Vintage British Cinema
Stephen Boyd: The Star Who Never Was

Julian Upton 8th October 2012

The Man Who Never Was
  • The Third Secret
  • The Third Secret
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire
  • The Man Who Never Was

Julian Upton kicks off his blog with the fascinating tale of Stephen Boyd, an Irish actor whose early career went extremely well but, despite stand-out turns in Ben Hur and The Man Who Never Was, never reached the heights that seemed his destiny.

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Among the latest new releases from the good offices of Odeon Entertainment are The Man Who Never Was (1956) and The Third Secret (1964). Both feature Stephen Boyd — an actor we might now call the star who never was.

The earlier film, Boyd’s first major screen role, is a ripping yarn about a wartime attempt by The British to befuddle the Nazis by having a dead Englishman wash up on the shores of Spain, armed with papers detailing bogus Allied activities. The cast is stoically led by Clifton Webb, with emotional support from Gloria Grahame. But as an IRA spy sent by the Germans to investigate the dead man’s background, Boyd almost steals the movie from under everyone’s noses. Relentless and icily thorough, his O’ Reilly would give No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh a run for his money.

The Third Secret is different kettle of fish, a psychological thriller with Boyd as a TV presenter investigating the mysterious death of a psychoanalyst. Here he heads a star-studded cast including Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins and Judi Dench. But this time it’s his tenderness in scenes with the young Pamela Franklin (as the late doctor’s daughter) that stands out.

Such versatility leads me to open this new MovieMail blog with a tribute to this Northern Ireland-born, Hollywood-honed leading actor. Chisel-featured, strapping and possessed of an enchanting brogue that he sometimes disguised as Canadian, Stephen Boyd had all the makings of a movie icon. But these days he’s a forgotten man.

Even so, his initial trajectory to fame and fortune was somewhat meteoric. Born William Millar in County Antrim in 1931, he was working with the Ulster Theatre Group in his early 20s but started at the bottom when he came to London, busking for change in Leicester Square and working on the door at the Odeon Cinema. It was this job that led to an encounter with Michael Redgrave, who took a shine to Boyd and put in a word for him at the Windsor Repertory Company. From there he went onto roles in many early TV plays (when they were broadcast live) and a handful of British films. By 1956, aged 25, he was signed to a long contract with 20th Century Fox; The Man Who Never Was was his first assignment for the studio. When the film caught the eye of Hollywood hotshot William Wyler, he asked Fox to loan Boyd out for the MGM project he was preparing — Ben-Hur (1959), the biggest movie of the day.

Even next to a veteran of such thunderous epics — Charlton Heston — Boyd (as Messala) manages to steal all his scenes in Ben-Hur. He may have had an advantage, of course. According to the film’s script doctor Gore Vidal, when he rewrote a scene to subtly evoke Messala's unrequited homosexual love for Ben-Hur, Boyd was in the know and nuanced his performance accordingly. Heston remained in the dark; no-one thought it was a good idea to tell him about it.

Ben-Hur turned out to be the premature peak of Boyd's career. This was unfortunate; at 28, he had a lot more to give. But a run of bad luck and underperforming Hollywood movies threw him off course. He was a serious contender for James Bond in the first film of the series, Dr. No (1962), but couldn’t be released from his Fox contract; he was waiting to start work as Marc Antony in Cleopatra (1963). As it turned out, the unruly Cleopatra was delayed so much Boyd ended up not taking the role anyway (it went, of course, to Richard Burton). Instead he took part in what looked like the next best thing, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). That turned out to be just as big a flop.

Boyd nonetheless signed on for more historical epics — Genghis Khan (1965), The Bible (1966) — but they did little to challenge him or raise his profile, and the genre was fast going out of fashion. He did make a couple of interesting diversions, taking the starring role in the uber-camp indictment of Hollywood excess, The Oscar (1966), and leading a great cast (including Donald Pleasence and Raquel Welch) in the lively, offbeat sci-fi Fantastic Voyage (1966). But when his contract with Fox finally came to an end, so did the high profile roles.

He managed to stay busy over the next decade, but the work was uninspiring: flat westerns, Europudding thrillers and TV guest spots. By the mid-seventies, still relatively young but looking somewhat ravaged now, he had been written off as a Hollywood star. Then, out of the blue, came an electrifying turn as crime boss Vic in Michael Apted's terrific and still under-rated British thriller The Squeeze (1977). Restricted to two or three scenes, Boyd once again nearly steals the movie, and this time from a brilliant ensemble cast including Stacy Keach, David Hemmings, Edward Fox and Carol White. His Vic is the sort of character who would wipe the floor with Sexy Beast’s Don Logan without getting his ruffle-front dress shirt dirty. Afterwards he’d likely take a piss on him while enjoying a cigar.

Boyd professed to be disillusioned with acting at this time, but his performance in The Squeeze is more like an eye-catching debut than a comeback from a faded matinee idol. With his towering physique and weather beaten face, and by letting rip for the first time with the unrefined form of his native accent, he achieves a level of intimidation you never knew he had in him. Vic is such a nasty bastard you’d cross the Atlantic to avoid him.

Sadly, The Squeeze turned out to be both a swansong and a tantalising glimpse of what Boyd might have achieved further into middle age. As the film was on release, he died of a heart attack on a California golf course, a month shy of his 46th birthday.

Little has been written about Boyd since then, but he is surely ripe for a biography. Both Gore Vidal and, more recently, Raquel Welch have suggested he was secretly gay. Less secret, but nonetheless intriguing, were his links to the Church of Scientology, long before it was famed for attracting megastar followers.

But what’s most important is celebrating the man’s talent. Hopefully one day The Squeeze will get the attention (and the UK DVD release) it deserves. Until then we can at least savour Boyd’s great performances in a handful of available films, not least The Man Who Never Was and, of course, the mighty Ben-Hur.

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