Connery ... Neil Connery: When Sean Connery's Brother Played James Bond's "Brother"
In the spring of 1966, at roughly the same time Sean Connery was growing vocal about his increasing boredom playing British spy James Bond, Italian film producer Dario Sabatello opened a newspaper and came across a photo that sent his mind racing.
There, photographed alongside Sean, was Neil Connery, the actor’s younger brother. Tall—though not quite as tall as Sean—and handsome, the 28-year-old struck Sabatello as someone who could conceivably replace his more famous sibling as Bond. And failing that, well, he could at least play James Bond’s brother. Or something.
Sabatello traveled from Rome to Edinburgh to meet with Neil, who was then making $8 or $9 an hour working as a plasterer. The producer told Neil he could try his hand at acting and would be perfect as a counterpart to Sean’s most famous role in a new, unauthorized Bond knock-off. Even their voices were eerily similar.
Neil, who was not an actor, said he would be interested under the “proper circumstances,” a nod to the financial potential of such an effort. Both he and Sabatello knew such a role would be sheer exploitation, a way to garner publicity for a film that didn’t even seem legally promising—and might very well raise Sean's ire.
Whatever Neil’s reservations, they disappeared soon after Sabatello produced a check for roughly $15,000. By February 1967, Neil was in Rome to play “Doctor Neil Connery” in Operation Kid Brother, a spoof that was easily one of the strangest attempts to knock off the Bond franchise that had ever come before a camera.
In the 1960s, the Italian film industry had developed a reputation for mimicking genres that had been successful in other countries, though with a homegrown flavor that made them feel once removed from their inspirations. Dozens of “spaghetti Westerns” flooded theaters, most notably Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. The country had also discovered talents like Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni.
Other Italian films were often badly dubbed and criticized for stilted performances. Many shamelessly copied hit films, and Sabatello’s Bond-style project would be no exception. After making what he may have felt were perfunctory overtures to EON Productions—the rights holders to Ian Fleming’s novels—about an official Bond film starring the secret agent’s brother and being rebuffed, Sabatello decided to cross out any overt mentions of Fleming’s characters and instead hoped the audience would make the necessary inferences.
Sabatello thought Neil Connery provided all the context needed. A working-class resident of Edinburgh, Scotland, Neil had little acting experience beyond a brief stint on a London stage. He was reportedly on good terms with Sean, who had left their neighborhood behind to pursue bodybuilding and then acting before making a name for himself as Bond in 1962’s Dr. No. The two had been close growing up, and Neil told press that Sean often gave him suits and shoes. Sean had once even gifted his brother with a new Jaguar—though Neil reported that Sean had burned out the engine. So he sold it for scrap.
Neil saw little issue in accepting Sabatello’s offer. Sean was already seemingly tired of Bond, which Neil pointed out. Publicly, Sean chided Sabatello for the stunt. Privately, Neil said he advised him to make sure the contract was good.
“People have said that he doesn’t like what I’m doing, but I think he realizes I’m no danger to his career,” Neil told The San Francisco Examiner in August 1967. “He’s an established actor, and I’ve seen all his films and enjoyed every one of them … He wished me luck, and I know he’s interested in how I make out.”
In a confusing bit of meta-fiction, Operation Kid Brother saw Neil Connery playing Doctor Neil Connery, a plastic surgeon who is also an expert in hypnosis and archery. His fictional brother was referenced frequently, though simply referred to as a renowned super spy—never by name. The plot saw British Intelligence urging Dr. Connery to get involved in foiling a secret plot to control the world’s finances by an evil organization known as THANATOS.
Neil Connery might have been only a tenuous connection to Bond, but Sabatello had additional plans. He hired Lois Maxwell, who appeared as secretary Miss Moneypenny in the five official Bond films released up to that point, along with Bernard Lee, who played M in the first 11 Bond films. Sabatello also recruited two “Bond girls,” Daniela Bianchi and Yasuko Yama. (At one point, Bianchi—embracing Neil—exclaimed, “Your brother was never like this.”)
There were others. Adolfo Celi, who played the villain in 1965’s Thunderball, appeared in Operation Kid Brother. So did Anthony Dawson, who portrayed Ernst Blofeld.
None would be referred to as their Bond characters—Maxwell was simply “Max” and Lee was Commander Cunningham—but the point was clear. Despite a lack of any official connection, this spoof would have a recognizable cast.
Operation Kid Brother (also known as O.K. Connery and Operation Double 007) shot in Italy, Spain, Morocco, and the French Riviera. While the locations were beautiful, filming was not without its hazards. A sequence involving a flame thrower in Rome sent two extras to the hospital and burned up director Alberto De Martino’s jacket. (Fortunately, he wasn't wearing it at the time.) In Rabat, Morocco, a sequence in which Neil pretends to be blind and of Arabic descent called for actual blind extras, many of whom got lost and wandered off. While running on the deck of a yacht, Neil slipped on a rug that had been carelessly left in his path and crashed into an obstacle, which led to five stitches in his leg.
Neil was also irritated that he often only got his lines the morning of shooting. “For some reason I’m only told what my lines are as I go into make-up for the day’s work,” he told the Examiner. “I know the script, but I’m living on a day-to-day basis. It gets quite frantic at times.”
When Operation Kid Brother was released in the United States in October 1967, the reviews were not kind. In a piece for The Boston Globe, film critic Marjory Adams wrote that Neil lacked “the dash, the personality, the attractiveness, [or] the talents” of Sean. Not even “the most gullible moron” could take the movie's plot seriously. During romantic scenes, Adams wrote, Neil lacked “the right zing.”
Audiences also seemed disinterested in a Bond spoof, particularly one with an arbitrary Connery in its cast. Only Sean would do.
Neil quickly returned to his career as a plasterer, accepting only sporadic acting roles in films like 1969’s The Body Stealers and 1984’s Mad Mission 3: Our Man from Bond Street. Operation Kid Brother eventually wound up on the satirical movie commentary series Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1997.
Though Neil insisted Sean was largely supportive of his attempt to become a replica Bond, his older brother seemed to see it mostly as a money grab.
“Neil is a plasterer, not an actor,” Sean once said. “Still, they put him in a film over in Rome—gave him the lead, too! It’s a typical example of the way some people do things. It doesn’t matter whether the person can act or not. What matters is one happens to be one’s brother.”