By Jesse Birnbaum
Updated October 17, 1983 12:00 PM

His name is Bond. James Bond. And he has a problem: lower back pain and a slight paunch. It’s mid-life crisis for 007. And now—of all times—his superiors want to pluck him form semiretirement for the toupee-raising assignment of saving the world from nuclear holocaust. Dispatched ingloriously to a health clinic, he must work out, lift weights and sweat himself into top spy form. Is he getting older, or better?

This clever, thoroughly ingratiating setup for Never Say Never Again is pointedly ironic: The real high-stakes issue is whether the star, after 12 years in retirement from the high-tech spy biz, can carry the film. His name is Connery. Sean Connery. And he has a problem. At 53, Connery is no longer the slim young Scot who began it all with Dr. No in 1962 and five more through Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. Still, he is back as Bond for one last hurrah.

“I may be 20 years older,” admits Connery, who once aspired to the Mr. Universe title. But, he adds confidently, “The age factor is no crisis.”

Not now, anyway. Onscreen he rides horseback, fights live sharks in scuba gear and mauls all manner of assailants in hand-to-hand combat. In bed (with girlie magazine co-stars Kim Basinger and Barbara Carrera), he proves that if he’s gained a pound or two across his brawny torso, he hasn’t lost a step on his bygone Bonds.

The thing is—it didn’t come easy. Connery trained hard, keeping barbells in his location trailers through the grueling eight-month shoot in England, France and the Bahamas. He did many stunts and most fight scenes himself, he says. Somehow, his short-cropped toupee never budged. “He was fabulous underwater,” says a very impressed Basinger, who also did her own swimming stunts. “You couldn’t tell Sean from the stunt divers.” She says Connery helped production on land as well. “He took things lightly, instead of panicking. He would tell jokes all day.”

Some stunts were no joke. “I dived 50 feet underwater into a sunken wreck,” says Sean. “I hated that; it’s claustrophobic.”

So why do it at all? That Connery has long expressed his boredom with the character he created and helped make into the longest-running major series in movie history is the joke behind the film’s title. Connery will only say that his wife encouraged him to do it. Other reasons might be the lack of success of his last films (Wrong Is Right, Five Days One Summer).

But pride is also at stake. Connery’s disenchantment with the series began when his character began to give way to gimmickry and gags. But Roger Moore’s six flashy Bonds have been huge hits anyway, eclipsing the memory of Connery in some quarters. Never’s producer Jack Schwartzman thinks audiences might want to see a 007 who is “not a cardboard figure.”

Connery won’t compare himself to Moore, 55, a longtime pal. But some criticism does slip in. “I think the trap with Roger’s way is that one is a bit overwhelmed with the hardware,” says Connery. “You get the feeling they dream up the stunt first, then write the story around it. I try for a more realistic, credible film, within the realm of possibility.”

To keep his life the same way, Connery and his second wife, Micheline Roquebrune, 48, a French artist he married in 1975, shuttle in tax exile between a villa in Marbella, on Spain’s southern coast, and a home in the Bahamas, where he golfs (eight handicap) and plays tennis. British tax laws make it impossible to spend more than 90 days a year in his homeland without going broke. His proudest investment may well be son Jason, 20, by his first wife, actress Diane (Tom Jones) Cilento. The lad made his film debut in Lords of Discipline this year. Though Connery’s own truckdriver father is deceased and his mother bedridden, Sean is atypically emotional about home and hearth. His suntanned arms are emblazoned with two tattoos: One says, “Scotland Forever,” the other, “Mum and Dad.”

Still, coming home to Bond is another matter. For Connery, Never Say Never Again is a movie title, not a promise. “Why do it again,” he says. “I’m too old.”