Bond Bibles - Michael Feeney Callan
26th December 2022
Meet Michael Feeney Callan, the author of the definitive Connery biography
Ever since Ian Fleming wrote Casino Royale many authors and journalists have explored and celebrated the James Bond phenomenon. While some books have been official, large format publications, others have delved deeper into specific areas of the subject. In this new series Matthew Field will meet both high-profile writers as well as some of the world’s most knowledgeable “007” experts, who have contributed to the James Bond bibliography.
Michael Feeney Callan
Sean Connery: His Life And Films (W.H Allen, 1983)Revised as Sean Connery: The Untouchable Hero (Virgin Publishing, 1993) and as Sean Connery (Virgin Books, 2002).
To mark the release of MI6 Confidential’s Sean Connery: A James Bond Journey we talk to Michael Feeney Callan, who in 1983, penned, 'Sean Connery: His Life and Films', the first substantial biographical work to explore the life and work of the first cinematic James Bond. Family members, friends and co-stars contributed to this celebrated and intimate biography.
Callan, a self-confessed Ian Fleming aficionado, was born in Dublin and began his writing career as a poet. His early work was published in David Marcus’ New Irish Writing and in 1977 he won the Hennessy Literary Award for short fiction. After several plays for radio, Callan’s television drama debut was ‘The Burke Enigma’ (1978), a six-hour landmark production for RTE. In the early 1980s, Callan joined BBC television as a story editor. He wrote for series’ like ‘The Professionals’ and also adapted Frederick Forsyth stories for Mobil Showcase Network in the US. As a director, his credits include the documentary TV series, ‘My Riviera’, featuring among other Côte d'Azur residents, Roger Moore.
He is also the author of a number of novels and biographies including Julie Christie, Anthony Hopkins and Richard Harris. His 2011 book, Robert Redford: The Biography, written with Redford’s cooperation was a New York Times extended list bestseller. He is currently at work on a new group biography of the Beatles’ wives and girlfriends that explores the role of the muse in the evolution of popular culture. He is also updating a new edition of his Connery biography.
Mike, as a young man what inspired you to become a writer?
I had a respect through my dad for reading and writing. From a young age he got me into Jules Verne, John Buchan, James Joyce and H.G Wells and I developed a great curiosity about writing. I was selling stories and jokes to The Hotspur, which was a comic for boys, by the time I was 12. Poetry also enchanted me. So I had a diverse interest in literature.
Did you discover the Ian Fleming books around this time too?
Absolutely. Growing up, Fleming was the first writer who I really connected with, unquestionably because of the lure of the travel and adventure. I also recall how much I was taken by the business of endurance. It seemed to me Fleming’s Bond was a model of perseverance against the odds, which seemed to a teenage mind, a good life lesson. I read Dr. No first and immediately went back and read the earlier novels. For me the great magnet was the poetry. Chapter titles like ‘A Whisper of Love, A Whisper of Hate’ and ‘Death of a Pelican’ gave a good idea of the content, which was – is – the most elegant, burnished prose. Then I saw the movie 'Dr. No'. So it was the fateful collision of reading the novel and immediately seeing the film that really got me creatively flying and wanting to become a writer.
Many of the writers I have interviewed for this series have such vivid memories of going to see their first James Bond movie. Tell me your memory of seeing ‘Dr. No’ in Dublin...
I had a friend, Dermot Byrne, who is a writer in Calgary, Canada now, and as kids we were good at sneaking into movies [Laughs]. I remember we snuck into ‘Dr. No’, probably under age, just as the three blind men walked across the screen. That was enough to seduce me. And then Connery came on. I had seen him in ‘Darby O’Gill and the Little People’(1959), which was far more appropriate for my age, but when I saw him as Bond, especially the scene where he kills Professor Dent in cold blood, I thought, “That IS Ian Fleming!”
Fast forward 15 years and you are beginning to carve a career for yourself as a television writer. What was the genesis then for your book, Sean Connery: His Life and Films?
