How Stephen Boyd was cast in “The Man Who Never Was”, 1956

Stephen Boyd’s role in the WWII drama “The Man Who Never Was” brought him immediate attention and acclaim, and eventually led to his role in the MGM mega-spectacle “Ben-Hur” two years later. The story itself was inspired by the Ewen Montagu book, who recounts his own involvement in the British Navy to come up with a way to trick the Germans into thinking the Allied invasion would come into Greece instead of Sicily. The British took a corpse, loaded with misleading documents, and set him to sea, hoping he would be found by the Germans in an operation appropriately called “Operation Mincemeat.”  The body was found in Huelva, Spain and confounded the Germans just enough to give the Allies and advantage when they invaded Sicily to start the liberation of Italy and eventually the rest of Europe. Stephen would play an Irish spy who would go to England to try to discover is the body found in Spain was real, or fictitious.

In James Ellis’s book “Stephen Boyd: From Belfast to Hollywood”, Ellis interviews the then production assistant Dennis Van Thal and his assistant Guy Hamilton, who organized a screen-test for Stephen in Shepperton where Stephen was currently doing stage work and had been spotted by one of Van Thal’s talent scouts.

“A tall, shy young Irishman with a brogue you could cut with a knife and a pockmarked complexion which make-up soon covered. His natural nervousness was covered by intensely good manners. All I could do was try and stage the scene to show him off to his best advantage and relax his performance, which I remember was excellent  – strong, intense, but still lacking craft and experience. I occasionally ran into Stephen in the years that followed, always gentle  and courteous, and I watched with pleasure his stature grow in the screen.” (page 64)

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Stephen Boyd and fellow Irishman Cyril Cusack on the left. The two actors would be paired up again in 1972 for the excellent Hallmark Drama “The Hands of Cormac Joyce.”

Van Thal, who eventually became Stephen’s agent, was excited about the screen test and soon offered Boyd the role, even though the role had already been given to another actor. London Films mogul Sir Alexander Korda also saw the screen-test and approved of the move himself.  But the director Ronald Neame also needed to be convinced.

“Rather reluctantly I agreed to see the test, which of course featured Stephen Boyd. Dennis Van Thal had not overstated the case This was clearly a young man who was going to go a long way. He was the ideal screen actor – tremendous sincerity, integrity and a talent for grabbing your interest without resorting to histrionics. I was placed in an immediate dilemma. Dropping the other actor was not  a very kind=d thing to do and also very expensive. But on the basis of putting the interest of the quality of the film first, I dropped him and engaged Stephen.

“He played the part to perfection, giving it the realism so badly needed in a film which was 85% truth and only 15% fiction, this being the Irishman’s story.” (page 66)

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The film was released in March of 1956. A review at the time from the Ottawa Citizen describes Boyd and his own reaction to the movie.

Typical of the favorable comments is that of the mass circulation Daily Mirror” Boyd steals all the acting honors.

But Boyd says he isn’t too pleased with his own performance, although delighted with the press reviews.

“I feel I just wasn’t right. I’ve lots of room for improvement.”

Tall and dark haired, Boyd has a strong featured face that can switch from an engaging smile to a sinister menace in a flash. One press review said the most effective scenes of the film fall to Stephen Boyd and his “is the new face to notice.” (Ottawa Citizen, April 5, 1956)

Not only would Boyd catch director William Wyler’s eye in this movie, but Wyler would also cast two other actors from “The Man Who Never Was” in “Ben-Hur” ; Terence Longdon as  Drusus and Andre Morell as Sextus.

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The movie was later re-released in theaters in 1960, and obviously advertised the fact Stephen Boyd “Messala of BEN HUR” was in the movie!

Stephen Boyd and Mikaela in Spain, 1966

Stephen spent a good part of his movie career filming in Spain starting all the way back in 1957 with Brigitte Bardot on “The Night Heaven Fell,”  then again in 1963 for “The Fall of the Roman Empire,” for “Caper of the Golden Bulls” in 1966 , and yet again in 1968 for “Shalako.” Most of the movies Boyd filmed in the 1970’s were made in Spain. He seemed to genuinely enjoy the country for its food, wine, bull-fighting, and its women. At one point he was even dating a female matador! “Steve Boyd is letting his coleta grow (that’s a bullfighter’s pigtail, son) for the femme bullfighter he met in Madrid.” (Pittsburgh Press, Feb 7, 1963)

Boyd enjoys Pamplona during the filming of “The Caper of the Golden Bulls”, 1966

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“Off the set, Boyd spends much of his leisure time playing golf. But he became interested in a new hobby, bullfighting, when he acted opposite Brigitte Bardot in “The Night Heaven Fell”, most of which was filmed in Madrid. The famous Spanish matador Luis Miguel Dominguin, who fought in the bullring in the picture, awakened Boyd’s enthusiasm for the sport.

“Luis taught me how to manipulate the cape,” he says, “and I was almost ready to fight a small bull when I had to leave.” But Boyd is slated to return to Madrid to star in “The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” and will thus be able to continue working with Dominguin….

