‘I'm fed up with the idiots’: why Sean Connery retired after The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Ed Power
·5-min read
Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - AP
Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - AP

Sean Connery read the script, shrugged, then read it again. He had no idea what was going on in the story, about a grey-bearded man with seemingly magical powers and a ragtag of peculiar sidekicks. But he signed up to the project anyway. The last time he had turned down a baffling script about a grey-bearded man with seemingly magical powers and a ragtag of peculiar sidekicks, he had lost out on $350 million. 

The screenplay to which the actor had said “yes” was for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It notoriously became the career swan song of the great actor, who has passed away at age 90. He hated the 2003 steampunk caper  – which didn’t make him unique – and had clashed often with its relatively inexperienced director, Stephen Norrington, later labelling him a “lunatic”.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen didn’t simply put Sean Connery off ill-considered comic book adaptations for life. It convinced him to quit acting altogether. He would stay true to his pledge to walk away, aside from some trifling voice over work. And so moviegoers were denied the opportunity to see an iconic star live out the winter of his life on screen. 

It’s impossible to say for sure why he agreed to appear in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in the first place. However, it may have had something to do with the fact that, four years earlier, he’d been offered a chunky part in another fantastical movie. Peter Jackson was eager for Connery to take the staff of Gandalf the Grey in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. He went so far to offer Connery a profit share that would have earned him that aforementioned $350 million. 

Connery, though, couldn’t make head nor tail of the story of hobbits, Dark Riders and dramatic elves.  “I never understood it,” he said later. “I read the book. I read the script. I saw the movie. I still don't understand it.”

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen had some things in common with Lord of the Rings. Firstly, Connery didn’t have a clue what it was about. And it was based on a beloved geek property in the shape of the Alan Moore comic strip. He would also be relatively well compensated with a $17 million fee. 

Where it differed was that it was a complete mess, with a  non-functional plot and atrocious special effects. The big idea is that figures from 19th century fantastical literature –  Captain Nemo, Dr Jekyll, Dorian Gray etc – team up to solve crimes. Connery is Allan Quatermaine from H. Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines.

Amid a troubled production, he sensed from early on that he had made a terrible error. Extraordinary Gentleman was both chaotic and boring. Connery to his credit did his best to make it better in post-production. He said he became  “heavily involved in editing and trying to salvage” the feature. 

He had by that point fallen out completely with the director, who did not attend the movie’s launch party. Asked about Norrington’s whereabouts Connery quipped that he was probably in an “asylum”.

Connery was also fed up with the culture of film-making-by-committee that had taken root in Hollywood. Through his career he had worked with such singular visionaries as John Boorman, Brian De Palma and Terry Gilliam. Alas, the age of the auteur had passed and the moneymen were calling the shots. The world of Marvel movies is not one to which he could easily adjust .

Sean Connery and Jason Flemyng in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Sean Connery and Jason Flemyng in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

"I'm fed up with the idiots,” he said in 2005. Connery complained of the “ever-widening gap between people who know how to make movies and the people who green-light the movies”. Asked what might tempt him back, he confessed it would take "a Mafia-like offer I couldn't refuse".

Ego was possibly a factor in his retirement too. Connery had always relished portrayed thrusting, virile heroes – and was still doing so as late as 1999 when he was cast in Entrapment as a roguish thief romancing Catherine Zeta-Jones, 39 years his junior. 

Connery saw no reason to hang up his alpha-male spurs. Still, times were changing and he wasn’t getting any younger. And now, to his shock he was being offered “old man” parts. That perceptions of him had changed was confirmed when Steven Spielberg tried to bring him back as Indiana Jones’s father in 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. 

Sean Connery and his wife Micheline at the Las Vegas premiere of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in 2003 - Reuters
Sean Connery and his wife Micheline at the Las Vegas premiere of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, in 2003 - Reuters

Connery had warm memories of playing Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and was open to doing so again. However, he was by every account disappointed to discover Henry’s screen time had been greatly reduced. And so he passed. 

“I spoke with Spielberg, but it didn't work out," Connery said in 2007 . “It was not that generous a part, worth getting back into the harness and go for. And they had taken the story in a different line anyway, so the father of Indy was kind of really not that important. I had suggested they kill him in the movie, it would have taken care of it better.” 

Unless he was strutting around as the centre of attention he wasn’t interested. And so, rather than see out his career portraying pensioners, granddads and wise old men, Connery concluded he was better off playing golf at his home in the Bahamas (though he did some video game work and voiced a skateboarding vet in 2012 Scottish animated feature Sir Billi). 

“He didn’t want to play small parts about old men and they weren’t offering him any young parts in romantic leads,” his old pal Michael Caine said. “The movie business retired him.”