I had completed a six-part crime series, ‘The Burke Enigma’ (1978), for the Irish network RTE. I had written and published a bunch of poems, short stories and radio plays but this was my first TV script to go into production. I was on set and I got speaking with the great actor, Ray McAnally, who appeared in TV series like ‘The Avengers’ and movies like ‘The Mission’. He used to travel around in his own little van with his own makeup kit. You could sit in the back with him while he prepared for his day’s filming. One morning he challenged me on characterisation, “Mike, your narratives are good but you could do with more understanding of character.” I immediately thought, “Why don’t I try writing a biography?” The process, I reckoned, might help me explore psychology and develop a better understanding of human nature. You quickly learn of course that biography demands multi-discipline: so whether you like it or not you put in whatever psychoanalysis you can but then there’s the genealogical research, the culture context etc. But, at the start, this was a snap decision to explore one individual’s life, pure and simple. My first choice would have been Ian Fleming. But John Pearson had knocked that one out of the park with his terrific book – the definitive one in my view – ‘The Life of Ian Fleming’. Connery then jumped to mind because I loved what he did with his interpretation of Bond and I was genuinely intrigued by the dichotomy between his harsh Edinburgh background and the glamour of Bond. I wanted to know how that skill evolved, where his motivation and training came from.
You started the project in May 1979. Where did your research begin?
My journey began at the National Film Studios in Dublin, which later became Ardmore Studios. Incidentally, in 1986, I became part of a group that purchased Ardmore. Anyway, at the time, the director of the studios was my friend, Sheamus Smith, who had been there when Michael Crichton had made ‘The First Great Train Robbery’ (1978) which starred Sean. Sean and he became friends. Seamus told Sean I was bona fide, but Connery would not sit for an interview. However, Sean did say, “Look, he can do the fucking book but if he gets it wrong I’ll sue the pants off him.” So Seamus – and also John Boorman who directed ‘Zardoz’ (1974) and lived close to Ardmore Studios – became my conduits to Sean.
So tell me more about your research process...
It was about using whatever contacts I had to give me phone numbers and introductions. Arranging interviews takes a lot of time. You know this, Matthew, because you have been around this track many times. The agent I had at the time, Cecily Ware, got me introductions to people like directors Fred Zinnemann and Richard Lester and the actors Ian Bannen and Robert “Tim” Hardy, who were close to Sean. I would talk to actors I knew at the BBC who would then introduce me to others. So it was a domino scenario really. I would arrange to meet BBC actors in pubs around Shepherd’s Bush and then sit around all afternoon waiting for them to turn up. There were no mobile phones back then. It was always important to me to try and meet my interviewees in person, to be able to look into their pearly blues; I felt I got better material that way. There was always the thrill when you made a breakthrough, for example, when Michael Caine agreed to sit down and talk to me for two hours.
Can you remember whom you interviewed first?
Yes, Sean’s brother, Neil Connery. Seamus got his phone number from Sean.
It’s interesting that Connery, being such a private person, allowed you to contact family members…
Yes. For me, that was a kind of solid endorsement. I’m very grateful to Seamus and Sean for making that happen. However, Neil was cautious. I ended up having a string of conversations with him over a period of time. I only talked with him on the phone, I never met him, which I regret. He was so courteous to me, so insightful. I was straight with Neil and throughout the project he was always there for me. Neil made those two movies, ‘Operation Kid Brother’ (1967) and ‘The Body Stealers’ (1969) but he never had the intellectual curiosity to be an actor. Neil was a simple man; there was nothing pretentious about him. Neil spoke very honestly to me about the degree of Sean’s privacy and how separate they were in age and experience. There were some things I spoke with Neil about that I didn’t put in the book. For example, the actor Robert Henderson had let it slip that there was another brother in the Connery house when they were growing up. Sean’s mother had fostered a child, and Neil said that Sean would prefer if that situation were not discussed in the book. Sean did later mention it in a throw away statement in his own memoir, Being A Scot, which he wrote with Murray Grigor.
You mentioned there the American actor-director, Robert Henderson, who Connery appeared with in the stage production of ‘South Pacific’. Connery often talked about Henderson and championed him as an important mentor when he was starting out.
