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Sean Connery minus the bravado

(ran GB edition)

In Finding Forrester, the flamboyant actor plays a reclusive author who becomes a young writer's mentor.

Dragonhearted, licensed to kill, the man who would be king _ when you think Sean Connery, you think stout action figures of near-mythic stature.

You don't think of this movie icon as a genius author who also happens to be an agoraphobic recluse.

But that's exactly the change-up Connery plays in Finding Forrester, a movie about the love of writing and basketball, in that order.

Connery is the title scribe William Forrester, who shortly after publishing a Catcher in the Rye-level coming-of-age novel retreated into a shambling Bronx brownstone apartment; the world _ except for the publishing house functionaries who delivered the royalty checks on which he has survived for four decades _ never heard from him again.

As the neighborhood outside his birdwatching window decayed, Forrester grew to be a source of mysterious urban legend to the locals. When, on a dare, an African-American teenager named Jamal (newcomer Rob Brown) slips into Forrester's digs, he's frightened off by the old man. But Jamal accidentally leaves the backpack containing a story he has written behind; impressed, Forrester sets about editing the story.

This is the start of a beautiful, if unlikely, friendship, as Forrester mentors the gifted but disadvantaged young man through not only the craft of writing but a big change in his own life, when Jamal is offered a scholarship to a ritzy Manhattan private school thanks to his equally impressive basketball skills. For his part, the down-to-earth Jamal gradually brings Forrester out of his self-imposed shell, reorienting him to the outside world and, after discovering why the great man stopped creating, maybe even inspiring him to write again.

If this story sounds similar to another recent film about a brilliant kid from the wrong side of the tracks and his enlightening relationship with a troubled older man, rest assured that Finding Forrester is, indeed, directed by Good Will Hunting's Gus Van Sant.

But it was produced by, among others, Connery's company, and closely developed between the Scottish actor and first-time screenwriter Mike Rich, from the latter's award-winning original screenplay, for many months before Van Sant joined the project.

Evidently, the material touched the screen's original James Bond in a way we might never have suspected.

"It's certainly a change of pace, in a way," the 70-year-old sex symbol says in his trademark, gravel-and-honey burr. "It's the kind of movie that I like to see, about relationships. I think it's an intelligent film, I like the humor of it, and it's a complete picture, goes the whole cycle of what it's supposed to be about."

Connery modeled Forrester on two of his favorite authors _ writers whom, again, you might not suspect the peerless screen portrayer of Kipling, Fleming and le Carre would cherish.

"I based him on J.D. Salinger and William Burroughs, literary favorites of mine," Connery reveals. And it was obviously the pleasure that Connery derived from their works that endeared him to Finding Forrester.

"Certainly, anyone of any age who hasn't been reading for years can pick up Catcher in the Rye and get caught up in the story, no matter how old or how young," he says. "Then we discover the difference between how you read a book and how I read a book when we talk about it. I think, "Wow, I didn't read the same book that you did, but that's because everyone gets something different from a book.' "

Connery brought that literary instinct to developing the material. While Finding Forrester is clearly a star vehicle in one way, he scrupulously tried to avoid turning it into a vanity piece.

"I didn't want it to be sentimental at all, and Gus agreed with that," the actor-producer says. "And the handling of the black-white situation could always get kind of dodgy, so we wanted to deal with that immediately and go on from there into a relationship that developed believably. And we didn't want to get bogged down with the educational stuff or the literacy of the script, but find a way to play it dramatically and get humor out of it."

In order to achieve all that, the perfect Jamal had to be found. Casting calls were held in cities all over the country before, toward the end of that process, Brown walked in. A resident of Brooklyn who, much like Jamal, was a high academic achiever with terrific basketball skills, the 16-year-old responded to an audition notice in the hopes of earning enough money to pay off his cell phone bill.

Although he had no previous acting experience, Brown was cast quickly.

"It was a dilly finding an actor who could play this part," Brown's formidable co-star says. "We saw hundreds of kids who could play basketball and were good students, but to find one who could play it . . . Rob had a certain gravitas, a more immovable quality that made me want to go with him. It was obvious from our first run-through together that he had lots of marvelous instincts."

And he needed them, since holding the screen against a presence as imposing as Connery's can daunt even the most accomplished pros.

"He is a different school; he's Sean Connery," notes Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham, who worked with the actor in The Name of the Rose and Forrester. "There are some people who, from the minute they step in front of the camera, that's where they belong. He has amazing presence.

"There's one confrontation scene we have toward the end of the picture. It's an over-the-shoulder shot, and I was acting _ you know, the thing I do _ and in the middle of the scene, I swear to God, I thought, "Hey, that's Sean Connery!' like the rankest amateur."

Inspiring that kind of awe is what a star does. But it also raises the question: Would Connery prefer the kind of privacy and solitude Forrester cherishes?

"I'm quite lucky that I don't live here and I don't live in London, where these things take place," the Spain-based Connery says of the media surveillance and intrusive fan interest that dogs many a celebrity. "I am famous everywhere, yeah, but I walk anywhere I go in the world."

There is one form of recognition Connery wouldn't mind getting again: a best actor Oscar to go with the supporting actor statuette he won for The Untouchables.

"Well, it would be very nice," he admits. "I'm very refreshed by that kind of talk about the movie, and I especially like it because I feel that the movie has a completeness in terms of the cycle and it has an emotional impact."

That said, Connery does not view the cerebral Forrester as the defining film for the final stage of his career.

"I have to say that I have not ever had a career target, no program that I want to get this by the time that I'm that," he says. "I mean, sometimes I wear wigs and sometimes I don't. The role I played in Robin and Marian was a character as opposed to a kind of heroic, mentally 12-year-old man. And Red October . . ."

Connery has just learned that Mel Gibson does a satire of his Hunt for Red October submarine captain's mispronunciation of the word "adversary" in What Women Want.

"Oh, ad-VER-so-ree," Connery repeats in that film's Russian accent. "He should talk! No, Mel very generously gave $10,000 to my education trust for the use of that in his film."

Plus, the Braveheart-maker is a fellow Scottish independence advocate.

"That's pronounced ad-VO-cat," Connery quips.

And yes, the avid reader still keeps an eye on the progression of the legendary screen character that he initiated with Dr. No 38 years ago _ and whom all right-thinking people know will never be topped.

"I saw The World Is Not Enough and I thought that Brosnan was very good," he says of James Bond's latest incarnation. "It's amazing, but I think that they will still be doing them for another 10 years before they find another actor, and they will develop other stories. With Pierce, they've gotten close to what they originally wanted in that sense. But they're still very much into the high-tech stuff, which puts me off."

As for the two eternal questions that follow him everywhere, Connery hopes to bury one for good while leaving open the possibility of the other.

"Me play a Bond villain? No, no . . . I don't think that they could afford it. But if they ever make a fourth Indiana Jones movie (Connery played Harrison Ford's cranky father in the last installment), the one I did was fun and I liked that. I would be happy to do it again."