“Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?”
“Good. Cuz you just took one.” — Sean Connery’s Jimmy Malone, shaking hands with Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness in “The Untouchables.”
Virtually every tribute to the late Sean Connery led with his signature role as the original James Bond, and rightfully so. But for many a movie fan and for Chicagoans in particular, when we think of Sean Connery, we think of the savvy and world-weary Irish cop Jimmy Malone in the “The Untouchables,” telling Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness how to get Al Capone. As Malone and Ness kneel side by side at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica in East Garfield Park, Malone asks Ness, “What are you prepared to do?”
“Everything within the law,” comes the reply.
“And THEN what are you prepared to do?...You want to get Capone, here’s how you get him. He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. THAT’S the Chicago way, and that’s how you get Capone.”
There are certain movie moments where an actor clinches an Oscar, right then and there — and that was one of those moments. Connery had won the Oscar for best supporting performance of 1987 before Jimmy Malone and Eliot Ness left that church.
Brian DePalma directed the highly fictionalized and enormously entertaining “The Untouchables,” but it was David Mamet who gave the film its voice with his brilliant screenplay, and it was Sean Connery who turned Jimmy Malone into one of cinema’s great and lasting characters.
And what a Chicago film it was! DePalma and his production team made great use of the city, from the lower pedestrian deck of the Michigan Avenue Bridge where Ness meets Malone to the canyons of La Salle Street in the Loop to the Blackstone Hotel to the magnificent foyer of the Chicago Theatre standing in as the entrance to the Lexington Hotel. (Jimmy Malone’s apartment has been replaced by University of Illinois-Chicago buildings.)
“The Untouchables” featured an outstanding ensemble cast — Robert De Niro, Kevin Costner, Andy Garcia, Charles Martin Smith — and of course Costner was the leading man and hero, but it was Connery as Jimmy Malone that gave the movie heart, that gave it a big-shouldered Chicago personality. He owned every moment he was onscreen.
With roles in “The Name of the Rose” (1986), “The Untouchables” (1987), “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) and “The Hunt For Red October” (1990), Connery continued to remind us he was a first-rate actor as well as a movie star. Connery slipped into Bond’s tuxedo and persona with the greatest of ease, but he was just as memorable playing a post-Sherwood Forest Robin Hood (“Robin and Marian,” 1976), Henry Jones Sr. (“Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” 1989) or a legendary and reclusive author (“Finding Forrester,” 2000.)
Connery’s last major feature film was “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” in 2003, and while it’s not among my favorites of his films, that title is an exquisite fit, for Connery often captured the essence of what it meant to be an extraordinary gentleman. Offscreen, Connery could be prickly, and he was rightfully called out for misogynistic comments he made about women in a 1965 Playboy interview. But he could be exceedingly charming and gracious, as I found him to be when I interviewed him in West Hollywood, California, in February 1990, in advance of the release of “The Hunt For Red October,” the blockbuster Cold War-era submarine thriller.
Connery was 60 at the time, riding that wave of post-Bond success. Though battling a smog-induced cough, he looked fit and trim and every bit the movie star. He rolled up his sleeves, revealing tattoos saying “Mum & Dad” and “Scotland Forever” — ink he had received when he joined the Royal Navy as a teenager. When I brought up his legendary battles with studios, usually over money, he cheerfully boasted that Paramount was the only major studio he HADN’T sued, and explained he kept a close watch on the domestic and international box office of his films, as he often had a cut of the profits written into his contracts.
“A classic example is ‘The Name of the Rose,’ ” he said. “It made only $2 million here, but $60 million in Europe. That’s partly because Barry Diller and Fox didn’t understand it and didn’t like it. They should have allowed it to… gradually build momentum, but they Mickey Moused around and loused it up.
“I have a philosophy about movies, the two-stage philosophy. The A stage is when you read a script and you like it, and you go ahead and do the film. The B stage is what happens with the public reaction. If people don’t want to go, it’s the end of the story.”
Connery also told me he was as surprised as anyone when the first James Bond movie, 1962’s “Dr. No,” became such a massive hit.
“Nobody could have anticipated how well ‘Dr. No’ was going to do. If we were all so smart, we would have been in preparation to do the next one, because we had the rights to about seven Bond stories. But there was an 18-month gap before we began making ‘From Russia With Love,’ because we didn’t know the first one was going to be a hit.”
Spoiler alert: it was a major hit, and the first major milestone in a career that would span over five decades and leave a singular chapter in the history of cinema.