1957: BAFTA Nominee for Most Promising Newcomer to Film (The Man Who Never Was)
1960: Golden Globe Winner for Best Supporting Actor (Ben-Hur)
1963: Golden Globe Nominee for Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical / Comedy (Billy Rose's Jumbo)
“I think Stephen Boyd is one of those actors that is always met with the response “Who?” and I don’t think if you walk down the Walk of Fame you’re gonna see Stephen Boyd’s star in front of the Chinese Theatre. Most people probably know him as ‘that guy from Fantastic Voyag,e and he’s also onscreen with some of the most beautiful women of his time, so who’s looking at Stephen Boyd?” --- director John Turtletaub, clearly thinking from a purely (heterosexual) male perspective.
“The Liam Neeson of his day” --- writer Eddie McIllwaine
“This man was an important actor, and he starred in some of the biggest hit movies of all time” --- writer / historian John Cushnan
“If I were a young actor [today], I would look at Stephen Boyd pictures” --- Paramount producer A.C. Lyles
Long-overdue documentary on Stephen Boyd (born William Millar), arguably one of the most forgotten stars of the late fifties who broke huge with a co-starring role as the once good / vengefully evil Messala in Ben-Hur (1959) and within 10 years was off Hollywood’s A-list, and like many of his generation, popped up in various genre pictures in Italy before dying absurdly young.
That few (outside of classic film fans) remember Boyd is unintentionally due in part to his own making - not playing the star game, and publicizing himself long after the release of his last film.
Boyd is described by friends and family as a shy, warm-hearted man who didn’t care for the bright limelight, splashy parties, and getting his name in print. According to the doc, the massive attention surrounding Ben-Hur and its impressive cast perhaps pushed him farther into his private shell, and when Oscar nominations were announced, he was completely ignored. His studio, Twentieth Century-Fox, hired him out several times, and after Ben-Hur's release most producers saw Boyd as ideally suited for costume dramas – a factor that frustrated the actor when the material started to lose quality.
Boyd also didn’t care to attach himself to glamorous actresses for the tabloids, and he maintained a long relationship with non-star Elizabeth Mills, with whom he shared a fervent love of golf. Most likely the sampling of Hollywood's glitzy lifestyle was simply annoying to him, and golf provided a refuge which, unfortunately for his career, took over most of his joie de vivre; as one friend recalls, “Stephen didn’t live to act, Stephen acted to live,” and key to living was hitting that white ball across the links whenever he could.
That wasn’t the case when the actor began his career in Northern Ireland, working the stage, and busking in Leicester Square when he was dirt poor, but his luck eventually turned when producers and directors recognized he possessed a commanding presence – in physique, voice, and performance style - and cast him in small roles.
His break came when Fox cast him in a supporting role in the 1956 spy drama The Man Who Never Was, and after a string of modest parts in studio pictures and loan-outs, he was given a co-starring role in The Bravados (1958), Woman Obssessed [M] (1959), and The Best of Everything (1959) – the latter featuring a great ensemble cast of Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, Martha Hyer, Diane Baker, Brian Aherne, and Brett Halsey.
To make himself more palatable to producers, he fudged his background as Canadian, an idea that perhaps germinated during the making of Woman Obsessed, where he spun his light Irish accent into something pseudo-Canadian. The reasoning at the time was simple: the lack of an overt Irish accent made him tougher to cast, but he later ‘came out’ and acknowledge his Irish heritage – a move lauded by his family, and his hometown of Glengormley. Excerpts of his appearances on This is Your Life and What's My Line? (both in 1960) confirm his comfort and ease at simply being himself instead of a big screen star.
When he grew tired of the costume dramas (The Fall of the Roman Empire, Genghis Khan), he took a crack at the sci-fi genre with the cult favourite Fantastic Voyage (1966), but the film failed to boost his career; and The Oscar (1966) was a laughable dud that ranks as one of the best worst films ever made. The irony of The Oscar (a film deliberately ignored by the doc’s filmmakers) is surreal: Boyd, a partial introvert who eschewed mad publicity and felt his work spoke for himself, played an arrogant, back-stabbing bastard whose only goal is to win the famous bald statue using every means at his disposal. As antithetical to the real Boyd as the film’s anti-hero is, he was brilliantly hypnotic as Frank Fane, scumbag extraordinaire.
Like his Best co-star Brett Halsey (Four Times That Night), Boyd found the roles within in Hollywood were becoming poor, and he accepted a handful of Italian offers, which he interspersed with TV movies (Carter’s Army, aka The Black Brigade) and episodic guest spots, but whereas Halsey loved Italy and had fun making pictures, Boyd stuck to golfing in L.A., and it was during a game with Elizabeth that be felt ill, and suffered a massive heart attack at the age of 45 in 1977.
Boyd’s last two films- Michael Apted’s crime thriller The Squeeze (1977), and the exploitation shocker Lady Dracula (1978) - were released posthumously, but his films continue to play on classic cable stations, and had he been alive today, he would’ve enjoyed the attention and respect from fans, historians, and critics.
Ben-Hur will remain in print and in circulation in some format or another because it’s one of the most important biblical epics ever made, and Charlton Heston couldn’t have won his own Best Actor Oscar as Judah Ben-Hur without Boyd as his co-star, beautifully playing a scorned, vindictive childhood friend (or jilted lover, if you follow the Gore Vidal subtext).
Not on DVD, but worth tracking down whenever it airs over the BBC.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan