DARBY O’Gill and the Little People is a timeless Irish classic familiar to millions.
The simple story of an old man’s battle of wits with the King of the Leprechauns, it’s also the film that introduced the world to a young actor by the name of Sean Connery. What many fans may not realise, however, is the role Darby O’Gill and the Little People played in helping Connery bag the role that would make his career: James Bond.
Back in the 1950s, Connery had only just started coming around to the idea of forging a career in the world of film and theatre. The Edinburgh-born star first found employment as a milkman in his formative years before a brief stint in the Navy.
There were forays into the world of bodybuilding and even football, with Connery catching the eye of Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby during one trial. The Scot ultimately opted for the life of an actor rather than a football having been offered a contract by Busby – he was already 23 and too old, he felt, to forge a path in the professional game.
By then Connery had already started seeking out opportunities in the theatre and eventually got his big break with a small part in a production of South Pacific. Over the next few months he worked his way up in the cast, eventually bagging the coveted role of Lieutenant Buzz Adams. More theatre work followed, along with TV and film parts. A major role in the melodrama Another Time, Another Place came in 1958 but it wasn’t until a year later that he bagged his breakthrough role in Darby O’Gill.
Not that it went entirely to plan, of course. While Connery demonstrates plenty of on-screen charisma in Robert Stevenson’s film, his performance is not without its flaws. Cast in the role of strapping hero Michael McBride, Connery certainly looks the part, even if he doesn’t necessarily sound it. Connery was required to sing and speak in an Irish accent, both of which left a lot to be desired.
Yet it was enough to get the attention of Albert R. Broccoli who a few years later was looking to cast an up and coming actor in the first film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s popular James Bond spy novels, Dr. No. First choice Cary Grant was only willing to sign on for one film while Patrick McGoohan had also turned down the part with a contest to find an unknown actor to play Bond proving similarly fruitless.
It came down to the 30-year-old Connery, who agreed to meet Broccoli and fellow producer Harry Saltzman to discuss the role. Connery initially had reservations about taking on the role of Bond but he was determined to prove his critics wrong.
Those critics included A.H. Weiler, who famously used his review of Darby O'Gill in The New York Times, to heap praise on the Darby O'Gill cast while singling out Connery as “merely tall, dark and handsome.”
The Scot saw the part of Bond as the perfect opportunity to show Weiler and his other critics what he could do. He approached meeting with Broccoli and Saltzman much like an audition, adopting a macho, devil-may-care attitude to the discussions that convinced the pair they had their man.
Fleming, himself, still took some convincing, initially describing Connery as “an overgrown stunt man”. But it soon became apparent Connery was in his element as Bond in Dr. No, no longer required to sing or adopt any kind of accents, with the Scot’s striking looks, charisma, physicality and general suitability to the role making it a masterstroke in film casting.
It’s not an understatement to say Darby O’Gill changed Connery’s life, putting him in Broccoli's sights while motivating him to prove his doubters wrong and go on to bigger and better. He also learned to avoid Irish accents too – and it payed off. In 1987, Connery won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his turn in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables as Jimmy Malone – an Irish-American police officer with a distinctly Scottish-sounding accent.
He couldn’t have done it without Darby O’Gill and the Little People.