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The Mummy: Rick O'Connell's Complete Backstory Explained

Rick O'Connell might not be as much of a household name as, say, Indiana Jones, but to a whole generation of fans, it's his face that comes to mind when they think action and adventure. Audiences met Rick (as played by Brendan Fraser) in 1999's Universal Studios reboot of "The Mummy." At the time, the film received decent reviews and was a hit at the box office, but back at the turn of the millennium, practically nobody recognized this genre-mashing romp through the Egyptian desert for what it was — a major game-changer that would influence blockbuster filmmaking for decades to come. 

"The Mummy" is too broadly popular to be called a cult classic, but it's become object of fascination for Millennials and Gen Z-ers who've claimed it as their ideal, modern version of a swashbuckling epic. It cemented its place in pop culture thanks in large part to its magnetic cast, with each actor imbuing their character with breadth and depth not typically seen in sword and sandal popcorn movies. That's true of Rachel Weisz's self-possessed, thrill-seeking librarian, and it's true of Fraser's Mummy hunter at the center of the story. Rick O'Connell is every bit as dashing as Indy and he's just as reliable in a tight spot, but he's also noticeably more mysterious and vulnerable, which makes him all the more attractive to Evie and the audience. This is how Rick O'Connell became the man so many know and love. 

He's an original creation for the 1999 remake

Though there have been plenty of mummy movies through the decades, 1999's "The Mummy" is a remake of sorts, built specifically on Universal's intellectual property. One of the "Universal Monsters" movies from among the studio's crown jewels, the 1932 version starring Boris Karloff as the titular Mummy does center around a reanimated Imhotep bent on finding his lost love, Ankh-esen-amun. In that film, Ardeth Bay (played by Oded Fehr in the update) is actually Imhotep posing as an Egyptologist. When Universal first decided to revive the franchise in 1987, they all but started from scratch. 

The film that would become 1999's "The Mummy" went through 20 years of stops and starts. At various points (per Cinefantastique), it was going to be a low-budget gritty horror flick directed by George A. Romero, a dark and steamy supernatural thriller directed by Clive Barker, and a big-budget close adaptation of the 1932 film directed by Spielberg protégé Joe Dante. Eventually, the project fell into the hands of screenwriter Kevin Jarre and director Stephen Sommers, who pitched a glossy PG-13 adventure with elements of horror, comedy, and romance. 

Jarre and Sommers were inspired by the discovery of King Tut's tomb in creating the characters of Evelyn and Jonathan Carnahan. Rachel Weisz's Evie is based on the real Lady Evelyn Carnarvon who accompanied her father the Earl of Carnarvon and explorer Howard Carter on that famed but cursed expedition (via Radio Times). But Rick O'Connell is a completely fictional character conceived of by Jarre and Sommers, though they pulled from the persona of swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, the archetype of Indiana Jones, and the 1963 film "Jason and the Argonauts" (per Entertainment Weekly).  

We have Brendan Fraser to thank for his sense of humor

Today, it's impossible to imagine anyone but Brendan Fraser in the role of suave, silly, swole Rick O'Connell. From his breakout appearance in 1992's "Encino Man" to his awards darling tour de force performance in 2022's "The Whale," Fraser has turned in 30 years' worth of varied, nuanced work. But he'll probably be best remembered for making Rick O'Connell so goofy, lovable, and relatable. Without Fraser's humble charm and aw-shucks smile, Rick likely would've been a more standard, humorless, tough guy action hero. That was very nearly the case, as Fraser wasn't remotely Universal's first choice. 

According to the Calgary Sun, Tom Cruise was offered the job first (ironically, he'd go on to star in the poorly-received 2017 remake). Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck were also in the running. They all passed, primarily because of scheduling conflicts. Fraser was hot off of the hit family film "George of the Jungle" and the Oscar-nominated drama "Gods and Monsters." He wasn't as established as his competition, but his star was quickly rising. Sommers told EW that, physically, Fraser was a perfect match for Rick O'Connell. And Fraser himself told Variety he thinks "The Mummy" succeeded because he doesn't take himself too seriously and infuses his characters with natural comedy and heart. Comparing his remake to Cruise's, Fraser believes the secret ingredient is fun. 