“I’ll try anything once,” he says, ” Like any good Irishman.” (Longview News Journal, April 7, 1963)

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Matador Luis Miguel Dominguin

Luckily for Stephen, and the poor bulls, I might add, he did not actually embark on this crazy hobby. But he did get to do a fun photo-op with lovely Spanish songstress Mikaela, who sang many rousing bull-fighting and ‘Toro’ oriented songs in the mid-late 1960’s. Here are some pictures below of the two snuggling, drinking and eating their way through the Spain in 1966 while Stephen was there filming “The Caper of the Golden Bulls”.

Olé!!!

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Stephen Boyd in “Beast of Marseilles” (Seven Thunders), 1957

Stephen Boyd spent most of 1957 romancing French starlets and sex-kittens. He started the year off filming the WWII drama “The Beast of Marseilles” with Anna Gaylor, which was filmed in Marseilles and London. Later that year he would go to Paris to meet Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim to begin filming “The Night Heaven Fell.”

“Stephen Boyd, young Irish actor who romances Joan Collins in “Island in the Sun,” won’t be coming to California in the near future. 20th Century Fox, where he’s under contract, loaned him to J. Arthur Rank to star in the Danny Angel production “Seven Thunders, ” which will be shot in England. French Star Anne Gaylor will play a top role and Hugo Fregonese directs.” (Los Angeles Times, March 23, 1957)

The film is based on a novel called “Seven Thunders” by Rupert Croft-Cooke. The movie follows the novel fairly closely, but it is well worth reading the novel to get more insight into all of these characters.

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Stephen truly commands the screen with ease,  considering this was his first major part. He is assisted by some wonderful English and French character actors which make all of the story lines engaging to watch.  Exactly a year after filming “The Beast of Marseilles” Stephen would be filming the biggest role of his career – Messala in “Ben-Hur.”

Stephen Boyd fights the crowd while trying to escape the Nazi destruction of Marseilles in “Seven Thunders”, 1957

Stephen Boyd commands the screen in his first true starring role.

“Stephen Boyd’s Main Assets: He Knows His Mind, Has ‘Wallop’ “, 1960 Interview by Erskine Johnson

STEPHEN BOYD’S MAIN ASSETS: HE KNOWS HIS MIND, HAS “WALLOP”

By Erskine Johnson

Jan 9, 1960

HOLLYWOOD- (NEA) – A brass hat and the armor of a Roman warrior in “Ben-Hur” does for Stephen Boyd what a tight dress does for Marilyn Monroe.

In the movie trade it’s called “box office wallop.”

Appearing in mufti in half a dozen movies, young Boyd, an Irishman from Belfast, was just a darn good actor, but one who started no fan riots.

But as the Roman heavy Messala in “Ben-Hur,” well, the riots have started. Old dolls are flipping their wigs, young dolls are flipping their pony tails and fan magazine editors are flipping their pages to make room for Boyd.

Boyd loses the chariot race to Charlton Heston in the film, but he wins big-time stardom as a “personality actor,” something we haven’t had on the screen in some time.

That costume literally turns him into a giant of a man and a giant of a star in the good, old Hollywood tradition. Today the offers are pouring in.

Movie makers can’t wait to have Boyd buckle on a sword for more swashbuckling all the way from ancient Rome to the walls of Disneyland, and he’s already been cast as Boaz in the new 20th Century Fox spectacle, “The Story of Ruth.”

But young actors in Hollywood today are rugged individualists – and that’s “The Story of Boyd,” who says he knows what kind of roles he can play and what kind of roles he cannot play, in no uncertain words and no uncertain tone of voice.

With his box office wallop hitting the big time in “Ben-Hur,” Fox, where he is under contract, immediately announced his casting as Boaz.

To which Boyd immediately announced, “no, thank you,” which immediately started Hollywood buzzing that he didn’t want to appear in another costumer spectacle immediately following “Ben-Hur,” or he didn’t like the script.

Both reasons are wrong, according to Boyd, who told me”

“I’m an actor who knows exactly what I’m capable of playing. I’m not ready for the role of Boaz. If someone asked me today to star in a film version of ‘Hamlet,’ I’d say the same thing – ‘I’m not ready.’

“I wouldn’t know what to do with Hamlet, and I don’t know what to do with Boaz. I think the picture would be much better without me. It’s a good script – a great script. It’s a great role – for someone else, not me.

“I’ve ruined pictures before because I’ve been talked into them against my better judgement. I’d starve – and I have starved – rather than accept a role I’m not ready for.

“I need to work, but this part is just wrong for me.”

Since he had been dedicated to acting since the age of 10, and since he is a moody, volatile fellow, the studio wasn’t too surprised.

Now threatened with suspension, Boyd is sitting it out while the studio and his agents fight it out.

Born in Belfast of a poor family, Boyd first appeared on U.S. movie screens as the Irish spy in “The Man Who Never Was.”

“Island in the Sun,” “The Bravados,” “Woman Obsessed,” and several European films, one with Brigitte Bardot, followed. “Ben-Hur” was his 12th, and the cincher for his career.

While working in “Ben-Hur” in Rome, he was married briefly to a doll who represents the MCA office there. By the time he returned to Hollywood they were divorced. His explanation:

“I honestly thought this was it, but I’m an Irish so-and-so when I’m working.”