Robert Henderson was extraordinary. The extent of his career was a broad array of theatre credits, but speaking with him was like speaking with the Oracle. He was immensely well read and somewhat daunting to talk to unless you had a good grasp of the western canon of literature – Homer through Dante and Proust to Joyce. With Sean, he told me frankly, he had an immediate kind of paternal connection. He was Brooklyn born and had a “mean streets” background and, he said, he related to Sean’s tough upbringing in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh. Robert was an autodidact. According to him, when he first met Connery he wasn’t bookish at all. Henderson said, “I felt I was getting a primary school child.” The very first time I made contact with Henderson was a thrill because his wife, the English actress, Estelle Winwood, answered the phone and she would have been about 100 at the time. Winwood had also appeared in ‘Darby O ’Gill’ and said she remembered how pleasant Sean was and how much he wanted to succeed.
In the book you explore how Connery’s first wife, Diane Cilento, also challenged him intellectually...
Robert Henderson had been like this paternal figure and then Diane was almost a substitute maternal figure. You must remember when they met in 1957 she was already formally theatre-trained and had headlined in movies with esteemed directors like Lewis Gilbert [‘The Admirable Crichton’ (1957)]. She was something of a veteran. Sean was wet behind the ears. He was sporty and competitive by nature and, for sure, there was an intellectual competitiveness in that relationship from the very start. They got married a few months after ‘Dr No’. So Sean was fulfilled somewhat; he knew he had begun the ascent. But then Diane got her Academy Award nomination the following year, 1963, when Sean was making ‘From Russia With Love’. I think that really set his pants on fire and the inherent competitiveness went into overdrive. By her account, he consulted her about his acting in the early Bond days, and she advised and tutored him, much as Henderson had done.
Why did Sean Connery make such an impact on the world as James Bond? What was it about him?
Like every success formula, it was both simple and complex. Sean has repeatedly credited Terence Young and of course Fleming for co-creating screen Bond with him. But you have to look deeper. There was a deep intellectual awareness in the foundation of Connery’s Bond that owed itself to Henderson’s finessed guidance. Henderson had supplied him with a reading list, with emphasis on Chekhov’s short stories and Proust. It’s impossible to read Chekhov and Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ – the book Henderson pushed on Sean – and not have a better comprehension of Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ and how tragedy and drama work, how they evolved over almost three thousand years. That is the kind of conversation Henderson had with Sean when they engaged. So Sean was alert to the profound aspects of drama and how to create dramatic effect. Diane, of course, was also a big reader and when I spoke with her later, in the 1980s, she confirmed her role: that she essentially took the baton from Henderson and continued that speculative conversation with Sean about what makes good characterisations in drama – and how best to develop a full-rounded character. All this informed the creation of the screen character of James Bond in ‘Dr. No’.
Who were some of your favourite personalities from the world of Bond you spoke to?
Well Mollie Peters from 'Thunderball' was certainly one of them. When I was a kid I wrote to Mollie c/o Pinewood Studios. She wrote me back this lovely little letter with a signed picture, in this very distinctive round almost childish handwriting. I was of course thrilled to get it. So 15 years later, in 1980, I am doing the book and I wrote to her again via her agent. The phone rings one day and Mollie says, “Are you the same Michael Callan of Drumcondra, Dublin 9?” I replied, “How would you know that?” She told me she kept every single fan letter from ‘Thunderball.’ Amazing!
How nice! You credit Bernard Lee in the book for supplying photographs....
Yes. He was a really nice man. My first encounter with him was as a fan. When I collected Bond memorabilia in the 1960s I wrote to him at Pinewood, like I wrote to Mollie. I asked Bernard for a piece of Bond related memorabilia. He sent me back an Egyptian bank note signed, “From M.” [Laughs]. I then met Bernard, in 1976, in the commissary at Pinewood. I was at the studio visiting ‘The Avengers’ producer, Brian Clemens. I went over to him to compliment him but he was a bit sozzled. I remember he went on about how much he loved Lewis Gilbert. I told him about the Egyptian bank note but he didn’t remember [Laughs]. I then interviewed him later on the telephone. Again, he was remarkably unclear as he was under a glaze of alcohol. There was no clarity. But yes, he supplied me with photographs and he did help me with material for the book.
Did you ever approach Cubby Broccoli or Harry Saltzman?
