Wednesday, March 31, 2010

White Supremacy

There’s a bit of a frenzy going on these days with our featured actress Miss Betty White. Despite the fact that she’s pushing 90, she is every bit as popular as she ever was and, as a result, the public basically cried out that she MUST be a guest host on Saturday Night Live. The producers took heed of this grassroots movement and she will do the honors on May 8th. It will be the first time I will have bothered to tune into the program in years.

Betty White was born just that, Betty Marion White, not Elizabeth, in Oak Park, Illinois in 1922 to doting parents. They didn’t have a tremendous amount of money, but they had affection, humor and always a collection of dogs in and around their home. Eventually, they moved to Los Angeles and Betty was raised in the shadow of the major Hollywood Studios. However, after briefly considering opera, she had goals of being a writer rather than an actress until she wrote a play for school, cast herself in the lead and was bit by the bug.

Shortly after high school, she took part in an early television broadcast, one that, according to her was like “science fiction” as the signal was delivered all the way from the 6th floor of a building to the ground! During WWII, Betty served in a volunteer organization, complete with uniform, displaying the type of sacrifice and dedication to home and flag that is all but extinct amongst a great many of the people who live in the US now.

Not long after the war was over, Betty was married twice briefly, both times unsuccessfully, knowing in her heart that a career was what she really craved more than housework or children. These failures, in her eyes, would put her off the notion of marriage for a long time.

Now single, Miss White started working in television on a local (L.A.) level, often logging 33 hours a week as a live TV hostess! Think about that… She practically lived on TV and this doesn’t count any of the prep time beforehand or even the additional variety show that she worked on every weeknight for a time! Always a multi-tasker, she continued to do informational programming (including the production end, in which she was a female pioneer) even as she was granted her own sitcom Life With Elizabeth.

Life With Elizabeth ran from 1952 – 1955 and was eventually syndicated nationally, giving her a far broader audience than she had enjoyed while working endlessly on the Los Angeles station. It’s almost impossible to count how many hours of TV White delivered while appearing as a sitcom actress, a variety and talk show hostess, a game show panelist and even the commentator for the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Not one to pigeonhole herself, she even won a role in formidable director Otto Preminger’s 1962 film Advise and Consent, as a female senator. Still, during the bulk of the 60s, White was a game show staple, appearing on To Tell the Truth, What’s My Line? and, most importantly, Password. Betty has appeared on every incarnation of Password right up to the crappy recent one with Regis Philbin in which she helped a contestant win $100,000! Through Password, she would connect with the man who became the great partner of her life, the original host of the show Allen Ludden.

Due to her two previous divorces, it took a lot of needling to get Betty to take the plunge again, but she did and it resulted in almost 18 blissful years of marriage for her. She and Allen forged a family with his three children from a deceased wife and a home full of various dogs, which Betty has never been without. Soon, she converted Allen into an animal lover as well and they appeared together on her 1971 series The Pet Set and, later, on The Liar's Club. The couple also worked together in stage productions around the US, notably Critic’s Choice and Guys and Dolls.

Betty became a frequent guest on Match Game as well and could always be counted on for clever answers, often with a sly double meaning. She was never, ever vulgar, but very knowing, amusing, vivacious and sharp. Occasionally, her well-known adoration of animals would become the brunt of a joke and she would feign (or maybe not feign!) horror. One episode had her playfully doing the start of a striptease while bump ‘n grind music played. She traded barbs with pal Brett Somers and almost became a sort of honorary fourth regular on the six-person celebrity panel.

Ludden and White had a strong friendship with network executive Grant Tinker and his wife, TV superstar Mary Tyler Moore. They regularly dined together, played games and so on. When some of Moore’s costars from The Mary Tyler Moore Show were preparing to spin-off into their own successful series, there would a void left on the program, so they decided to integrate another character. Producers decided to go for a “Betty White type,” but one in which the effervescent, cheery outward persona actually hid a devious, egocentric and sexually voracious inner self. Finally, when casting such a role became more of a trial than the powers that be anticipated, Moore asked them why they didn’t just ask BETTY WHITE!
Betty appeared on the show, sporting hair much lighter than she’d worn it in the previous couple of decades, and was an instant smash. She played Sue Ann Nivens, a happy homemaker personality who did on air demonstrations of cooking and crafts while delighting in cheerily deriding Mary’s character, emasculating Murray (played by Gavin MacLeod) and flirting heavily with boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner.) One memorable episode had MacLeod playing dress dummy for a wedding gown, enduring everything he could until finally he plopped White ass-first into the wedding cake meant for the segment. White, as only she could, took it like a trooper, licking her finger and stating that it could have used more vanilla.

