To a man who once survived three weeks in London on a diet of cold water and ketchup, the life of a handsome, unattached male in movieland is just a bowl of cherries jubilee. He loves America and has already applied for his citizenship.
He drives a $9,000 car and has taken up golf. He has already brought one of his brothers over to this country and set him up in business. He bought his parents an air-conditioned house in his native Belfast. If this sounds as though his head might be spinning a bit, you have only to ask him how becoming a celebrity has changed him.
“I’m cleaner”, he says.
This may well be true. For he was born Billy Miller, youngest of nine kids, in the poorest part of Belfast. It was a rare day in his boyhood when there was enough food for two meals, let alone three.
At eight he was picked out of a bunch of Belfast urchins to play in a radio show. He took his mother’s maiden name, Boyd and went after more little theater roles. He swept theaters, painted scenery, set props – and sometimes got to act. By 15, he was so gaunt he looked 20. He lived and slept in theaters and ate whenever he had money. Eventually, at 17, he amassed a “pile” – five whole pounds (less than $20).
It was wealth enough for him to try to invade the English theater. A steamer to Liverpool cost three pounds. He landed in a downpour and proceeded to walk through it all the way to London. When he got there, the rain was still pouring, but he kept hiking, to theatrical offices. Nobody gave him a look-in. Darkness came. He was hungry and homeless. He saw a sign in a cheap restaurant – a man was wanted to serve tea and coffee. He promptly applied for the job and got it.
The salary wasn’t quite three pounds a week but it did include free dinners. “I served my first one right away – to me”, he recalls. He saved a pound a week, amassed 10 pounds, then quit.
He got a room, actually a passageway, with no windows and no privacy. And he tried to make meals of water spiked with ketchup he’d lifted from the restaurant. He caught pneumonia : his temperature climbed ; his funds hit bottom. His landlady, poor as he, threw him out.
Feverish and friendless, his only worldly possession was a guitar he’d carried all the way from Ireland – Lord knows why, because he couldn’t play it. (He still has it, but now he knows how to play it.)
Instinctively, he started walking toward the theatrical district, lifting his fine Irish voice in song and managing a not-too-sour chord on the guitar. The crowds gave him a pound and sixpence – and one theater gave him a job as doorman.
Which is where, a few weeks later, Sir Michael Redgrave came to accept an award. The person who was to present it had fallen ill and Boyd was pressed on stage to hand Redgrave his trophy.
Redgrave eyed the Boyd stance, the Boyd look, and said, “but surely, you are a professional actor. We shall have to do something about your meeting the right people.” He could do it, and he did.
In view of Stephen Boyd’s sex impact today, where during all this struggle were the ladies ?
They were there. In Ireland. In England. Yet he did not think much of matrimony. Until one day in Rome, while playing Messala, he met Mariella di Sarzena, an employee of his agents, and fell instantly in love. A week end or two later, he flew to London with Mariella and wed her. When Ben-Hur was finished, she did not return to Hollywood with him. Presently, their divorce was filed.
His unwed status delights the predatory ladies of Hollywood – and it does his box-office standing no harm either. Off screen, even more than on, he lives up to his romantic appearance. He greets all women by taking them in his arms and parts from them with flowery speeches. He completely dazzled our hostess by calling her “my dear wife” – though she was very much married.
In effect, he is having a beau’s arts ball.