When it comes to watershed moments in Darrell Hammond's career, none did he consider more than his Sean Connery impression on Saturday Night Live's "Celebrity Jeopardy" skits during his time as a cast member. The actor-comedian spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about playing the late actor, who passed at the age of 90 on October 31. Originally conceived by Norm MacDonald to use his Burt Reynolds impression, Will Ferrell played the straight role as skit's Alex Trebek. The three contestants usually consisted of MacDonald's Reynolds or Hammond's Connery, another cast member, and the host playing other "celebrities."
How Sean Connery Helped Hammond Find His Signature Voice
Despite never appearing together on SNL, Hammond had profound respect for the original James Bond actor. "I think I'm going to say The Untouchables," the actor said. "But I say that with an asterisk, because the seven times, in seven movies, that someone says to him, 'Hey, what's your name?' and he says, 'Bond. James Bond,' that's the best. You can't really beat that. But there are some of those marvelous [lines] from The Untouchables: 'Mr. Ness, I am just a poor beat cop.' People were captivated by the guy in the same way they were captivated by [President Bill] Clinton. They couldn't get enough. People couldn't get enough."
Since Hammond's run on the long-running NBC variety series, his Connery impression is the one most keep going back to. "When I was doing shows at colleges, kids from many countries would hold up signs with their favorite 'Celebrity Jeopardy' lines," he continued. "I say to people it's the most popular thing I ever did, but I feel like I almost did nothing. And I am not doing false modesty here when I tell you that. The writers were Emmy winners, the hair and makeup were Emmy winners, the costumers are Emmy winners. Nobody looks less like Sean Connery than me and they made me look a lot like Sean Connery. So I always would tell myself, just go out there and speak trippingly."
Making "Celebrity Jeopardy" an "SNL" Hit
Hammond's Connery continuously mocked Ferrell's Trebek from his appearance to comments about his mother on the SNL skit. He'd also purposely misread categories with "An Album Cover" to "Anal Bum Cover" or when the category is "FOREIGN FLICKS" he starts naming the Bond girls he "snobbed" in his films before Trebek has to correct him. When it came to how he conceived his incarnation of Connery, Hammond attributed to a stroke of luck. "It was like a last-ditch effort on a Tuesday night around four o'clock in the morning because I had nothing to turn in or sell to any of the writers," he recalled. "I was always taught that an audience needs to understand your premise and kind of agree with it in order to laugh. In other words, you can't educate or show them something new and get them to laugh at the same moment. So I thought, nobody's going to believe Sean Connery doesn't know things, or nobody's going to believe that he hates Alex Trebek. The premise doesn't make any sense. And yet it's one of these instances where the stars were in alignment."
Channeling the Perfect Connery for "SNL"
When coming up with the correct tone and inflection, Hammond evoked the actor from The Untouchables. "It was 'Mr. Ness. I am just a poor beat cop,'" he said. "That enabled me to find the voice quickly. But I remember when I started doing it, especially in rehearsal [SNL creator] Lorne [Michaels] was like, and 'Now you've duplicated him. Let's exaggerate him. Let's italicize him. Let's do a Hirschfeld painting of him.' This sounds silly, but I had Hirschfeld pictures in my office and I would sit and look at them and go, 'That's what I'm trying to do today. I want to exaggerate him. I want to blow him up. I want to be a ludicrous premise but carried out in earnest.' I mean, all the stuff that I've heard acting coaches say. But the moment I said the words. 'I'll take 'The Rapists' for $5,000' or whatever it was, it took my breath away. Because you're walking out there going, 'This can't work.' And yet it was the single most successful thing I ever did as a performer."
Creating Comedy Gold
Hammond knew when he hit 'The Rapists' line in the sketch, he was on to something. "That's not the biggest laugh he ever got by a long shot," he said. "You can hear [the audience] hesitate and want to dip their toe in the water, and then they did a little bit. I'd say we got about 60 percent of the room, and it was a delayed reaction that took place in like a split second, but later in the sketch, they were ready. They knew what the premise was and they wanted more of it. He's one of those guys like [President Bill] Clinton that's so popular — someone actually said this once of Daffy Duck, as well — the character is so popular that you can do anything. You can do slapstick with Sean Connery, you could do drawing-room comedy with Sean Connery — there's no kind of comedy that you can't do when people are so eager to hear from that person." Despite efforts to recruit the actual Connery, the actor declined, but the series was able to recruit Trebek for the final season Ferrell was an active cast member. Hammond is now the active announcer for SNL since taking the duties in 2019 since leaving the cast in 2009 and making occasional recurring appearances. He was also the last cast member to regularly portray current president Donald Trump before special guest Alec Baldwin permanently took over the role on SNL in 2016. You can also catch him on At Home With Amy Sedaris on HBO Max.