This series went out on a very high note and could have continued for years longer, but Moore wished to stop it before the success was bled dry and the creative juices had a chance to grow stagnant. The final episode involved the primary cast, including White tearfully hugging one another goodbye while shuffling across the floor en masse to the box of Kleenexes that was nearby. White was sad to see such a plum role end, but she was nominated for an Emmy three times and won twice!

Like most of the other people from that series, she was quickly given her own show with the wildly creative title The Betty White Show. She played the unlikely part of a TV actress starring on a police series called “Undercover Woman.” Her costar was John Hillerman, who would later go on to success as the employer of Magnum P.I. Her Moore costar Georgia Engel appeared in this series as well. Though Betty always gave (and gives!) 110% to any project, this cheap-looking, unfunny show died a pretty quick death.

On the subject of death, Betty’s soul mate Allen Ludden died of cancer in 1981, robbing the couple of a lot of fun years ahead. White has scarcely had a slow moment in her career, but for a little while did limit her projects before diving back in to the work she adored, work she knew would keep her sane during this unhappy time.

In 1983, White became the first woman to win an Emmy for hosting a game show, the short-lived series Just Men! It featured two female contestants being asked to guess details about seven male celebrities who were present on the set with correct answers providing keys, one of which would open a new car!

White had been a frequent guest star on the wildly popular The Carol Burnett Show, sometimes appearing in the “Family” sketches as Eunice’s uppity sister Ellen. Later, when Vicki Lawrence began the series Mama’s Family (without the character of Eunice), White appeared quite a few times as Ellen, even working a little bit with Rue McClanahan, who played Lawrence’s sister Aunt Fran for one season. These two actresses would soon be reunited in a far greener pasture.

Susan Harris, who had written the popular series Soap and had contributed episodes to such acclaimed series as All in the Family and Maude, came up with a pilot script for an unusual series focusing on four older women, all either widowed or divorced, who cohabitate in a house in Miami, Florida. Called The Golden Girls, White was brought in to read for the sassy, sexy, southern belle Blanche, a character well within the range she had shown previously, in fact almost a combination of Sue Ann and Ellen. McClanahan, likewise, was cast in the role of Rose, a variation on the ditz Vivian she had portrayed on Maude.

She won the part, but right before the pilot was filmed, the director suggested that White and McClanahan switch roles in order to play against type and mix things up. This thrilled McClanahan who was dying to play Blanche, but confused White who felt she didn’t “get” Rose at all. Harris explained the part to her, giving her key information on how to play the role and from then on she soared. Her endearing naiveté and loony St. Olaf stories kept audiences screaming. In the attached photo, do we think Blanche could get the dang kitchen cabinets fixed a little better??

The Golden Girls ran for seven seasons and White was nominated for an Emmy every one of them. She won the first time she was nominated and though eventually all four of the stars received an Emmy apiece, the fact that she won before top-billed Bea Arthur seemed to cast a pall over things according to White’s autobiography. Rumors have persisted to this day of a feud between the two ladies with hearty evidence on both sides (that there was or wasn’t one.) Their styles of acting and interacting with the studio audience were vastly different, causing some degree of tension. As the show progressed, they had less and less interaction onscreen and, later, White and Arthur frequently declined to participate in videographies of one another or mention each other beyond a brief sentence. (Don’t let the crafty editors of Intimate Portrait fool you. Betty’s clips in Bea’s portrait were lifted from her own and have no mention of Bea at all in them.) Yet Arthur always refused to leave for lunch unless White was ready to come as well and insisted that she sit with her.

