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.

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