Yes, and for while it was up in the air as to if Cubby would speak to me. But finally it was a no. I suppose it was my timing - he profoundly resented Sean making his own rival version of Bond [‘Never Say Never Again’, with producer Jack Schwartzman], which, unfortunately for me, was underway as I approached Cubby. But in the end I was not that bothered. I was so entrenched in trying to understand the chapters of Sean’s life and by then I’d realised that Bond occupied a relatively small part of it. His life before and after Bond was so interesting, bizarre, strange and enigmatic. So as time went on I just gave up on Cubby.
Being an Irishman, ‘Thunderball’ producer and co-writer, Kevin McClory, must have left an impression on you?
Oh Jesus! [Laughs]. Have you got an hour or two? He was a very, very strange man. A very beguiling person, in part, due to his stutter, his size physically and his personality. There was an element of Walter Mitty about him. Interestingly, my main dealings with him were after the book. He wanted to meet me because of my connection with Ardmore Studios. He felt I could be instrumental in getting Pierce Brosnan to talk to him about Bond in the late 1980s for his planned second remake of ‘Thunderball’. There was a period when Kevin stuck to me literally like chewing gum. He was convinced that Vivien Michel, the narrator of the Fleming book, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, existed. And if we could find this girl, him and me together, we could do this incredible screenplay that would be the story of Vivien Michel and her relationship with Fleming. That was something, he said, that Broccoli could never take from him.
Tell me about your secondary research. What additional sources did you draw upon? This was two decades before the Internet...
Tony Crawley had been a prominent writer for magazines like Photoplay, Films Illustrated and Films and Filming that were popular in the 60s and 70s. Tony was like a guide to me, a navigator. He was such an old hand and he virtually adopted me as his son. He was giving me files and interview transcripts for many people he had interviewed. And then I would visit newspaper libraries and sift through hundreds of articles, which in those days, were on microfiche. That was pretty hellish.
Lewis Gilbert gave you a detailed account as to why Connery left Bond behind after 'You Only Live Twice'. By the time this, his fifth 007 picture, opened, he was now one of the biggest stars on the planet. How did Connery react and deal with his celebrity status?
There’s no question he was traumatised by the exploitation of his time, his image, his personal space. Diane Cilento used that word to me. He was traumatised. It put him on edge and nudged him into recreational drugs – this was the 60s, after all - which began innocuously at first with weed [marijuana]. And then Diane invited RD Laing, one of Scotland’s most controversial psychiatrists, into their home. Her intentions of course were good: she was trying to comfort Sean. But Laing was a wild card. He was then experimenting at the Tavistock Clinic with LSD as a therapy drug. He gave it to Sean and that made Sean so sick it messed him up a lot. The intention was that Laing would be a counsellor to ease Sean out of Bond and perhaps save the marriage. But that never worked out.
Following Bond, Connery briefly turned his hand to directing with the ill fated, 1969 Ted Allan Herman play, ‘I’ve Seen You Cut Lemons’. Actor Robert “Tim” Hardy made some interesting observations to you about Connery as they rehearsed...
Yes he did. Hardy talked about spending a week with Connery and Diane at their house in Putney and described it, for him, as unsettling. He said Sean was so messed up. He had installed in the hallway of Putney an Orgone Box, that’s a zinc lined wooden “think-tank” invented by the very controversial philosopher-therapist Wilhelm Reich. It was basically an old-fashioned telephone booth, totally enclosed and void of decoration. Once you sit inside, so it goes, the air becomes infused with orgasmic energy, literally your own sexual energy. Sean insisted Hardy sit inside this box to purify and intensify his thoughts. Tim found all this disorientating, a little alarming. I think for Sean the box was a radical Laing-style treatment, a bit like Arthur Janov’s Primal Scream therapy with John Lennon, to help him recover after Beatlemania. In hindsight, I’m not sure either alternative therapy helped at all. But Tony Shaffer, Diane’s husband after Sean, had an interesting spin on it. He said he suspected it was a good “boy’s toy”. He said, “Sean was drinking too much Scotch anyway. So it diverted him. I doubt it had any benefit and I think he’d have done just as well if he’d installed a Hornby train set.”
John Boorman who directed ‘Zardoz’ wrote the introduction to your book. That movie has often been slammed as a career low for Connery. What are your thoughts on it?