For my part, I think they were just too different to fully get along and also had incompatible feelings regarding their work. Bea always had to be lured into things, often preferring to stay home, and was quick to move on while Betty was a trooper and a workhorse, always ready to keep things going forever. They seem to have buried whatever hatchet may have been present when they, with Rue, accepted an award from TVLand in 2008, though perhaps they just grinned and bore it for the fans’ sake. It’s sad to think of these two disliking one another because I adore them both.

The show was a stunning success, spending five of its seven seasons in the top ten and gaining legions of fans, even after cancellation, due to the endless, multitudinous reruns, primarily on Lifetime TV (and later on Women’s Entertainment and Hallmark, in increasingly butchered versions.) When, like Mary Tyler Moore, Arthur decided to depart the series while it was still a reasonable success (and it, like Moore, went out with a memorable tear-filled hugfest), White, McClanahan and Estelle Getty made the unwise decision to try to continue in the utterly horrendous The Golden Palace. Not only was the dynamic destroyed by the absence of Arthur’s dry character, but also the setting was entirely new (and inane.) It was cancelled after limping along for most of a season.

In the wake of this memorable role, White stayed busier than ever before. Not only did she continue volunteering at The Los Angeles Zoo, but tirelessly helped with other animal welfare organizations as well. Career-wise, she sought all sorts of roles that would help shake off the looniness and less-than-bright qualities that she displayed so well as Rose. She turned up in the Morgan Freeman-Christian Slater action flick Hard Rain. She and Red Buttons worked as a couple in the Bruce Willis-Michelle Pfeiffer film The Story of Us.

Then she blew the lid off of her image as a foul-mouthed, cranky farmwoman in the giant crocodile thriller Lake Placid. This was followed a few years later by her portrayal of a snooty, racist neighbor in the Steve Martin-Queen Latifah comedy Bringing Down the House. Along the way have been countless guest appearances on popular series, comedic dramatic, talk and even stints on daytime soap operas such as The Bold and the Beautiful, on which she played Susan Flannery’s troublesome mother. She’s been nominated for five more Emmy’s since the end of Girls, winning once more for a flamboyant role on The John Larroquette Show.

Miss White was always noted for her comic gifts and her effortlessly accessible persona. Her quick wit (aided by a lifetime of games and a mastery of words) was hard to top. Besides this, however, she possesses an unheralded gift for drama as well. During Girls, for example, she was called upon occasionally to illustrate some sensitive social situation or issue and was always top-notch, able to elicit emotion, even tears, from viewers.

Her career has been a startling, stunning success, but she is STILL on the go! She had a featured role in Sandra Bullock’s popular film The Proposal, still making audiences howl as she searched her old wedding dress, with Bullock in it, for the breasts, comparing the task to an “Easter Egg Hunt!” Bullock had the honor of presenting Miss White with a Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year and White was, again, sharp as a tack, hilarious, humble, mischievous, witty and somehow poignant.
Now comes the announcement that not only will she be hosting SNL, but she’s also about to costar in yet another sitcom! She will be playing the snappy, combative housekeeper to a threesome of L.A. transplants living in Cleveland. The TVLand series Hot in Cleveland (of which ten episodes have been ordered) stars Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick and, while it may not look entirely promising, one thing is positive. Betty White will make every moment of hers count.

Miss Betty White IS television. She’s literally been there from the start and taken part in virtually every type of production possible. What’s really amazing is that she was already 28 years old when she started to really get going. Had she not taken time off for civic duty and marriage, she could have (and surely would have) accomplished even more, though what she did do was more than any other human could dream of.

Do yourself a favor when you find you have the time and watch her Archive of American Television interview (presented in several sections on Part one is linked below. This lady, my friends, is a national treasure!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Back in the Swim of Things!

Okay. Let me just say that my brief time away from The Underworld, in which I tackled the theatre company newsletter, the musical play critique, my taxes and an avalanche of WORK was, in every way, far more aggravating and draining than I had ever anticipated! However, I am all done (well, not with work, but with the other extraneous “hazardous duties”) and am glad to be back doing my thing here.

