Sean Connery competed in the Mr. Universe. Yes, that Sean Connery—the original James Bond, Indiana Jones’ dad, the British knight (for real), the Academy Award-winning actor, the international icon with nearly 100 film and TV roles to his credit. Before all that, he was a bodybuilder, and he competed in the world’s (and the universe’s) most prestigious bodybuilding contest. What’s more, the Mr. Universe led to all Sean Connery’s fame and fortune. This is the story of how it happened.
SEAN CONNERY: BODYBUILDER
Thomas Sean Connery was born August 24, 1930, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He began answering mostly to his middle name when a child. At 16, he enlisted in the Royal Navy and was discharged at 19 because of an ulcer. Back in Scotland, he worked menial jobs but also as an artist’s model at the Edinburgh College of Art. He was 6’2″ and strikingly handsome. One artist who painted him described him as “too beautiful for words, a virtual Adonis.”
Connery had started vigorous exercise in the military. At 21, encouraged by a former British Army gym instructor, he began serious weight-training, working out at the Dunedin Weightlifting Club. Bodybuilding was a small, underground activity then, and Connery knew most of the bodybuilders in Scotland at the time. Archie Brennan (later a celebrated tapestry artist) was a friend of Connery’s who won the 1953 Mr. East Scotland and 1954 Mr. Scotland.
On the last page of the March 5, 1953 issue of Health & Strength (then Britain’s leading muscle magazine) is a full-page photo of 22-year-old Tom Connery, “well-muscled member of the Dunedin Weightlifting Club, Edinburgh,” striking a kneeling side chest pose.
SEAN CONNERY IN THE 1953 MR. UNIVERSE
A bio on Sean Connery’s official website (which seems little updated this century) reads: “Sean spent much of his free time bodybuilding, a pastime that eventually started his acting career. His hobby of bodybuilding culminated in a bid for the 1950 Mr. Universe title where he placed third.” The last sentence is wrong twice: the year and the placing.
In fact, Sean Connery (under his given name Tom) entered the 1953 NABBA Mr. Universe. The contest was staged in the Royal National Hotel in London (the largest hotel in the U.K.), on July 7, 1953. It was then (along with the new “Pro” version, staged concurrently) the most prestigious bodybuilding title in the world. There had only been four previous Mr. Universe contests, and the legends John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and Reg Park had won the first three, quickly establishing the London-based Mr. U as the world’s ultimate bodybuilding event. In 1953, it was won by 22-year-old American phenom, Bill Pearl.
So what was 22-year-old Sean Connery, who had never previously posed in a bodybuilding contest, doing in the Mr. Universe? He simply entered. Presumably, there was an entry fee. But there were no qualifications yet for this still-new event, which in total had 38 competitors (23 from Great Britain). You could as easily enter the Mr. Universe as the Mr. East Scotland.
Connery was one of 16 competitors in the Mr. Universe tall class (5’10” Pearl won the class). According to one of the judges, strength historian David Webster, Connery was 6’2″ and weighed 200 pounds, and his chest measured 48 inches, his thighs 25 inches, his arms 15 1/4 inches. Only the top six competitors in the class placed, and Connery was not among them. Judging by photos, he was thinner than most everyone else in his class, and taller, too.
In an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Connery was asked about the Mr. Universe and said, “I was beaten by this black kid from the United States—Bill Pearl.” It’s remarkable that, decades later, he remembered the winner of his one bodybuilding contest. However, Pearl was partly Native American and not African American. His dark tan, rare amongst the pale Brits in the lineup, may have been responsible for the confusion. Alluding to Pearl, Connery claimed he was deterred from more bodybuilding contests because Americans beat him with sheer size, and, unlike him, refused to participate in other sports and sacrifice mass for endurance. Connery was around this time a soccer player for the Bonnyrigg Rose Football Club.
SEAN CONNERY: POST-UNIVERSE
Though Sean Connery failed to place in 1953 Mr. Universe, his one and only bodybuilding contest launched his career as an actor. A fellow competitor mentioned that casting was taking place for the London production of the musical play South Pacific. Connery auditioned and landed a small role as a sailor in the chorus line. He stayed with the production as it toured Britain, and he eventually moved up to a featured role. Throughout the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, he followed the same pattern in film and TV as he had on stage, from extra to small roles to supporting roles to starring roles.
Still, he was little celebrated when he was cast as James Bond, Agent 007, in Dr. No, which came out in October 1962 in the U.K. and May 1963 in the U.S.A., a decade after the Mr. Universe. Dr. No was a hit. Suddenly, at 32, Sean Connery was a (capital M, capital S) Movie Star.
Four more Connery Bond movies followed in the 1960s, and a sixth in 1971 and seventh in 1983. And so did dozens of other films in which he starred or co-starred, including The Man Who Would Be King, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, and Finding Forrester. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Untouchables (1987). He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 1998 and the American Film Institute in 2006. He was Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2000. Sean Connery, actor and bodybuilder, died at 90 on October 31, 2020. His iconic acting career and worldwide celebrity was launched 70 years ago at the 1953 Mr. Universe.