When they were coming up with the first Celebrity Jeopardy! skit back in December of 1996, Saturday Night Live’s cast and writers weren’t so sure they had a hit on their hands — least of all Darrell Hammond, who tossed out the eleventh-hour idea of Sean Connery as a guest, with little confidence it would even make the cut.
Almost 25 years later, Hammond says his lunkheaded, trash-talking version of the distinguished, Oscar-winning actor is “easily the most popular thing I’ve ever done. In my whole life.”
Following news this morning of Connery’s death at 90 years old, Hammond spoke with Rolling Stone about how the character came to be, and why audiences loved it so much.
Part of the SNL audition process is to do impressions. Was Connery one that you did initially while trying out for the show?
No, it wasn’t. At the time on SNL we were doing Celebrity Jeopardy!, and it was late one night, and I was trying to get some character that maybe they would use. I came up with I think the most unlikely character of all, which I was sure would be my biggest flop and failure, and that’s Sean Connery.
I was always told when I was coming up that audiences had to understand your premise and kind of agree with it in order to laugh. And I remember thinking to myself, “They’re not gonna understand this premise. They’re not going to agree with it. It makes no sense that Sean Connery doesn’t know the answers on Jeopardy!. It makes no sense that Sean Connery hates Alex Trebek. And it makes no sense that he’s a homophobe.” He accused Alex Trebek of being — what was it I said to Will Ferrell that night? [Connery voice] “Not a fan of the ladies, are you Trebek?” It doesn’t make any sense. And yet it’s easily the most popular thing I’ve ever done.
The other night I did shows in Fairfield, [Connecticut,] outdoor shows. There were people there, 25-ish, who knew every single thing I was going to say when I did the Sean Connery-on-Jeopardy! bit. Back in the day, when I was doing colleges, kids would bring signs. And you’re talking about kids from all over the world. Connery had that thing that Clinton had, people just couldn’t get enough of him. There are just very few humans like that that you’ll ever play as an actor. People just could not get enough of this guy!
What do you think was so compelling about him?
The way he said “Bond, James Bond.” I swear to God. Every movie people would just… freak! It was just too damn cool. You know, when people have that much charisma — like with Clinton, we ended up doing Clinton in all different kinds of comedy, from slapstick to drawing room. Connery had the same charisma. People were fascinated by Bond, James Bond. Still are.
When you first did it in the writers room that night, was the response instant?
I got some polite chuckles. I think people wanted me to do well with it, but it made no sense. It was destined for the scrap heap. And yet it’s easily the most popular thing I’ve ever done. In my whole life.
Obviously, there’s the voice, but was there something else you were trying to capture about him?
I was just trying to get through read-through. When I first started doing him, I was trying to duplicate him sound molecule for sound molecule. But when we began to write these outlandish things — y’know, silly. Silly-smart is always what they used to say we should strive for, because Monty Python perfected it. But, Connery suddenly was silly and smart. He was an ultrawit. And once again, it made no sense! Why would he be mad at Alex Trebek? It just… I always wanted to go down for something that was cross-generational, I just didn’t think it would be, “I’ll take ‘Famous Titties’ for six hundred.”
My favorite might be when he looks at the category “Therapists” and says, “I’ll take The Rapists for two hundred.”
[Laughs.] And that was the intro to SNL’s Sean Connery. That was the intro to that character. People were like, “Uh, wait — what?” Sean Connery? “The rapist?” And things caught fire after that.
Did you ever meet him or hear what he thought of your impression?
I heard he was very kind and complimentary to me on The Tonight Show. I mean, I just feel like I didn’t do anything. You had all these marvelous, Emmy Award-winning writers writing these brilliant lines, and I just had to make sure people heard the words clearly. Because, when you’re doing Sean Connery, people are already interested.
When you glued on the facial hair, did you feel a little bit like Sean Connery?
When they put on the eyebrows and the mustache, all of a sudden it seemed, perhaps I could be Sir Sean. [Laughs.] Nobody on earth looks less like Sean Connery than me.