*Thanks to Emmanuel in France for sending me this article by email! This is a fascinating interview of Stephen Boyd’s sister, Rita, recalling his life. I don’t have a specific date on the article, but it was found by Brigitte Ivory who ran the first Stephen Boyd web tribute page and also appeared in his bio ‘The Man Who Never Was’ on BBC*
Stephen Boyd may have lived the life of a glamorous movie star, but he never forgot his family back home in Glengormley. According to his sister, Rita Millar, the actor who found fame on the silver screen made a point of coming home after every film and retained close links with friends in the village where he grew up.
Rita, who has returned to Newtownabbey after spending 24 years in Atlanta, Georgia, is one of five surviving members of the Millar family. The eldest son of the late James Alexander Millar and his wife Martha is 79-year-old James, who lives at Mallusk. Jack lives in Newtownbreda and his twin, Maisie Lynsey, has her home in Newtownards. Another sister, Meta Weir, lives in the Whiteabbey area. Billy has two other brothers, Harry and Alec, and a sister, Nessie Weir, all now deceased.
Rita recalls the young Billy as a “nice, well-mannered boyd” who was popular among his peers and a diligent student, first at Glengormley Primary School, then later at Ballyclare High School and Hugh’s Academy. He was also a keep sportsman, playing golf, tennis, rugby – in fact, he was even a member of the East Antrim hockey team for a short time.
Money he earned as a teenage message boy working for Davidson’s grocery shop in The Square was spent on trips to the Capital cinema in north Belfast, where he was in his element watching action movies. After making his name in amateur dramatics locally, Billy joined the Group Theatre and had some success on radio before trying his luck in Canada.
Billy returned to Britain in 1951 and, says Rita, he made a living working as a waiter in the London restaurant before obtaining a job as an usher at the Odeon in Leicester Square.
She recalls how he got his big break: “The manager of the Odeon called Billy into his office one day to tell him there was to be a big star, John Mills (I think Rita meant to say Michael Redgrave here, so I’m going to correct this mistake. Michael Redgrave’s reputation as a bisexual always lent this story about him and Boyd to a bit of wild speculation – why was he so interested in Boyd? Did Rita change the name on purpose to John Mills? Just food for thought….), visiting that night for an awards ceremony and Billy was to show him to his dressing room.
“Later, Michael Redgrave drew up in a big limousine and as he had come straight from filming, he wanted to freshen up–but he had no robe to change into.
“Billy offered to lend Michael Redgrave a robe, which he got from his home nearby, and the actor was grateful.
“He said to Billy: ‘ You look more like a film actor than I do.'”
The two men starting chatting and after hearing about Billy’s difficulties getting work as an actor, John Mills offered to write him a reference and to recommend him to a top agent. It was the break Billy had been waiting for. Soon he was playing the lead in a production by a top repertory company– and then it was off to America.
Rita explains how her brother made the transition from Billy Millar to Stephen Boyd: “It was an agent who suggested he should have a stage name and Billy chose Stephen because he had always like that name.
“He was keen to use Boyd because it was out mother’s maiden name. He was always very close to his mother.”
Films like Ben Hur, The Man Who Never Was, Island in the Sun, and The Fall of the Roman Empire made him a major star – and won him many female admirers, according to Rita. Among the famous leading ladies with whom he was linked were Sophia Loren, Hope Lange and Elizabeth Taylor. There was even a rumour at one time that he was going to marry the young Liza Minelli. Stephen’s first marriage, to Italian Mariella di Sarzana, was short-lived; so brief, in fact, that Rita and other members of the Millar family didn’t even meet their brother’s bride.
“It all happened during Ben Hur. Billy got hurt while filming the famous chariot race- it was a scene that really should have been done by a stuntman but Billy thought he could do it himself,” says Rita.
“He ended up with serious back injuries and was in danger of losing his eyesight. He was in hospital for some time and MGM sent a secretary – Mariella – to look after him. They got talking and Billy seemed to like her.
“They got married very quickly but had to delay their honeymoon because of Ben Hur. Unfortunately, the marriage didn’t last so we didn’t even meet Mariella, ” explains Rita.
A nurse by profession, Rita moved to Atlanta in 1974, after losing both parents in the early ’70s.
At this time the family home was in Bangor, the Millars facing moved from the house at Antrim Road in Glengormley which their film star son had bought for them.
“It was one of the first things Billy did when he made money as an actor- he bought a house for his parents,” he recalls. Rita was living and working in Atlanta when Billy died of a heart attack while playing golf near his Los Angeles home in 1977, leaving his bride of 11 months, former secretary Elizabeth Mills.
“It was such a shock-at first I thought there must be some mistake. I couldn’t take it in,” she says.
“A lot of big stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, turned out for the funeral. He was a very popular actor.”
However, as far as the folks back home were concerned, this great Hollywood star remained the same Billy Millar who spent afternoons riding around Glengormley on a bicycle laden with groceries – the same Billy Millar who made regular visits to Boyd’s shop on his way to rehearsels with Carnmoney Amateur Dramatic Society,
“He did not change as far as his family was concerned. He was always kind, considerate person,” says Rita.
“He may have been a big star, but underneath it all he was quite shy.”
Rita welcomes the prospect of a book about her brother by an American writing team who are keen to set the record straight about his achievements,
“A lot of people I have met over the years have said that Stephen didn’t get the recognition he deserved – they think he should have won Oscars for some of the roles he played, ” she adds.
“The whole family were very proud of him.”