Not much is known about Rick's childhood

As for the actual character of Rick O'Connell, "The Mummy" franchise treats his biography as somewhat of a mystery, leaving viewers (and Evelyn for that matter) scant clues with which to piece together the puzzle of this alluring stranger from the desert. In fact, the films leave out some of the most important details altogether. More about Rick can be found in the novelizations of "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." 

Based on his accent alone, it should be obvious that Rick's an American. From context clues and dates provided throughout the franchise, we can gather that he was born in Chicago around 1902 or 1903 to an Irish-American father named Jack and a mother whose name is unknown. Though it appears the first ten years of his life were relatively uneventful (at least there's not much of a record of them within the lore of the franchise), "The Mummy Returns" and its novelization reveal more about what might be the most significant turning point in Rick's life: the loss of his parents. 

It's implied that his father disappeared, and that his mother died shortly after, when Rick was around 10 years old. That put him in an orphanage in Cairo (in some supplementary materials, the orphanage is said to be in Hong Kong). His father's dramatic and unexplained exit from his childhood implies there's more to the story of Jack O'Connell, who is said to have been an adventurer or explorer, too.

He was born into a life of adventure

Rick's time at the orphanage deepens the mystery about who he really is. In "The Mummy Returns," Ardeth notices a distinctive tattoo on Rick's wrist, one he kept strategically hidden in the first film. Ardeth asks him about the origins of the tattoo and Rick replies that it was simply slapped on him by his caretakers. Ardeth, wanting to know more, says the phrase, "I am a stranger traveling from the east, seeking that which is lost..." to which Rick automatically replies, "I am a stranger traveling from the west. It is I whom you seek." When Ardeth inquires about how he learned the correct response, Rick says he's known those words as far back as he can remember.

Ardeth tells Rick that he has the secret mark of the Medjai. The suggestion here is that Rick's father Jack was either a member of the Medjai (the ancient society of warrior protectors to which Ardeth belongs) or perhaps a member of the Knights Templar (since the mark and the phrase contain Masonic references as well, and Rick's heritage appears to be European), working in concert with guardians of the Pharaoh's tombs. Again, there's a discrepancy between the movie and the novelization; the movie holds that the O'Connells were Medjai while the book says Knights Templar. Either way, it seems that one or both of Rick's parents came from a long line of well-connected adventure seekers. By teaching him to repeat the secret code, and with the help of whomever was at the orphanage (if it was an orphanage at all), they took pains to prepare him to continue their mission even after they could no longer be there for their son.

He wasn't always a hero

When Evelyn and Jonathan first encounter Rick, he's behind bars, covered in a thick layer of filth with scraggly, grown out hair (we'll come back to this in a bit). "The Mummy Returns" confirms that Rick has been on the wrong side of the law before. After their son, Alex, is abducted by cultists, Rick tracks down one of his former associates, a pilot named Izzy Buttons, for transport. Izzy is reticent to help. He reminds Rick that every time they team up, he gets his "butt shot off." But he's eager to reminisce and divulges some juicy details about their past shenanigans. "Remember that bank job in Marrakesh?" he asks. 

Rick tells Evie it's not what it sounds like, but the story that follows — involving a shootout and a belly dancing girl — makes it clear that Rick and Izzy's past is exactly what it sounds like. The pilot, now of a dirigible instead of a plane, also mentions another incident in Tripoli and one involving a camel in Cairo. It seems that after Rick left the orphanage, he fell into a life of crime with Izzy Buttons. Rick was the thief and the con man, Izzy was the getaway driver. Considering that he spent his formative years without the guidance of parents, it makes sense that a teenage and 20-something Rick would go this route. With an enterprising spirit but no resources, he may have had no other choice. 

The French Foreign Legion gave him a second chance

Sometime prior to the events of "The Mummy," Rick joined the French Foreign Legion. We get our first glimpse of him as a member of this specially trained force, outfitted with a bandolier and several firearms. It's 1925, and hundreds of legionnaires are taking on hundreds of Tuareg horseman. Alongside Rick is Beni, a fellow legionnaire who quickly demonstrates that he's willing to switch sides to survive when he suggests that he and Rick either surrender or run away. Rick asks Beni how he ended up in the service of the French. "I got caught robbing a synagogue," he says. Then Beni asks Rick about the circumstances under which he joined. When Rick doesn't play along, Beni prods. Was it robbery, extortion, kidnapping, murder? Our protagonist finally replies, "I was just looking for a good time."