New Year’s Eve, I stumbled upon an old acquaintance (one I hadn’t seen in more than a few years) at a party and, being that it was NYE, I was yammering on about The Poseidon Adventure. He absolutely floored me when he said that he’d just been reading about the movie THAT DAY and where do you think he’d been? RIGHT HERE! Since then, he’s revisited here a time or two and become interested in a few of the disaster genre films I have profiled. His favorite types of movies deal with the ocean, so, Jimbo, this oddity is for you, the title of which seems quite appropriate for this site.

The Neptune Factor, released in 1973, is a movie that I’d never even heard of until I was in my early 20s and is one that I waited many years to finally see (November of 2007, to be precise!) Produced during the early swell of the 1970s disaster movie cycle, this Canadian-made adventure film combines elements from that genre along with a little sci-fi. (Lalo Schifrin's score, notably in the opening, seems hell-bent on ripping off John Williams' one for Poseidon.)

The quite thrilling poster art for the film wrote checks that the actual movie never had a prayer of cashing! Elaborate scenes of mammoth sea life attacking divers and their underwater vessels might have put a few butts in the seats at first, but once word spread about what the reality of the movie was like, attendance trickled away.

Check out these lobby cards, cards which are generally meant to depict stolen moments from the actual movie, not just reproductions of the conceptual artwork! The distributors didn’t dare show what these scenes (some of which have no representation in the flick anyway!) looked like in the actual picture or no one would have bought a ticket! You can get the same effect of the giant fish in The Neptune Factor by going to Petland and pressing your face against the glass as close as you can get it.

To outline the basic premise, an undersea research lab charged with investigating the cause of earthquakes gets some firsthand data when a tremor rocks the ocean floor, sending the lab careening into a deep crevice. On the surface, doctors Walter Pidgeon and (the ever-busy) Yvette Mimieux, along with divers Ernest Borgnine and Donnelly Rhodes, attempt to locate the lab along with its three inhabitants, one of who is Mimieux's drippy, crooked-faced, fish-lipped boyfriend.

For a millisecond, it seems like there might be a dollop of beefcake involved in this film (and it surely couldn’t have hurt!) The divers tend to roam around inside their lab with their suits unzipped to their abdomen. However, most of them are either unattractive or otherwise hunk-resistant. The one shown here is probably the cutest, and I do like his hairy moobs, but his personality is grating, his hips are ginormous and he’s scarcely seen again after this anyway.

With time running out in the wake of the accident (the lab only has seven days worth of life support) and with no real clues to the lab's whereabouts, they call in Ben Gazzara, who operates a special deepwater sub called Neptune. With considerable difficulty and conflict, they discover that the lab has slipped far beneath the normal realm of exploration, meaning that Neptune must go to places heretofore never witnessed by man.

Once there, they find that the deepest recesses of the ocean contain massive, over-sized fish and sea life, thanks to the warmth emitted from nearby volcanic fissures, creatures that severely obstruct the crew's chances of retrieving the men they're searching for!

Pidgeon, who had just appeared previously with Mimieux in Skyjacked, is far beyond the peak of his talents here, often seeming befuddled and dispassionate, despite his inherent likeability from decades of prior screen triumphs. He kept working rather steadily about five years longer, but, sadly, would be dead in a decade due to a series of strokes.

Borgnine is markedly heavier than he was just one year earlier in The Poseidon Adventure, though, hysterically, his stunt double is notably more slender. His performance is almost reserved in contrast to some of his other, more bombastic, portrayals and he doesn't embarrass himself (even if he is not the first person who comes to mind as a deep sea diver!)

Mimieux is attractive, but hasn't got much to do besides look worried, stunned, awestruck and/or dazed most of the time. She does have a scuba scene in which the depth gets to her and she starts getting all loopy and disoriented. I can’t decide if she somehow wound up in a disproportionate number of movies that I happen to be attracted to or if she was, literally, placed in every single motion picture produced from 1960 to 1979.

New York actor Gazzara is horribly miscast and gives a stoic, wooden performance topped off with an atrocious Atlanta, GA accent. An actor who had some seriously challenging and memorable stage roles (including Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) as well as film parts (The Strange One and Anatomy of a Murder), a lot of people find him sexy. I can’t say I’m one of them, though, especially here.