‘Zardoz’ is such a critical moment in Sean’s psychology. His marriage to Diane was over, he was suffering depression and stress and as I’ve already said, he was experimenting with hallucinogenics. Then not long after ‘Diamond Are Forever’ you had this incredible double bill from him: Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Offence’ (1973), which he self-produced, and John’s ‘Zardoz’. Together they constitute his emotional recovery and his declaration of independence from Bond. ‘The Offence’ is the primal scream and ‘Zardoz’ is the obverse: it’s a philosophical polemic that had its roots in the deep-lit studies he’d done with Henderson. John Boorman wrote the script, but it clearly resonated with Sean’s quest to understand himself and his place in the world at that time. So Connery’s moods and choices in 1972 and 1973 were major moments in his life. He had been flattened by Bond.
How did his second marriage to Micheline Roquebrune change him?
Micheline was the person who eventually stabilised him. Once he made the decision to move in with her, he was again on safe ground. She became not just his lover but his business manager, a very different role to the one Diane played. Thereafter he went into a period of making well-grounded films like ‘The Man Who Would Be King,’ (1975), ‘The Wind and the Lion’ (1975) and ‘Robin and Marian’ (1976). He was happy to be a jobbing actor, which by the way, was something Robert Henderson commended to him: “Never lose respect for the actor’s role.” After the catalyst crises of 1968-1972 Sean could just go and do what the actor does: act.
It’s interesting how honest director Richard Lester was with you. He had only just made ‘Cuba’ with Connery when you interviewed him, a film that had been a critical and commercial flop. Connery laid a lot of the blame at Lester’s door and he kind of pours his heart out to you...
I felt that, yes. I could see that was a hotspot with Richard. There are some interesting things going on in ‘Cuba’ but there should have been so much more in that film. One of the things that has been said to me over the years by people who were very close to Sean, like Michael Caine, was that Sean had bullishness about him. From what I know of the making of ‘Cuba’, he was not happy with the state of the script when the cameras started rolling and that, of course, is fatal on any film. It’s unfortunate, because given his short-fuse temperament, I can just imagine what the atmosphere was like during the making of that film.
You spoke with Fred Zinnemann who directed Connery in ‘Five Days One Summer’...
I like that film very much. More importantly, Fred liked it. In that performance Sean is breathing out. By the time he made ‘Five Days’ he was tranquil. It’s a good role. He’s playing the cuckolded husband, which is tricky because it’s prone to cliché. But he was confident enough to submit to a role where he looked a little foolish, a bit irrelevant. He never would have played a part like that in 1974. Sean had this black and white temperament about the way he saw things. It worked well with directors who could stand up to him, like Fred Zinnermann. I remember Fred told me off the record that he enjoyed others actors he had worked with more, like Gary Cooper, because Cooper gave him exactly what he wanted, whereas Sean would give him what Sean wanted.
Your book was released during the publicity surrounding Connery’s return to Bondage with ‘Never Say Never Again’. You had been so impressed as a young boy by those early movies, were you excited by the prospect of a new Sean Connery James Bond film?
It was painful. In my mind, on reflection, a disaster. A bad decision, a project that should never have been made. It was badly made. I think Sean’s instincts were wrong here. He may have been trying to boost his personal revenue from Bond, to satisfy a financial hole he blamed Broccoli and Saltzman for. But he should never have foisted this travesty on us.
As you progressed with the book did you ever re-approach Connery to see if he would give you an interview?
No, no. I got feedback from some interviewees who told me they had checked with Sean first and he had given them the ok to talk to me. I was getting help from Boorman, who at the time, often had Sean as a houseguest. John had offered to write the introduction and to me that was an endorsement in plain sight. I knew that if I pursued Sean in a fan-like way, if I annoyed him, all the help from individuals like Henderson, Ian Bannen and Neil Connery, would be over.
Can you remember the reaction to the book when it was published?
