "You Only Live Twice" and "Diamonds Are Forever" made Mr. Connery an international icon. But he wanted to be a serious actor, and by the early '70s his close identification with the Bond persona had become inhibiting. Mr. Connery turned 007's license to kill over to Roger Moore and embarked on a series of career-stretching projects.

He was a sadistic police investigator in "The Offense" (1973), a futuristic barbarian-genius in John Boorman's fantastical "Zardoz" (1974), a Berber war chief in John Milius' "The Wind and the Lion," and a colonial adventurer who ascends to godlike status among a remote Afghan tribe in John Huston's celebrated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King" (both 1975).

Then a series of mediocre films began tarnishing Mr. Connery's star status. He kept working steadily, but it was clear that things were not turning out the way he'd hoped they would when, in 1983, Mr. Connery once again took up the 007 designation in "Never Say Never Again." It was a commercially successful but mechanical remake of "Thunderball."

The actor's renaissance began in 1987, when he won a supporting actor Oscar for playing a pragmatic Irish cop in Brian De Palma's big-screen version of "The Untouchables." Despite a few slips since then ("The Presidio," "Family Business"), Mr. Connery's prestige and bankability has snowballed since.

Effortlessly stealing the megahits "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "The Hunt for Red October" from co-stars like Harrison Ford and the world's scariest submarine, Mr. Connery proved once and for all that star power and acting excellence need not be mutually exclusive.

He admitted, however, that his commercial instincts are not necessarily the sharpest.

"Before 'Red October' was released, I was concerned that the mood of the times had outpaced the material. I felt that the idea of the Cold War, the submarines and all of that, had virtually missed the boat. But the filmmakers pulled it forward, the film's ,, made $120 million, so they were right and I was wrong."

Mr. Connery's next big feature (after a small role in the forthcoming "Highlander II") will be "Red October" director John McTiernan's "The Last Days of Eden," set in the Amazon rain forest.

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