Rhodes (far right in the photo below) is another one without a lot to do other than follow orders, but he retains his likable persona. He’s best remembered, in The Underworld at least, for playing one of Blanche Devereaux’s kindest and most appealing boyfriends in a single episode of The Golden Girls. (He was Jake, the caterer, who Blanche thought was beneath her until it was too late.) He’s otherwise known for a stint on Soap and that recent Battlestar Galactica redux, among many other things.

The film has been roundly criticized from its release right up to the present for its effects concerning the "giant" fish (actually regular old sea life and tropical fish projected UP CLOSE against the portals of the Neptune) and that aspect of the film is definitely preposterous, corny and poorly handled. However, there is still considerable tension and some otherwise fine miniature work and underwater photography. It must be said that the miniature work isn’t always flawless. Check out this horrendous publicity still in which some creatures (guppies?!) are attacking what looks to be a Neptune keychain…
Other times, the model work is more passable, as this blue-tinged snapshot demonstrates.
Another issue is the amount of light and clarity of the water at these murky depths and the premise that men can simply emerge from their vessels and scuba dive in pressures that are that intense.

One thing that robs the film of emotional impact is the fact that the audience barely gets to meet the trapped technicians before they disappear into the crevice and their plight is never shown again through the most of the duration of the film. Also, the finale is rushed, murky and very poorly handled. Much of it (notably a key attack) is done with a lot of double exposure to save on special effects money and effort.

Continuity is an issue as well. Mimieux appears in a different wash and wear outfit nearly every time she appears, even in the same day. This isn’t The Love Boat fer cryin’ out loud! It's a miracle her clothes don't change within scenes. (Note the way she and Pidgeon seem to wear the same outfits whenever they're on deck, no matter which day it is. Obviously, all of those moments were shot in one afternoon.) See if you can count how manytimes she's shown putting on or taking off a white lab coat.

More unbelievable than the giant fish is the presumption that Borgnine can shimmy in and out of his (oddly ragged considering how new everything else is!) scuba suit in the time allotted. He’s constantly making quick changes when we all know it probably took a small army to shoehorn him into the thing. Methinks the black marks on his suit are where it ruptured slightly from all the tugging and yanking on it!

Mimieux and Borgnine, would reunite a few years later in The Black Hole, another film in which they were confined to a vessel that was tossed into completely new and mysterious surroundings. A scene between the pair, which may have illuminated her relationship with the missing doctor and added a little more emotional depth to the story, was cut prior to release.

Still, there's something endearing about the clean, bright sets, the earnest performers, the mysterious and unusual aspects of the storyline and the mostly effective effects. As another online reviewer adeptly pointed out, in 1973 we had not yet been able to explore the oceans as we can now. The wreck of the Titanic had not yet been discovered. Audiences could suspend their disbelief just a tad more than they can now and they had more patience. That still doesn’t make the trick photography much more convincing, though. How scary is a giant clownfish?

Though it can be a bit tedious at times, it should be a reasonably pleasant viewing for fans of the stars or for fans of 70s disaster flicks. A superlative DVD came out in 2007, making this practically forgotten film available again to those who wish to plumb its depths.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Missive From the Depths of The Underworld

Greetings, faithful readers. I have the unfortunate displeasure of having to tell you that Poseidon’s Underworld will be going on a (hopefully brief) hiatus. I intend to be back “in the swim of things” by Friday the 26th or Monday the 29th.

I don’t typically share a tremendous amount of my “real” life with you, preferring to keep to the subjects at hand, but the simple truth is that I am completely overwhelmed with activities and responsibilities at the moment. I started this blog last September, partly as a way to fill a ton of down time I was having at work, but in the meantime I have been given two other time-consuming job duties. (I actually have to :::gasp::: WORK at work!) In addition to working full-time, I am a part-time actor - having performed in four productions in the last 12 months, work at a local zoo for 2 months during the holidays, am an adjudicator for a theatrical organization and write the newsletter for a theatre company – five issues a year!

So, in what is the “perfect storm” of coincidences, I have to write the March/April newsletter, write an in-depth critique of a local theatrical production and complete my taxes online (and work!) ALL at the same time over this next week! So I am drowning in activity and, unfortunately, the blog has to temporarily take a backseat.

