Casting Connery Sean Connery With Ian Fleming on set of the first James Bond film, Dr. No
Credit: United Artists

Nicholas Shakespeare’s new biography Ian Fleming: The Complete Man takes a deep dive into the life of the author who created James Bond, first played by Sean Connery. Drawing on never-before-accessed private archives, the book contains new insights into Fleming’s career, friendships, and love affairs, even citing letters he wrote to his muse and mistress, Blanche Blackwell. 

Shakespeare details Fleming’s remarkable career in British Naval Intelligence, his role in the Allies’ victory in World War II, and even his communications with Bond fan John F. Kennedy. He also describes how Fleming wrote the first Bond novel — 1953’s Casino Royale — only in the last years of his life, which ended in 1964, when he was 56.

And Shakespeare charts how Bond became the hero of 27 films, starting with two released in Fleming’s lifetime — 1962’s Dr. No and 1963’s From Russia With Love, both of which were directed by Terence Young and produced by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli through their company EON Productions. 

In this excerpt of Ian Fleming: The Complete Man, Shakespeare explores the crucial casting of Sean Connery, who died in 2020 at the age of 90, as the first Bond. —M.M.

“Who decided on Connery as Bond?” asked Sean Connery’s biographer, Christopher Bray. “The likelihood is we will never really know.” As with so much about Bond and Fleming, all those involved in the film have claimed some retrospective say. It is the same with the places Fleming stayed in, or where he shopped or ate or drank. Everyone that Ian had dealings with, everyone he met, is eager to share in his legend, and one of the effects of this has been to lend an element of fantasy to all he touched. 

Bray has little doubt: “It was Connery who made Bond” – as it was Bond who made Connery. “There is no gainsaying the fact that had they not cast Connery in Dr. No there would have been no later Bonds – and no subsequent series – to argue about.”

Also Read: Bond Begins — 12 Behind the Scenes Photos From Dr. No, the First 007 Movie

Since 1995, Michael G. Wilson has co-produced the Bond films with his half-sister, Broccoli’s daughter Barbara. She says, “Sean Connery was the right guy in the movie for the right time. If it hadn’t been Sean, who knows? Would it have captured the attention of the whole world?” 

“Oh, disaster, disaster, disaster.” Terence Young had worked with Connery and was categorical in believing he was not the right guy. Not only that, Connery had ignored his advice. Young had recommended Connery wear a suit, but he ambled into the EON office in “a sort of lumber jacket.”

Saltzman remembered, “Whenever he wanted to make a point, he’d bang his fist on the table, the desk or his thigh, and we knew this guy had something.”

Ian Fleming First Thought Sean Connery Was ‘Not My Idea of Bond At All’

Connery’s background – naval boxer, lifeguard, art class model – was a marketable asset. He was brought up in a Scottish slum, like Ian’s grandfather. His father was a truck driver, his mother a cleaning lady. Among choice biographical details: He had delivered milk to Bond’s second school Fettes, and acted at the Oxford Playhouse as an aristocratic diplomat in Pirandello’s Naked. He afterwards maintained that “portraying Bond is just as serious as playing Macbeth on stage.” 

Connery’s son Jason says, “He had worked with Yat Malmgren, a teacher my mother introduced my dad to. He was very influential and had an acting technique, part of which was physical as well as emotional.” Malmgren had advised Connery to think about large jungle cats during the interview, because “they are very loose.”

Even as Connery strode out of 2 South Audley Street following the audition, both Saltzman and Broccoli, without discussing it, went over to the window to look at the way he walked. Michael G. Wilson, aside from co-producing the franchise, has appeared in cameo roles in Bond films. “Walking is a fairly important thing for an actor, believe it or not. It’s how you’re going to appear on screen.” 

Saltzman and Broccoli tracked Connery cross the road to his fiancée’s Fiat. “My dad was in the navy,” says Jason Connery, “and tended to walk like a sailor, you know, rocking. He dodged through the traffic, round a couple of cars, and slipped through.” 

“He’s got balls,” Saltzman murmured. 

Sean Connery and Ursula Andress on the set of Dr. No. United Artists.

Broccoli agreed. “It was the sheer self-confidence he exuded  . . . He walked like the most arrogant son of a gun you’ve ever seen  –  as if he owned every bit of Jermyn Street from Regent Street to St James. ‘That’s our Bond,’ I said.” 

“But first Fleming had to meet him,” remembered Fleming’s film agent, Robert Fenn, “and of course was shocked because he couldn’t speak the Queen’s English. Fleming said, ‘He’s not my idea of Bond at all, I just want an elegant man, not this roughneck.’” 

Connery soon heard the stories. How Ian Fleming had told somebody he was “an over-developed stuntman.” How Fleming doubted that a working class Scotsman had “the social graces” to play his hero. 

Becoming James Bond

Ian’s friend Ivar Bryce’s cousin, Janet Milford Haven, says that she brought Ian around after he invited her to lunch with Connery in London. “I’m a judge of people, on the magistrate’s bench at Westminster, and every night at Annabel’s. Ian was like an old father. He knew I had a lot of different boyfriends. ‘You’ve got rather good taste in men.’ I could choose the best man. A lot of actors he’d shown me were too good-looking, too glamorous.”

On the appointed day, Janet turned up at the Savoy. 

“When you look at someone, you don’t look at the face too much, but what’s coming out of the eyes, the mouth, the way they move. Connery didn’t talk to me. Ian was talking about London theatre. This is the first time Ian’s met him without masses of others. 

Casting Connery: Inside the James Bond Films' Most Crucial Decision —Book Excerpt from Ian Fleming The Complete Man by Nicholas Shakespeare
Nicholas Shakespeare, author of Ian Fleming: The Complete Man. Photo by Gillian Johnson, courtesy of Harpers.

“After Connery left, Ian took me home with a chauffeur to my flat in Wilton Street, and walked me to the door. I said, ‘I think that fellow is divine. He’s not too good-looking, he looks masculine, he looks like a proper man and one that would be used to that life. He looks like he is very clever, he looks like he would know how to do everything, who could kill.’” 

Ian wrote to Blanche, a week before United Artists broke the news: “the man they have chosen for Bond, Sean Connery, is a real charmer – fairly unknown but a good actor with the right looks and physique.” After viewing the rough cut of Dr. No, Ian became still more convinced. Connery was “not quite the idea I had of Bond, but he would be if I wrote the books over again.” 

Just as Alec Guinness reshaped the character of George Smiley for John le Carré, Ian responded to Connery’s cinematic Bond by putting some Scottish blood into him in his next novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Nicholas Shakespeare’s Ian Fleming: The Complete Man is on sale next week, from Harper.