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Dining with Sean: John Cork remembers the Great Scot - Part II

By: John Cork
John Cork Sean Connery Bahamas
American FSWL friend and supporter John Cork, co-author of three official books about the James Bond franchise and producer of multiple documentaries for the DVD/Blu-ray editions of the films, shares his memories of dining in the presence of Sean Connery exclusively for our readers. Part II: The Day Ian Fleming Died. (Part I of this exclusive.)

In 2007, my company, Cloverland, had the great pleasure to work on the Blu-ray super-duper special edition of Casino Royale (2006). Knowing that an excellent company, Special Treats, had well-covered much of the making of the film in their work during the production, we focused on the strange and wonderful history behind the movie. That included spending a few days in the Bahamas interviewing an array of folks who had connections to the world of 007 and even back to Ian Fleming. One of the greatest pleasures was meeting Sibilla O’Donnell-Clark, who knew so many involved in Ian Fleming’s world, and those involved in many of the Bond films that had filmed in the Bahamas.

When I returned to the Bahamas with my family for a vacation in 2009, I contacted her to see if we could take her out to dinner. She replied that she would much rather host a dinner at her house in Lyford Cay in honor of my visit. When I was already in the Bahamas, she contacted my office to let me know that Sean Connery and his wife would also be attending.

I refused to allow myself to believe it. In 1995, producer and FSWL contributor Mark Cerulli tried to secure an interview with Sean for the documentaries we were creating for LaserDisc releases of Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1965). My company put in numerous requests to speak with Sean in 1999 and 2000 when we were doing DVD special features for his remaining Bond titles. Connery declined all entreaties. I had either met or arranged interviews with virtually everyone else in the world of Bond, and those we had passed over were generally for budgeting or schedule consideration. Sean Connery coming to a dinner party being thrown technically in my honor seemed utterly impossible. Something would fall through. I could not get my hopes up.

I told my wife and son only that there might be someone famous there, and neither one of them should gush if that came to pass. My son, Jimmy, age 9, eventually weaseled the information out of me. We arrived, were introduced around to the few guests who were there, and then he arrived, Big Tam, Thomas Sean Connery, one of the few men who could set this cis-gendered heterosexual male’s heart aflutter. Sibilla guided him toward me on a balcony where, in the Bahamian twilight, she introduced us and then left us alone. We exchanged awkward hellos, him not knowing who the hell I was, and I not knowing quite how to introduce myself.

Me: “I should tell you, I’ve done a lot of work for Eon Productions, I did documentaries on all of the Bond films you did for Cubby and Harry.”

Sean: “Oh...” he said, as if I had mentioned that I was a gardener for his ex-wife’s cousin’s stepson.

Me: “I spent a little time with Terence Young’s children.”

Sean: “Ah, Terence...” A little glimmer.

Me: “Did you keep in touch with them?”

Sean: “No. Not really.”

I asked him about Terence Young having him sleep in a tailored Anthony Sinclair suit. He smiled, said Terence had so much influence over Bond. This I knew. I had to do better.

Me: “So, Tom Mankiewicz said he thought you would have kept playing Bond if Cubby and Harry had been willing to make you a partner.”

Sean: “Hmmm. I don’t know.” Connery had been quoted to that effect numerous times.

Me: I pressed. “But wasn’t that what you were trying to get when there were all those negotiations before you did You Only Live Twice?”

Sean: “I was trying to get them to hire Terence back,” he said, a story I hadn’t heard before.

I was tempted to mention that this was probably a long shot. Terence Young had walked off during post-production of Thunderball, upset over Cubby and Harry insisting that he pay a staggering hotel bill from the Bahamas. One version of the story I heard was that Young’s international long-distance calls cost more than those made by the production office.

Me: “You knew Ian Fleming,” I offered. “What was he like?”

Connery said that Fleming was a snob, but that he liked him. They had lunched together a few times and got along quite well.

Me: “Do you remember where you were when you heard he died?”
Sean: “Yes. I was in Rome, playing golf with Rex Harrison.” Connery then proceeded to tell the story of that day.

Rex Harrison had a caddy who watched the great actor tee off at the practice range with the most jaundiced expression. He would follow Rex’s drive with his eyes and give a disappointed sigh when the ball came to rest short of Rex’s goal. The wind picked up, Harrison announced. A second attempt went worse than the first, and the caddy sighed a little bit more pronounced. It was the bloody wind again, Harrison complained. When the caddy shrugged, Harrison announced that one couldn’t feel the wind at the tee. The third drive fared no better, and this time the caddy smirked dismissively. Harrison found this commentary from the peanut gallery completely unacceptable. He challenged the caddy. If he were so blasted talented, he could show Rex how to drive a golf ball through that wind. The caddy calmly took the club without pause, swung, and hit the ball straight, far, and true. Harrison responded with an unrestrained fury that quite amused Connery still some forty-four years later.

Me: “That’s a wonderful story, but how did you hear about Fleming’s death?” I asked, trying to get the conversation back on track.

But the golfing story was the track. Someone had told him at the clubhouse. Sean didn’t really recall. He just remembered hearing it that day. He went on to explain how his friendship with Harrison soon came to an end when Harrison campaigned against award considerations for one of Connery’s favorite films, The Hill.

Connery had not obsessively read the James Bond novels as an adolescent. He had not re-read them numerous times like I had. In fact, he had not read most of them. Sure, he liked Fleming, the man, as a man, and I’m certain he was sorry that Fleming had died, but the story with the caddy was the most important thing Sean recalled from that day.