To the eleven people reading this, please don’t give up on me! I will be back shortly with many more posts on disaster movies, women’s pictures, famous actresses, hunks of yesteryear and any other bizarre spillage from my brain that seeps out. Thank you for visiting the site and I’ll do my best to get back on it ASAP!


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Boy Oh Boyd!

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day we offer up another Irish celebrity. Mr. Stephen Boyd, of Glemgormley, Northern Ireland, appeared in close to fifty feature films, though he is generally best remembered by most folks for only one of them. One of nine children born to a truck driver, he was an unlikely candidate for a career in acting, but it was a craft he felt deep in his soul and one in which he would eventually excel.

While taking on various odd jobs during the day he began working with a semi-professional theatre group at night and on weekends. This eventually led to work with a professional company, The Ulster Theatre Group, with whom he played all sorts of roles over a three-year period. Eventually, he moved to London where he caught the eye of Sir Michael Redgrave and was placed in another theatre company while also doing some acting on BBC radio and television.

20th Century Fox snapped him up in 1956 and gave the lean, ruggedly handsome man a seven-year contract. His first film under that contract was in The Man Who Never Was, a spy film starring Clifton Webb in which Boyd played a Nazi spy. He inherited the part swiftly when the original German actor departed. The following year, he was cast in the harrowing nautical drama Abandon Ship!, which had Tyrone Power deciding who lived and who died in an overcrowded lifeboat.

Also in 1957, Boyd was part of the multi-star cast of Island in the Sun. The film, focusing on interracial love on a British-ruled Caribbean island, counted James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and Joan Collins among its players. Boyd was paired with Collins for much of the film and it was not the only time he would costar with a major beauty.

The following year, he played the lover of Brigitte Bardot in The Night Heaven Fell. Boyd complained, though, of attempting to do serious love scenes with her while she contorted her body into whatever position was best for showing off her behind! With her (soon to be ex-) husband Roger Vadim directing, however, it’s not as if his complaints were going to be given much ear time.

Also in 1958, he played a nasty villain in The Bravados, a Gregory Peck revenge western that also had Joan Collins in the cast. He was one of four bad guys pursued by Peck and was in good company as the others were Albert Salmi, Henry Silva and Lee Van Cleef. Accused of raping and killing Peck’s wife, his character claimed innocence, yet wasn’t above taking another young lady captive and pawing her.

1959 proved to be a banner year for Boyd. First up was the awkwardly titled Woman Obsessed. Susan Hayward played a widow with a young son who eventually marries the very rough and crude Boyd and has trouble adjusting to his manner. Hayward had just won her coveted Oscar and it was a good opportunity to be her leading man.

Perhaps less important then, but much fun now, was his next film The Best of Everything. He played the suave, heavy drinking, publishing executive who sweeps Hope Lange off her feet, but threatens to drop her right down again thanks to his hang-ups. She was one of three career girls, the other being Suzy Parker and Diane Baker, who work under the thumb of a fire-breathing Joan Crawford. It was nice for Boyd to appear in tailored grey suits, a contrast to his next, and perhaps greatest, part.

Legendary director William Wyler had seen Boyd’s performance in The Man Who Never Was and liked him so much he decided to cast him as the chief villain in his upcoming (and mammoth!) Biblical epic Ben-Hur. Boyd, whose cleft chin seemed ready-made to support a Roman helmet, took on the role of Messala, the boyhood friend of Judah Ben-Hur (played by Charlton Heston) who eventually turns into his violent enemy. (Unbelievably, one of the early contenders for the role – who was even screen-tested, was none other than Leslie Nielson!)

A grand scale remake of the 1925 silent classic, Ben-Hur had Heston suffering multitudinous hardships including the imprisonment of his family and his own enslavement in the galley of a ship, all at the hands of his boyhood friend Boyd, who now despises him beyond all reason. Boyd wore brown contacts in this film, giving him a different, more menacing look. Much has been written about the dynamic between these characters with many folks believing that the sort of spurned enmity that Boyd displays could only have from that of a former lover. The story goes that Boyd decided to play it that way, and director Wyler knew but didn’t want Heston to be told, lest he would bristle at the notion.