To tell you truth Matthew, I don’t think I even looked over my shoulder. However, I do remember my agent sending me Peter Noble’s review in ‘Screen International’ in which he complimented the depth of my research. I was very gratified because he was from the old guard of film journalism, and he knew Connery well and the fact there was any kind of salute from him made me very happy. When I was nearing the completion of the manuscript, I was told there was a journalist called Kenneth Passingham who was rushing off another book about Connery. It became very much a horserace between his book and mine. He just beat me to the post by about four weeks but Connery managed to get that into the High Court and got the book withdrawn. So I was delighted he sued Passingham and left me alone. (Laughs).
Did you send a copy of your book to Connery?
Yes, that was the first thing I did. I sent it to him at the Casa Malibu, his home in Marbella, Spain, where he was living at the time. I never heard anything from him but then again I wasn’t expecting to.
You’ll have to excuse me for asking this question Mike, but back in the early 80s publishing was a very different game. Was this book financially successful for you?
Yes. But Matthew, you know this business, I can detect it in your whole approach: we write books like this for the love of the subject, not for the money. The fact this book became a consistent earner over forty years is nothing to do with me but with the phenomenon that is Fleming, Bond, Connery. I was asked to update it, which I did twice, first in the early 1990s and then in 2002. It has also been translated into many languages and indeed pirated in Japanese.
After the original book was published you ended up working on a script for HBO with Anthony Shaffer, who by that time was married to Diane Cilento. You’ve already mentioned Diane but how did she respond to you personally considering you had written extensively about her ex-husband?
Diane was a complicated and interesting person. A sharp woman. When I was working with Tony he was spending most of his time at my home. A ton of time was spent watching and analysing significant films. We watched Bergman, Truffaut, Michael Powell and of course Hitch. We also talked in depth about Sean’s work and, naturally, Diane’s marriage to Sean and influence on him. During these months Diane is absent, touring ‘Agnes of God’ in Australia. Then, without preamble, there’s a late night phone call and she’s on her way to join him. I of course want to meet her and inevitably it happens. But in Tony’s typically spontaneous, whimsical, crazy way. First, he advises me she doesn’t want to meet me because she doesn’t want to talk about Sean. Then - no forewarning - there’s a call from the airport and she’s on her way. I of course am not ready for her, since I’ve been listening to Tony’s version. She’ll be at my home within half an hour so there’s much preparation to do. Breakfast, to begin with. And then suddenly - at the very last minute – I remember the huge publisher’s advertising poster for the Sean book which is hanging in my living room. Tony’s words of warning are ringing in my ears: “Don’t bring up Sean unless she does. Please! No reference to Sean!” But then ... how can we possibly avoid him with this massive image of him looking over the sofas we will sit on? So there was a mad panic to get Sean off the wall before Diane arrives and we manage it, literally seconds before she walks into the house. And everything then unfolds with the usual pleasantries. But when Diane sits in the living-room her head is framed by this enormous dusty rectangle of faded paint on the wall where Sean resided. For the next several hours, during which there is no reference to ex-husbands, Tony and I are living in a Brian Rix farce, both ardently chatting to this beautiful, wise woman, both enchanted by her wit and wisdom. And both so distracted by the glowering shadow on the wall that our word become gibberish and Diane is frequently interrupting herself: “What? What is it? Am I missing something?” Eventually the confession is made and the discussion about Sean, by this odd interjection, begins.
What did Diane specifically discuss with you?
She discussed with me how she had played a substantial role in Sean’s portrayal of James Bond. When Sean first met with Broccoli and Saltzman he had not read any Fleming. Diane said she went out and bought ‘Live And Let Die’ immediately – it was the only novel she could find at that time. She felt the novel was lacking in humour, which, incidentally, I disagree with; I think Fleming is very witty and there’s irony in all his writing. Diane described conversations she had with Sean in which they discussed giving James Bond layers and depth. And then when the script was delivered they dissected it together and discussed how to improve the character. Shaffer himself said too much credit had been given to Terence Young and felt there was an under-reported intellectual aspect to the creation of Bond that belonged to Diane.
Do you think Shaffer lived in Connery’s shadow?
