License to Thrill

60 Years Ago, Sean Connery Changed Action Movies Forever

The studio behind the first James Bond movie lacked faith in their leading man. And then, the movie came out.

Actor Sean Connery on the set of "Dr No". (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
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James Bond movies began by breaking the rules. On October 5, 1962, Dr. No hit theaters, and overnight, an entirely new genre of action movies was born. Sixty years later, the impact of the very first James Bond motion picture is obviously huge, and the success of the film is all because of Dr. No’s cast, specifically, its breakout leading man, Sean Connery. But, before Dr. No hit the theaters, American reps for the studio United Artists, had little faith in Connery. Why would American moviegoers bother seeing an action thriller starring a “limey truck driver.” But, Connery’s mix of working-class vibes and superspy class created something the world had never seen before — a dangerous anti-hero who redefined the concept of cool.

Sean Connery in a publicity still for Dr. No in 1962.

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Technically, Sean Connery was not the first onscreen James Bond. In 1954, an American anthology TV series called Climax! featured an episode adapted from Ian Fleming’s novel Casino Royale. In that version, James Bond was an American agent played by Barry Nelson. After Climax! failed to provide Fleming with any additional ways to get his literary superspy on screen, the movie rights to James Bond eventually were snatched up by producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, known betters as “Cubby” Broccoli. Their production company, which went on to produce all 25 “official” James Bond movies was (and is still) called EON, short for “Everything or Nothing.”

While most major studios of the time were anchoring huge movies with an already established celebrity, producers Broccoli and Saltzman wanted James Bond to be played by an unknown. According to the oral history of James Bond — Nobody Does It Better, by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross — their reasons for this were twofold: “ [an unknown] wouldn’t be bringing the baggage of other roles to this film, and more importantly, an established star likely wouldn’t sign for multiple films and would be too expensive.”

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

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In 1961, when he began filming Dr. No, Sean Connery’s most “famous” film was probably the Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People. In contrast with the slightly upper-class snob presented in the Fleming novels, Connery’s approach to the role was decidedly more working class.

And when you watch what happens in Dr. No, the grittiness of Connery’s first James Bond performance is striking. Yes, he’s introduced in a swank casino, smoking a cigarette and looking cool, but by the end, as he’s trying to escape Dr. No’s lair, Connery looks like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Through sheer strength of performance, Connery’s James Bond is both an everyman, and unlike anyone you’ve ever met. In Fleming’s novels, the character of Bond is arguably somewhat underdeveloped, which is perfect for the reader to imagine themselves in the role. But for a film, James Bond had to become more defined, and crucially, relatable. As detailed in the Paul Duncan book The James Bond Archives, Cubby Broccoli specifically wanted Connery’s Bond to feel more down-to-earth than the Bond of the books, saying: “...we never intended to play Sean Connery exactly as Fleming’s Bond. The whole point about having Sean in the role, with his strong physical magnetism and overtones of a truck driver...was...the audience could feel like there was a guy up there like them.”

Fleming’s Bond novels were already bestsellers in the UK by the time Dr. No was made into a movie. And notably, Dr. No was Fleming’s sixth Bond book, even though it became the first movie. In any case, the UK audience was pumped for Bond, but the true test of Dr. No’s success would be whether or not it managed to break America.

And, because American theater bookers for United Artists were unimpressed with private screenings of Dr. No, they had zero faith in Connery attracting American moviegoers. For these bookers, Connery’s combination of brutality, bone-dry wit, and machismo simply wouldn’t work, mostly because they’d never seen anything like it in a movie before. As a result, Dr. No did not initially open in splashy New York movie theaters or even in Chicago. Instead, the American release of Dr. No was, as Paul Duncan makes clear in The James Bond Archives, “opened in drive-in cinemas in Oklahoma and Texas.”

Sean Connery as James Bond and Jack Lord as Felix Leiter in Dr. No.

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But, if the American bookers for United Artists hoped to bury a movie they didn’t understand by sticking it into drive-ins, their plan backfired. As Broccoli remembered, “the Oklahoma audiences were ecstatic, and the American press reaction was enthusiastic.” The rest, as we all know, is history.

For longtime Bond fans and action movie aficionados, much of what makes 007 movies great starts with Dr. No. There’s a slow build of a bizarre international caper, there’s the reveal of the titular supervillain, played expertly by Joseph Wiseman. Meanwhile, Ursula Andress redefined the concept of a femme fatale as she emerged from the ocean in a bikini — with a knife.

And, crucially, as all action movies have imitated since, there’s a massive action sequence in a giant set, in which Bond has to battle countless henchmen, while also escaping without the use of any tricks or gadgets, but simply by the skin of his teeth and the charred and burning clothes on his back. It’s tempting to think that the appeal of James Bond comes from his refinement or the luxurious life he has at his fingertips. But, in the beginning, in Dr. No, what Connery did was present a paradox. We enjoyed watching Bond order drinks and hang out in a cool casino while wearing expensive clothes.

But, we were only rooting for him later, when all of those trapped are stripped away. James Bond might begin the film Dr. No wearing a tux, but he ends the movie in tatters. And that’s how a legend was born.

Where to stream Dr. No

As of October 5, 2022 — “James Bond Day” — all 25 EON 007 movies are streaming on Amazon, exclusively, and seemingly, forever. This includes the 1962 classic, Dr. No.