You can't escape it: as I'm typing this post a newscaster just referred to the murky death of a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service as a "James Bond mystery." On Sean Connery's 80th birthday I want to note the vigorous, inspiring post-Bond career he forged with terrific work for legendary directors like John Huston in "The Man Who Would Be King," Brian De Palma in "The Untouchables," Fred Schepisi in "The Russia House," Philip Kaufman in "Rising Sun" and Steven Spielberg in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." But none of that would have happened had Connery not created the rare screen persona that genuinely demands to be called "icon," 007.

Connery knew exactly what he was doing when he made "Dr. No" (1962), "From Russia With Love" (1963) and "Goldfinger" (1964). The actor said he was playing Bond as "a complete sensualist, his senses highly tuned and awake to everything. He liked his wine, his food, his women." (That's Connery's Bond with Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore in "Goldfinger," left.)

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Yet Connery's Bond brought off his all-knowing manliness with a smile. The star said his great gift to 007 was "a sense of humor." Striding through the brisk and volatile "Dr. No," Connery already moved with seasoned confidence. He drawled out his introduction with blase machismo: it remains a funny thrill to hear him say that his name is "Bond. James Bond."

For some fans of Ian Fleming's original spy novels, the gusto of Connery's screen presence gave off an unsettling whiff of non-gentility. Kingsley Amis in his acute, disarming "The James Bond Dossier," wrote in 1965 of Connery's "total wrongness" for the part: "Mr. Connery could put up a show as a Scottish businessman, but never as a Scottish baronet." Connery did spoof the worldliness that Fleming laid on thick. But rather than pollute the books' air of hedonistic omniscience, Connery made it easier to breathe.

Sadly, claiming Bond fatigue and feeling exploited, Connery left the series after Bond #5, "You Only Live Twice" (1967).  For Bond fans, it was terrible timing. If Connery and not the smug, obtuse George Lazenby had starred in the otherwise electrifying "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969), the doomed love affair of Bond and the mobster's daughter played by Diana Rigg could have set off a sensation. But as composer John Barry remarked, "George Lazenby couldn't have created a boiled egg."

Connery had already been lending his character increasingly humane, ironic undertones. The movies expanded and got grander the more Connery relaxed and filled out, physically as well as emotionally. ("You Only Live Twice," right, is one of the series' unsung high points.) When Connery came back to the shambles of Bond #7, "Diamonds Are Forever," he gave Bond a been-there, done-that attitude that signaled wry experience, not boredom. And a dozen years later, in the first section (the only great section) of "Never Say Never Again," Connery proved how restorative it could be to have a Bond who needed a physical tune-up and a stay at a health farm.

What are your top Connery Bond movies? And top Connery movies without Bond? (Come on, I'm sure there are some fans of John Boorman's "Zardoz" and Richard Lester's "Robin and Marian" out there; both have their eccentric charms.) Do you agree with many of us that Daniel Craig, in his own brooding way, had proved himself Connery's true heir before the series stalled? How bummed are you Craig may not play Bond again because of uncertainty at the producers' partner studio, MGM?

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