Obituary: Neil Connery, plasterer, occasional actor and brother of 007

Neil Connery, plasterer and actor. Born: 16 December 1938 in Edinburgh. Died: 9 May 2021 in Edinburgh, aged 82.

Monday, 17th May 2021, 5:04 pm
Updated Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 10:55 am
Neil Connery is joined by a group of Bond Girl-style actresses at the Hilton Hotel in London to publicise his film Operation Kid Brother in 1968

Neil Connery might have cursed his lot in life when he was sacked from his job as a plasterer and faced an unpromising future, while his elder brother rose to international fame and fortune as James Bond.

The story about their contrasting fortunes ended up in the newspapers, after Neil’s tools went missing, he lost his job and his union took up his case. Neil did an interview for radio, which was heard by several people in the film business who were struck by how much he sounded like Sean.

It turned out Neil looked like him too. And the end result was that the unemployed plasterer suddenly found himself being turned into a film star too, playing the lead role in a secret agent movie called Operation Kid Brother.

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Italian producer Dario Sabatello came to Edinburgh to meet him and, even though Neil had no acting experience at all, Sabatello had a script developed specifically for him, in which his character is called upon to save the world because his more celebrated brother is unavailable.

Sabatello also recruited several Bond veterans, including Bernard Lee, who played M in the early Bond films, Lois Maxwell, the erstwhile Miss Moneypenny, and Adolfo Celi, who had threatened the world just a year or two earlier in Thunderball and was now doing so again with a device that prevented guns and machinery from working, before he is thwarted by Neil and a crack team of Scottish archers.

There was no way Sabatello would get away with calling his hero Bond, so he simply called him Neil Connery. Brother Sean claimed that both he and his brother were being exploited, though Neil’s pay cheque of £5,000 for three months’ work was more than he earned in a year as a plasterer.

The press ran stories of a family rift. “Sean was only trying to protect me,” Neil said. “As brothers we are close and always will be.”

The film shot in Italy, Morocco, Monaco and Spain, it was picked up for release in the UK by United Artists, the company that distributed the James Bond films, it opened in May 1968, was panned by the critics, ignored by the public and promptly disappeared.

Ironically Neil Connery’s dialogue had to be dubbed by another actor because his appendix burst and he was unavailable for dubbing sessions.

Neil had however managed to resume his career as a plasterer and although his screen career never rivalled that of his brother he did go on to make occasional appearances in other films and television series over the next 20 years, including appearances in the 1980s in the BBC series The Borgias, with Adolfo Celi again, and as a policeman in Taggart.

He was born Neil McLean Connery in Simpson’s maternity hospital in Edinburgh on December 16, 1938. Several sites give his date of birth as January 1, which is a default date used when sites know a year, but do not the exact day. The mistake was repeated by several newspapers.

He was eight years younger than his brother Thomas, who would in due course become Sean Connery and James Bond, so Neil was very much the kid brother and Sean the slightly distant role model.

His father Joe’s family were Irish Catholics from County Wexford. Joe’s father worked as a bookie’s runner and fought boxing bouts in public parks. His mother Effie’s people were Scottish Protestants. The two sides of the family did not get on and almost came to blows at Joe and Effie’s wedding.

Joe had various factory jobs. Effie supplemented his earnings by working as a cleaner. They lived in a tiny tenement flat at 176 Fountainbridge, in what was then an industrial area on the edge of Edinburgh city centre.

Initially Neil slept in the same drawer at the foot of his parents’ wardrobe that Sean had occupied previously, before getting to join Sean and sleep in the kitchen. The Connerys shared a toilet with other families.

Neil left Darroch secondary school at 15, trained as a plasterer and did National Service in the army, where he worked as a photographer. He met his wife Eleanor at the Palais dance hall, they married in 1959 and had two children.

Sean was making some sort of mark as an actor in London, but it was Dr No, the first James Bond film, that turned him into a major star when it came out in 1962. Subsequent films built on that success, with Goldfinger and Thunderball grossing more than twice as much.

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The market was flooded with James Bond toys, books, bubble gum cards and other merchandise. The public could not get enough of Sean Connery or James Bond. Dario Sabatello decided that Neil Connery and Operation Kid Brother were the next best things.

Neil subsequently fitted acting round the day job, though he had to retire from his work as a plasterer in the early 1980s when he fell off a ladder, cracked his pelvis and broke a wrist, which made it impossible for him to hold his tools for long periods.

He never appeared in any films with his brother and he said he would never ask his brother for help. It was more the other way round apparently… News of his death was broken on Facebook by Steve Begg, a “drinking buddy”, who recalled: “His brother borrowed £50 from him during a visit to Edinburgh in the 70s and never ever gave it back, which bothered him tremendously and he never shut up about.”

Neil lived in the Corstorphine area of Edinburgh for more than 40 years. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in summer last year. He is survived by his wife Eleanor, daughters, Martine, who worked in banking, and Leone, who became an actress, four granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.

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