Soon, we were seated at dinner in an outdoor veranda. Sibilla next to Sean, and I next to her so that Sean and I could continue talking. He made disparaging remarks about the low box office of his iconic films of the 1970s. I pushed back that Robin and Marian, The Man Who Would Be King, and The Wind and the Lion had all made an impact on me when they played in Montgomery, Alabama. Sean then told a story for shooting a scene where he leapt down from a branch in Robin and Marian. For reasons unrecalled, Connery was going commando. The camera operator pulled Richard Lester aside and told him that Connery’s robe had fluttered such that the actor’s bum was visible in the shot. Lester considered, then said it would go by too fast for anyone to notice.

“And then they came out with video and the pause button,” Connery smiled.

I desperately wanted to get back to Bond, but Connery was on a roll. In again defending his non-Bond box-office status, I casually mentioned The Untouchables.

“We were shooting in Montana,” Connery began. If I had ever known they filmed in Montana, I had forgotten. I couldn’t think of a single reason they needed to go there.

Connery continued. He had his day off. For some reason, he wasn’t going to play golf. The Montana Air National Guard offered to fly Connery around over Montana. Connery decided this would be a good distraction, allow him to see the scenery, and build goodwill for the production with the National Guard. He arrived, was asked to don a flight suit, and was escorted, unexpectedly, to a fighter jet, placed in one of the two seats in his own little cockpit, helmet on, oxygen mask as well. He described the sudden force when threw him back in his seat as the plane launched down the tarmac. Once in the air, it all seemed very nice... for a few moments. The pilot wanted to impress 007. The next thing Connery knew the jet was careening through all the acrobatics, barrel-rolls, loop-de-loops, dives, spirals, dead-falls and recoveries. Connery found himself not only clinging to the sides of the cockpit like a frightened racoon, but he felt nausea building. Covering a fighter jet cockpit with vomit would not be the kind of impression he hoped to make. When they finally landed, the contents of Connery’s stomach still in place, he wobbled out, dizzy, queasy, and politely declined an offer to be taken back aloft again, any time, courtesy of the unit commander.

We retired to the living room. I had figured out a plan to engage with Sean about some Bond history I wanted to explore. I knew I needed to give him a few minutes, and I wanted to engage more with some of the other guests, a few of whom had contributed to the Casino Royale materials my company had produced. One guest offered to show me a card trick. I love card tricks. The man did the trick very well. And then another. And another. In most other worlds, he would have been my best friend. But as it was, I wanted to talk with Sean. I wanted to talk with him about Bond, about people we knew in common - Ken Adam, Guy Hamilton, Peter Hunt, Roger Moore. But the card tricks kept coming, and since I was standing right in front of the sofa where Sean and his wife, Micheline, sat, I saw no way to extract myself politely.

Sean Micheline Connery Bahamas
Connery and Micheline sit on the sofa after dinner at Sibilla’s. Careful observers can see the author enduring another card trick in the foreground rather than engaging his idol in stories about his years as 007. Photo by Jimmy Cork. Copyright © 2020 John Cork. All rights reserved.

Somehow, the interminable magic show ended. I took a pause to say something quickly to someone so that my beeline to Connery would not be too obvious. Just as I was turning toward him on the sofa to talk, he let out an audible sigh.

“My doctor tells me that it’s no good at my age to have one’s ass lower than one’s knees for too long.” Connery stood. “So, I guess it’s time to head home.”

And that was it. There would be no further conversations on Bond. Before we arrived, I had slung my DSLR camera around my son’s neck, set it on auto, and instructed him how to use it. I told him to get photos of Connery because no one is going to stop a nine-year-old kid playing with a camera. But in that moment, one of the guests, a man I had never met prior, noticed something about the look on my face. He asked me if I would like for him to take a photo of Sean with my son. I said I would love that. The man asked Sean to pose with Jimmy, and he took the photo. I photo-bombed it, naturally.

Sean Connery, Jimmy and John Cork in the Bahamas
Sean Connery, Jimmy and John Cork in the Bahamas. Photo from John Cork. All rights reserved.

I took a group photo of Sean, Micheline, Sibilla, and others. Micheline very much wanted a copy. A friend said to send it to him, and he would get it to her. He was the go-between, the personal friend who helped guard their privacy. Connery warmly shook my hand at the end of the evening, professed how nice it was to meet me. I would have been surprised if he could have recalled my name or anything about me two days later.

Sibilla O’Donnell-Clark, Micheline Roquebrune and Sean Connery in the Bahamas
Pictured from left to right: Sibilla O’Donnell-Clark, Micheline Roquebrune, an unidentified party guest, and Sir Sean Connery. Photo by John Cork. All rights reserved.

For me, the evening had been a dream come true, and despite wanting hours upon hours to have him recount every memory he had from playing James Bond, there was no way it could have been better. I got to meet him as Sean, no guard up, no pretense. He was there not for money or promotion or obligation, but because he wanted to attend. It is an evening that lingers with me as sweetly as any first kiss. He had given me so much joy watching him on screens big and small, in movies large and contained. He was so much larger than life for me and for millions of others. We didn’t have to talk about Bond. Talking about Bond with Sean would have been wonderful, but it wasn’t who he was. I realized it was far more meaningful to hear him talk about what was important to him. The things that were important to Sean? They are the things that should be important to any great actor: those little telling moments in life that reveal our humanity.

That quality is why he could play such larger than life characters so indelibly. That quality is why he became a star with James Bond, a character, who as Ian Fleming described him was a “man who was only a silhouette.” He found wonderful, small ways to make Bond human.

For Sean Connery, the evening was just another dinner party, another night hopefully spent in good company. For me, it was an unexpected revelation about what made him so great at his craft.

Driving our rental car back from Lyford Cay to Atlantis on Paradise Island, I couldn’t help myself. I sang “Underneath the Mango Tree.”

Rest in peace, Big Tam.

All text. Copyright © 2020 John Cork. All rights reserved.



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