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)
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)
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.