Friday, March 15

My First Favorite Irishman

Irish actors have always had it.  Not altogether sure I know what it is but if you got it, I will spot it.  They have an ability to light a fire in others oftimes by doing little more than just standing there.  Many radiate sex, allure, promise, often set off by masculine good looks.  And they know it.  My first favorite Irishman was Stephen Boyd.  It's a good time of year to chat him up.

Boyd started in films in the early fifties, just at the time I was discovering them.  He was born in Northern Ireland, one of 11 children.  He didn't discover acting until early adulthood when he took to the Irish stage and then in radio.  His voice was clearly one of his finest attributes.  In my opinion, the face wasn't bad either.  He would eventually find his way over to England where he would engage in more stage work and for the first time the telly.  As a result of that, he was discovered by 20th Century Fox and put under contract.

He was usually a bit rough around the edges.  The nostrils flared when he expressed stabs of temperament and he could be very tender when the part called for it.  His working-class background was usually always in evidence.  Described here is the man on the silver screen and in real life although like a lot of actors in the early fifties, he hid his sexuality.  He would rarely take part in silly publicity and there were no rumors of his dating a comely costar.

His first film under his Fox contract was an English film entitled The Man Who Never Was.  It was kind of a breakout film for the usually fussy Clifton Webb and costarred a major favorite actress, Gloria Grahame.  Boyd played an IRA member spying for the Nazis.  He and Webb became pals.

He went on to play Joan Collins' well-connected boyfriend in the all-star Island in the Sun about race relations and murder in Barbados.  It was the first film to put him squarely in the public eye.  Throughout his lifetime he would work in both American and European films.  He would next costar for the first of two times with international sexpot Brigitte Bardot in The Night Heaven Fell (1956) and tongues wagged about the sex kitten and the hunk.  They would work again in 1968 in the unusual western, Shalako... he as a nasty, nasty bad guy.

In 1958 he would be a bad guy in another western, his first, The Bravados with Gregory Peck.  Next up were arguably my two favorite Boyd films.  In Woman Obsessed he plays a farmhand whom Susan Hayward marries, barely knowing him.  Things fall apart before they work out.  The Best of Everything was quite a departure for him.  First of all it was chiefly about three women trying to make a go of it in teeming Manhattan and Boyd was all Brooks Brothered as the guy who loved Hope Lange.

With Hope Lange in The Best of Everything

I liked her almost as much as I liked him and it was to my immense delight that I saw them talking seriously to someone (the director?) on a New York set during one of my under-the-fence maneuvers at Fox Studios.

Director extraordinaire William Wyler remembered Boyd from The Man Who Never Was and assigned him the plum role of Messala, arch rival to Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur.  Boyd would hit pay dirt with this role, the most famous of his career.  An amusing side note comes from Gore Vidal who wrote much of the screenplay.  Vidal suggests that Messala be played as a little gay in some key scenes with Heston, a total homophobe, which is what happened with Boyd in on the joke and Heston not.  It is with wry amusement that I watch their scenes together.

Trading in their teams of horses

History would have played out a lot differently for a number of people had Boyd completed Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor.  He probably would have been added to her rather large list of gay best friends or been one of her bisexual husbands.  But her illnesses and other delays caused him to leave the production for other work and Richard Burton was hired to play Marc Antony.

His next two Fox films, The Big Gamble, an African adventure involving trucking and Lisa, a WWII drama where he attempts to smuggle Dolores Hart back to her homeland, were fun but flawed  and went nowhere.  I would own them both if they were available.

To this day he seems the oddest choice to be in a Doris Day movie, but there he was singing alongside the blonde canary in Jumbo, an absolutely lame circus movie that costarred Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye as Day's parents.  He certainly was one of the butchest leading men she ever had.

The Third Secret, with the delightful English child actress, Pamela Franklin, belongs in the same category with Lisa and The Big Gamble... a few missteps but otherwise a fun, engaging story of a young girl who refuses to believe her father's death was a suicide.  She needs an adult ally.  How about a handsome Irishman?

Up next was the film the actor says was the cause of the fall of his career... The Fall of the Roman Empire.   After Ben-Hur, it's only reasonable that Fox would stock his dressing room with togas and breastplates.  Boyd may have been miscast, I dunno.  Not objective here.  He did seem kind of foppish with blond hair but there was Sophia Loren to romance.  Hell, even I would have stood in line to do that.  Despite a wonderful look and an international cast that included Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, Omar Sharif and Mel Ferrer, this cast-of-thousands epic did a belly flop at the box office. 

Personally I didn't think it was any better or worse than any other in this genre.   But Boyd was right... with one possible exception, his career lost it momentum and there was no chance to regain it in the  few films he had yet to make.

That one exception was Fantastic Voyage (1966).  It was rather visually fascinating as a submarine and its crew are shrunken to microscopic size and injected into the bloodstream of a scientist who needs a wound repaired.  With a cast that includes Raquel Welch, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Pleasence, Edmond O'Brien and Arthur O'Connell, I found it highly entertaining.  I can only wonder how much greater it would be if remade today. 

There were a couple of marriages because they were necessary as hell back then.  While he did say that The Fall of the Roman Empire ruined his career, he also said that he felt he had lost his knack for acting.  He hadn't lost interest, per se; he felt he lost know-how.  I don't think I've ever heard another actor say that.

He had a love of golf and I have a special affection knowing he died of a heart attack while doing something he loved so much.  We should all be so lucky.  Unfortunately he was only a month shy of his 46th birthday.

I will always remember him for being a good actor, for so aptly playing vile villains and also tender good guys.  Regardless of which, he never missed a beat with the glamor.  Stephen Boyd started me on my Irish actor bent.  Soon after him was Harris and O'Toole.  Later came Branagh and Neeson and still later Farrell and Rhys Meyers.  Oh yes, and someone called Daniel Day-Lewis.  And we're not through yet.  Today we have Michael Fassbender who has come to steal my heart away.

Review of Stoker


  1. You know an Irishman that caught my attention was Gabriel Byrne. Unfortunately his resume isn't much to speak of, but I first saw him in Point of No Return (1993 remake of La Femme Nikita). Bad movie, but he smoldered in it. I also loved his small part in Little Women (1994). I think most of my generation knows him from The Usual Suspects. I caught him in a few episodes of the HBO show In Treatment (he played a psychotherapist) and again, smoldering. He's easy on the eyes for sure!

  2. Love Stephen Boyd! Very talented and handsome actor!! One comment though...Stephen Boyd didn't hide his sexuality as far as my research goes. He was not gay. Reference his 70's movies and his very passionate affair and gypsy wedding with actress Marisa Mell. Thanks for the article!

  3. Stephen Boyd wasn't gay, as you seem to imply....:) reference affair with Marisa Mell. :)

  4. I suspect he was deeply closeted. Don't be confused with any actor's affair (or marriage) to a member of the opposite sex. Additionally, friends at Fox assured me he was gay and Clifton Webb, Raquel Welch and Gore Vidal all said so. We can agree to disagree. Thanks for writing, A.