Well Tony did tell me that Diane’s love for Sean was something to behold. There was no resentment from him. He accepted that there was genuine love between Diane and Sean and I think Shaffer accepted with dignity that he was the number two husband and that Sean had been a big deal for her. Sean was perhaps the love of her life. When I made a comment to Tony about Sean winning the Oscar for ‘The Untouchables’ (1987) he said, “I think it was one of the great moments for Diane that Sean got the Oscar because it had burned in him that she had been nominated for ‘Tom Jones’ (1963) while he was making simply commercial pictures. That, according to Tony, was one thing that set the marriage with Sean on edge.
Did you ever meet Sean Connery?
Just briefly, on a golf course, in Dublin sometime later. A fleeting moment. But there is a strange poignancy to life, especially when you write biographies. The last time I saw Sean, I was chasing Robert Redford around the world, trying to complete his official biography, which he and I had been working on together for 15 years. I ended up in Nassau, of all places. We were driving through Lyford Cay, the gated community where Connery lived, and standing by an SUV at the end of a driveway to a fairly modest house was Sean. My driver knew I had written the Connery book and he hit the brakes and said, “Do you want to talk to him?” At that moment I was so immersed in Redford’s life and knowing there was a privacy around Sean and knowing Sean’s temperament, I said, “No, no, drive on!” [Laughs]. That was just after he’d made ‘Entrapment’ (1999) with Catherine Zeta Jones and he was about to enter his final phase of public withdrawal. I now look back on that very brief moment with some warm nostalgia and a smile. Here was this raddled old man putting his golf clubs into the back of his car, and there am I, immersed in Robert Redford’s life by the gift of a successful book I’d written about this very man I’m skipping past.
Do you think Connery retired too early? Do you think he should have carried on post 2003’s ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’?
He had reached 70. He felt he had ticked all the boxes, especially the challenges Robert Henderson and Diane Cilento had presented for him. He had done everything he set out to do. Alzheimer’s is an insidious thing and I believe it was troubling him from about 2004. He understood the realities. Filming is like coal mining, it’s a hard business. When I wrote the second update of the book in 2002, like you, I thought Sean would continue robustly, like Anthony Hopkins, who in his 80s is still at the top of his game. But it wasn’t to be. Sean became unwell shortly after he moved to the Bahamas, he was unwell for quite a long period of time. In the end he knew the inevitable outcome, he was reconciled and he passed, as Micheline told the press, in peace, beside her in his sleep.
What affect did Connery’s death have on you?
Sadness. The world lost a truly iconic artist. I felt similar feelings when Cary Grant died, when Truffaut passed, when Orson Welles passed, when Hitch passed. The night Sean died I watched ‘Marnie’ (1964) which reminded me how much of a thoughtful, versatile artist he was. It was an important moment, the passing of such a popular cultural figure of the 20th century, a character who was as importantly representative and unique as The Beatles, or Hitchcock or Elvis Presley. He was a major player and someone to be reckoned with. The one thing I treated myself to from the royalties was Ian Fleming’s Zenith wristwatch from the early 50s which Lucy, Fleming niece, auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1987. The day I received the news that Sean had passed away I went to my cupboard and took out Fleming’s watch, put it on, Iooked at my wrist and said, “Sean, respect and gratitude for what you gave me in terms of diversion, entertainment and intellectual stimulation.” I wore that watch for a few days just for Sean.
‘Sean Connery: His Life and Films’ was first published nearly 40 year ago. Now that Sir Sean has died do you think you could write a very different book on his life?
Well, I am actually updating the book now and am in process of revisiting all Connery’s performances. I was a young guy, still in my 20s, when I wrote the original book. The changes in the new text arise from the maturation, such as it is, of my analytical skills, my own experiences in the world of arts and entertainment and the social relationships I’ve
had with people like Tony Schaffer, Roger Moore, James Coburn, Richard Harris, Redford, Diane and so forth. For example, in the case of Shaffer, our friendship was such that our conversations were relaxed and spontaneous and not about his answering a specific question in an interview scenario. Those natural interactions can yield different perspectives on events, on history, indeed on human behaviour. In that way my new book will be different, not necessarily offering startling new revelations about Sean, but certainly much more informed. When I look back on how this book began, as an author’s exercise to gain a better understanding of character, well, it has certainly been a fulfilling journey. I feel real gratitude that Sean opened a door that facilitated my own growth as an artist and I feel blessed to have had the chance to spend a little time within his world.