When Sean Connery won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his 1987 performance as a tough, old Irish cop who lectures Kevin Costner's idealistic Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, it looked as if the veteran actor's career were about to enter its autumnal phase. From now on, he'd specialize in colorful father figures, leaving the hard work of carrying a movie to younger leading men. Surprise! Connery who had already made one Houdini-like career move by escaping from James Bond's tuxedo in the '70s this year conjured up two star performances in suspense films (The Hunt for Red October and The Russia House), reestablishing himself as one of the screen's most commanding leading men. So what if the Cold War itself was thawing? Connery remained one of Hollywood's coolest customers.
The 60-year-old Scots-born actor was effective behind the scenes as well. Drafted to play Capt. Marko Ramius, the defecting Soviet submarine commander in Hunt, he demanded a script rewrite. ''My feeling was that there weren't enough differences between the Americans and the Russians,'' he explains. With more than $120 million in ticket sales, the film rode the box-office waves to become the year's fourth-highest-grossing movie.
For The Russia House, director Fred Schepisi's adaptation of the 1989 John le Carré novel, Connery slipped into the scruffy shoes of Barley Blair, a boozy British publisher caught in a maze of spies and counterspies. ''I really wanted to make Barley as derelict and unheroic as possible,'' says Connery. All those years as Bond helped give his performance as a reluctant spook an added resonance. But his scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer, luminous in her role as a Soviet book editor, are more convincing than any of Agent 007's amorous adventures.
Although the two roles complement each other, Connery denies any grand design. ''I take things very much as they come, as I find them,'' he insists. That includes his turn as King Richard in the upcoming Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, again opposite Costner. For the four-line cameo, Connery reportedly will earn some $1.9 million. Hollywood's younger leading men would be well-advised to take heed: His 1990 double-play revealed Connery in top form. No lion in winter, Sean Connery can still roar.