Whatever the case, Boyd gave a blistering portrayal of embittered fury, culminated in a furious chariot race, one of the greatest stunt spectacles of all time. Real horses, real chariots, real people. Despite the ravenous malice between their characters, Heston and Boyd appear to have gotten along quite well personally. Look at these amusing shots of them palling around with a scooter in between takes of the horse race.

For his stellar work in the movie, he won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Oscar. Astonishingly, he wasn’t even nominated for the Oscar! Nowadays, there’s typically a stifling uniformity amongst the cinema awards shows, with almost all of the same five nominees vying for the prize (and frequently the same ones winning them all.) The year Boyd won the Globe, only one of the five nominees (Robert Vaughn for The Young Philadelphians) was given an Oscar nom. The rest of the names were totally different! In an odd reverse, Heston, who won the Oscar that year, did not win the Golden Globe, though he clearly came out on the better side of things.

Somehow, except for one TV appearance, Boyd was absent from the screen until 1961, thus there was no considerable follow up to the great success of Ben-Hur. He made a film called The Big Gamble, about a man and his wife trying to establish a trucking company on The Ivory Coast. It was a completely different type of character and film than what he had just done. Judging from the publicity photo shown here, he seems to have, um, become enamored of his leading lady Juliette Greco.

He was the original choice to play James Bond in Dr. No, but didn’t accept the role. He did accept the part of Marc Anthony in Cleopatra, but when Elizabeth Taylor’s illness ground the production to a halt, he (and Peter Finch, who had been Julius Caesar) moved on, eventually to be replaced by Richard Burton and Rex Harrison, respectively. Who knows how things would have turned out had Taylor never met Burton, and begun an infamous affair, when filming resumed later.

Boyd was said to have always gone after roles that appealed to him regardless of the money, the prestige or any other trappings. He wanted variety and creative satisfaction more than stardom, so he embraced smaller films such as this one. In fact, he always viewed himself as a character actor and couldn’t understand why the studio kept trying to mold him into a leading man. While he could, and did, carry films, his rough hewn looks lent themselves more to villainous parts or more colorful characters.

In 1962, he made the film Lisa with Dolores Hart. She played a wayward girl, just out of a Nazi concentration camp and on her way to Israel, who finds herself aligned with Boyd. Hart is unable to love compassionate Boyd because of some monstrous experiments done to her while in captivity. The two stars hit it off and became friends, even after Hart left the movie business not long afterwards and became a nun (which she still is to this day.)

A real departure for Boyd came that same year when he played the leading man opposite Doris Day in the circus-themed musical Billy Rose’s Jumbo. (Jumbo was actually an elephant, star attraction at the circus.) A massive extravaganza, he, nonetheless, was not entirely at home in the genre and many viewers cited him as not being up to the task of singing and performing opposite Day (who was the number one box office star at that time.) The film was not much of a success, though he is handsome in it and wears some figure-hugging tights in some of the performance scenes.

After working on the psychiatric-flavored mystery The Third Secret, a film Boyd did for a cut in salary because he liked the part, it was back to the days of togas and breastplates in The Fall of the Roman Empire. Originally conceived as a reunion of El Cid stars Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren, Heston rejected the script and Boyd was chosen to star (after a few others, including Kirk Douglas, passed on it.)

The cast list, even apart from Loren and Boyd, is staggering: Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer, Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif and Mel Ferrer. Plummer, in particular, is terrific as the spoiled Emperor Commodus (a role later assayed by Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. In fact, both films contain many of the same historical figures.)

One of the last really spectacular epics of that time, there’s a lavish, opulent, yet austere quality to it. The sets are among the greatest ever built for a film of this type. Boyd (saddled with an unfortunate blonde dye job) needed little impetus to generate passion for Loren, who he found to be one of the most striking women in the world, but audiences weren’t interested. The film was a massive flop.

The following year, Boyd, along with Sharif and Mason, made the Mongol adventure film Genghis Khan. Sharif had the title role, but Boyd was given top-billing as Khan’s arch-enemy. (This rendition of the famed conqueror makes Genghis Khan out to be a hero!) This time out, Boyd made no attempt at any sort of dimensional character and was just a flat-out barbaric villain from start to finish.

