Updated: May 29, 2019
One of the fun facts frequently recited about Sean Connery, star of the original James Bond films, was that before he hit it big in the movies, he was a bodybuilder. Connery did compete in a NABBA Mr. Universe contest, however there have always been questions as to which contest and what his placement was. In previous articles and interviews Connery has been cited as competing in either the 1950 or 1953 NABBA Mr. Universe contest and it’s frequently claimed that he came in third place overall or third place in a junior division.
The confusion starts with Connery’s official website which says he, “spent much of his free time bodybuilding, a pastime that eventually started his acting career. His hobby of bodybuilding culminated in a bid for the 1950 Mr. Universe title where he placed third.” What Connery’s website states is what is most commonly recited as fact in the bodybuilding community. Whether this claim is intentionally deceptive or not, we can prove it’s false after a closer look:
We know that in the 1950 NABBA Mr. Universe the Tall class was composed of men 5’11 ¾” or taller. Connery would have been included in this class being 6’2”.
The final placement of the Tall class was as follows:
1. Steve Reeves
2. Reg Park
3. Hubert Thomas
4. Georges Dardenne
The other three height classes (Medium-Tall, Medium, Short) had several contestants so the Chairman of Judges, George Walsh, had the judges announce their top six qualifiers to quickly narrow the field for final judging. With this knowledge, we can conclude that there were only four competitors in the Tall class in 1950 since only the top four places were announced. This means Connery was not potentially eliminated from the contest earlier. Also, of importance is the fact that we have no credible sources that place Connery at this contest.
Therefore, the 1953 NABBA Mr. Universe contest is the accurate placement of Connery in bodybuilding history. The 1953 NABBA Mr. Universe had evolved from the 1950 contest in that there was now a Professional Mr. Universe and an Amateur Mr. Universe title given. Also, instead of four height classes (Tall, Medium-Tall, Medium, Short) it now had three height classes (Tall, Medium, Short). What remained unchanged, much like the 1950 contest, was that only the top six finalists in each division were announced and Connery was not in the top six of the tall class so we have no official placement for him.
Most importantly, we have credible sources who put him in the contest. The famous iron game historian, and friend of Connery’s, David Webster states in his book, Barbells & Beefcake, “He entered the Mr. Universe contest representing Scotland in 1953, when he was nearly 23 years of age, weighing 200 pounds and with chest 48”, thigh 25”, and arms 15 ¼“.” The winner of the amateur contest, Bill Pearl, said in his autobiography, Beyond the Universe, “The actor Sean Connery was one of the competitors in my height class in the 1953 NABBA Mr. Universe contest.” In a statement contrasting his website, Sean Connery in an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was asked about his appearance in the Mr. Universe contest. Connery remarked, “I was beaten by this black kid from the United States—Bill Pearl”. It appears Pearl had such a great tan that Connery mistook him for being black.
What do we know about Connery’s placement in this event? We know that he did not place third in the overall contest or his height class as he was not good enough to place in the top six designated finalists in the Tall class. Sometimes this third-place finish is often attributed to a junior division however, a Junior class was not added to the NABBA Mr. Universe contest until 1988. The Junior class was started for men 21 and under. Even if it had been available in 1953 Sean Connery would not have been eligible to compete in this division as he would have been 22 years old.
Through research and eye witness accounts we can definitively conclude that Sean Connery did compete in the 1953 NABBA Amateur Mr. Universe contest and not the 1950 NABBA Mr. Universe contest. He competed in the Tall class but was not good enough to place in the top six finalists. Since he did not place in the top six in the Tall class, he received no placement in the overall contest. There was no junior class for him to compete in so he could not have placed in that either. It seems Sean Connery was indeed a competitor, however his success has been largely embellished over the years.