It's a smooth answer, but it's probably a partial lie. Of course, there really is a French Foreign Legion. Founded by King Louis Philippe in 1831, this unit of foreign-born soldiers helped protect and expand the French Empire. While today service in the Legion requires strong credentials, a background check, and the completion of boot camp, back then, the standards weren't so high. In the book "At the Edge of the World," author Jean-Vincent Blanchard writes, "The Legion, famously, did not ask too many questions concerning a troubled past." For enlisting, Rick and Beni would've been given food, shelter, and best of all, the opportunity to start over and embark on a new adventure. Rick says his battalion marched through Libya to Egypt because his commander believed in the legends of Hamunaptra and hoped to find treasure.

He survived Hamunaptra

"The Mummy" begins with a flashback to ancient events involving Imhotep and Anck-su-namun that let the audience know the myths about Hamunaptra are true, even if some legionnaires (Rick included) and other experts in the field aren't apt to put much stock in them. In the scene that follows, the French Foreign Legion fails miserably in their quest to uncover the secrets of the City of the Dead. They're almost entirely wiped out by the Tuareg; only Beni and Rick make it out alive. Beni persists because he's only looking out for himself. In this case, he hides behind a door that he closes before Rick can enter. Later, he tells Rick, "It is better to be the right hand of the Devil than in his path." But Rick survives thanks to his wit, physical prowess, and his status as a chosen-one type character. 

After the legion has been all but defeated, the Tuareg flee when their horses are spooked by the spirit of Imhotep. With his comrades dead, the Tuareg gone, and Beni trapped inside, Rick is left to fend for himself. As he bounds through the shifting sands, the Medjai — led by Ardeth Bay — watch from the crest of a sand dune and take an interest in him. It's a huge deal that Rick has made it to Hamunaptra, faced the evil there, and lived to tell the story. And the Medjai aren't the only ones who are impressed. 

But he got himself into trouble again

Most of "The Mummy" takes place approximately three years after the Battle of Hamunaptra, in roughly 1928. We don't know for certain how Rick had been spending his time in the interim, but from his haggard appearance, we can deduce that things haven't been going well. He gives another sly explanation as to why he's in prison — the same sly answer, in fact. He was just looking for a good time. We know that Jonathan pickpocketed what he calls a puzzle box from someone he calls a drunk at the local Casbah, which suggests that Rick has only recently been locked up. When he and Evie visit Rick in custody, Jonathan fibs that he merely found the puzzle box and would like to ask a few questions. Rick correctly guesses that what they really want are his services as a guide on a trek to Hamunaptra. 

It's possible that Rick ran afoul of local authorities in a bar fight that may have ensued after he realized the artifact had been stolen. But whatever Rick did, he's about to be hanged for his crimes. Especially in a piece of overly dramatic historical fiction like "The Mummy," it's not out of the question that someone like Rick could've been executed for such a minor offense as pub brawling. The more likely scenario, though, is that Rick's arrest identified him as a deserter, a crime for which he would've faced a death sentence. Since Rick's knowledge of Hamunaptra and his skill set are so rare and valuable, Evie negotiates with the warden for his release, and his and Evie's adventure — and life together — begins. 

His story continues in sequels and spinoffs

Rick becomes the hero we all know and love throughout the rest of "The Mummy" and the two cinematic sequels it spawned, "The Mummy Returns" and "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor." He marries Evie, and the couple moves to London to occupy her aristocratic parents' manor full of priceless relics. They have a son, Alex, who shares their love of history and archaeology and often accompanies them on their daring escapades. Evie is eventually revealed to have been Princess Nefertiri in a previous life, which makes this brainy and brave family even more super-powered. 

Rick's biography is expanded further by a series of "The Mummy" video games which were released between 2000 and 2008 on various platforms, as well as an animated series that ran for 26 episodes beginning in 2001 on the Kids' WB network. On the TV show, Rick, Evie, and Alex's appearances differ greatly from the movies, and an entirely new cast of voice actors takes over the roles, with Rick voiced by John Schneider. The series takes place in 1938 when Alex is meant to be around 10 years old, and it revisits several of the key plot points from "The Mummy" and "The Mummy Returns." The second and final season sees young Alex training with his father and Ardeth Bey to become a Medjai, like his ancestors before him. Though the franchise has gone dormant again, Brendan Fraser has expressed openness to returning to the world of "The Mummy," so Rick O'Connell may yet live to see another day and another adventure.