The next credit on Stephen’s resume is one of the most notorious. He always blamed the failure of The Fall of the Roman Empire for the downturn of his Hollywood career, but this dog certainly couldn’t have helped and surely did even more damage! The Oscar was the story of Frankie Fane, a two-bit hustler who manages to seep into the movie business and who will stop at nothing, stepping on and over everyone in his path, to gain wealth and success, with the ultimate goal being, of course, the title statuette.

Rarely, especially up to 1966, has such a relentlessly unsavory character been the lead role in a Hollywood feature film. For some reason, Boyd, again, played it very one-dimensionally nasty, and, coupled with the innate tackiness of the script and the all-star supporting cast, the result is a hoot-filled, glossy camp classic!

Regular readers here in The Underworld know that I’m a lunatic for movies with lots of stars in them and this one doesn’t disappoint. Just a few of the names to be seen here are Elke Sommer, Milton Berle, Eleanor Parker, Joseph, Cotten, Jill St. John, Edie Adams, Ernest Borgnine, Edith Head, Hedda Hopper and, in practically his sole (thank God!) acting role, Tony Bennett. This film will surely rate its own entry sometime soon (it’s a shame I missed the recent occasion of The Oscars as an occasion to profile it!)

Another notable credit of Boyd’s is the sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage. The innovative movie concerned a team of scientists being shrunk down to microscopic size and inserted into the bloodstream of a man in order to save his life. While inside the man, the vessel they’re in is treated like a virus at times, causing no small amount of distress. The breakout star of this film was Raquel Welch, who had a scene in which the other technicians had to remove dangerous particles from her clingy white wetsuit, though it must be said that Stephen looked nice in his getup as well.
John Huston used Boyd for a very brief role in his doomed epic, The Bible: In the Beginning. The ambitious, but not very successful film, sought to tell key stories from the good book, but wound up a hodgepodge of highlights, some better than others. Boyd, in a rather pointless segue, portrayed King Nimrod, the man who built The Tower of Babel and sought to travel all the way up to heaven (or at least close enough to shoot God with an arrow!) on it. Buried under heavy makeup, one would be hard-pressed to recognize him if they weren’t looking closely.

The next year brought the heist film The Caper of the Golden Bulls. He played a former bank robber living in Spain who is blackmailed into stealing from the Spanish National Bank of Pamplona. His girlfriend in the film was played by pretty Yvette Mimieux (who was everywhere during the 1960s!) For whatever reason, his plan to rob the bank involved him and his team of men to be shirtless, which was fine in his case, but less so for costars such as Vito Scotti.
In Assignment K, he played a toy company owner who is actually a British spy. Enemies kidnap his beautiful girlfriend Camilla Sparv in order to make him reveal the identities of his fellow agents. He then appeared in Shalako, a very different type of western starring Sean Connery and Boyd’s onetime costar Brigitte Bardot. All about a German hunting party in the American west who refuses to heed warnings about the Indians, it contains some memorable imagery and incidents. He plays a no good cowboy who runs off with one of the wives (Honor Blackman), leading to disaster.

Over the next decade, Boyd kept working, but often in lower budget, foreign or more obscure projects. He had an uncredited role in Welch’s revenge western Hannie Caulder and costarred with Jean Seberg in the messy Kill! Occasionally, he would appear in a TV-movie such as The Lives of Jenny Dolan, which starred Shirley Jones as a reporter investigating an assassination.

In 1977, he made something of a comeback, playing a ruthless kidnapper in The Heist. Snatching Stacy Keach's wife, he forces her to strip as he and his goons look on. His looks had notably deteriorated, but his acting talent was still evident. He was in the running for a role in the Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris film The Wild Geese. Unfortunately, while playing golf in California on June 2, 1977, he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was one month shy of 46 years of age.

Somehow in attempting to escape the trap of typecasting, Boyd managed to prevent himself from attaining the sort of persona that keeps an actor on top. Some opportunities, such as the Bond role or working on Cleopatra, might have led to a stronger foothold in the cinema, but he really didn’t care to pursue that, preferring to work only in roles that he had a particular interest in. Even if only for his work as Messala, though I’ve enjoyed him in many other things as well, he has earned a place in Poseidon’s Underworld.