Right now 20th Century Fox is discovering that he’s an Irish so-and-so when he doesn’t want to work in a role he says “I’m not ready for.*

‘Bad’ Stephen Boyd in “Slaves”, 1969

“Slaves” is one of my favorite Stephen Boyd roles. He plays a thoroughly corrupt slave-owner names Nathan MacKay in the early 19th century at a plantation in Mississippi. There is absolutely nothing redeeming about this handsome villain! Stephen must have had a great time relishing in another bad guy role.  Nathan MacKay reminds me a lot of Boyd’s other great villain, Messala, from “Ben-Hur”, even down to the whip he gets out to attack the hero at the climax of the movie, this time being his nemesis Luke Stillwill, played with incredible dignity by Ossie Davis.

At the time of making this film, Stephen said his only reason for doing the picture was not out of a social or moral obligation, but simply that he liked the role.

“Some people have the impression that people are in this picture because they want to say something. I don’t have a damn thing to say. MacKay says it, and what he says, God knows….Show me a business anywhere which is successful, and I will show you a man who could very easily be MacKay,” Boyd argues. “And that, to me, is really the point.”

Boyd had more to say after the movie had been released.

“You’ll search a long way before you find a more technically imperfect film, but that’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to make the first true picture of slavery in America and we did…The black problem was still an untouchable on the screen prior to “Slaves” because the new films made that touched on the problem didn’t make money. But we’re breaking records everywhere we opened, and that’s where it counts…”

Indeed it did! But the reason “Slaves” was popular really boils down to a couple of things – sex and violence. It was exploitation, or blaxsploitation, in this case.  I am sure the filmmakers had all the best, noble intentions for showing slavery for the horrid institution it was, but to sell a movie, you have to resort to other means.

The contrast is seen in the presentation of the “Slaves” LP cover compared to the movie poster.  The LP cover shows the real ugliness and inhumanity of slavery with a picture of an anonymous black man’s foot chained by a horrid looking cuff on a wooden plank. If this had been the movie poster, only a few brave souls would have walked in the door to see this film!

In comparison, the half-size movie poster is lavish and sexy with beautiful artwork showing a burning plantation with a handful of some violent scenes, like the whippings and hangings, but softened by the handsome Boyd, dignified Davis and beautiful Warwick.  These are all gorgeous people! The centerpiece is a defiant yet receptive Dionne Warwick being seduced by Stephen Boyd, who is just about to plant a kiss on her neck, clasping her naked shoulders. One look at this poster and audience feel immediate titillation and interest : interracial sex, violence, drama, Southern scenery and excess, a sort of diabolical “Gone with the Wind.”  Even the tagline on the poster is alluring – “The tamings…the desires..the furies of the Old South as you have never seen it!” –  “He bought her for $650. But she owned him!”

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“Slaves” review, 1971: “Plantation owner Stephen Boyd collects African sculpture, but the story is about Dionne Warwick’s progress from his cotton fields to his bedroom”

Speaking of breaking records, it looks like “Slaves” had a fairly lengthy shelf life. It was released in May of 1969, and continued to be played at drive-in movie theaters, paired with other exploitation flicks, as well as late-night, adult movie screens up through 1973, and then the midnight TV circuit into the late 70’s and 1980’s.

 

The entertaining review below is from the Schenectady Gazette from June 23, 1973.

“At State Has ‘Bad’ Boyd”

By Louise Boyka

“Slaves” when it came out several years ago was pretty much of a shocker. Even today Stephen  Boyd and Dionne Warwick seem to be trying to shock us all. It’s at the State Theater with “Girls are for Loving.”

Anyway, Boyd has always been a favorite actor of mine and I thought anything he was in shouldn’t be all bad. Boyd plays a Southern plantation owner.

And he’s all bad.

Let’s see. The color is flossy. The plantation is stagey and immense. Massa is after his slaves all the time with cruelty and evil intentions. Little babies arrive without proper medical care and Massa is atrocious.

The plantation owners from far and wide hold a top-level meeting. It’s in Massa’s living room. Massa Boyd tells them of the rotten way he treats his slaves. He gives a rather interesting lecture on the African tribes with whom he did business. The African chiefs arranged with him to sell their own people. He describes his African art collection.

Dionne Warwick sings haunting blues throughout. She’s very alluring with Massa Boyd. Her own people are skeptical about her. The film, entitled “Slaves,” goes on in lurid fashion and Massa Boyd is bad. Very bad.

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“She’s a slave who by day picks cotton and by night wallows lasciviously in the bed of her master. Between times she prances around the plantation in wildly colorful African garb and tribal makeup, a bourbon bottle under her arm and vengeance in her heart…Stephen Boyd is bland, but evil, as he approaches his mistress on his quest for what he calls “man-woman truth.”  (Detroit Free Press, July 4, 1969)

To read some excellent true accounts of slavery in the Southern States, please refer to such classics as Harriett Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1952),  and true life accounts by Harriet Jacobs in the riveting “Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl” (1861), and Frederick Douglass’s  classic account  in “The Narrative of a Life” (1845).