Stephen Boyd talks about his proudest moments on stage and screen, and working with William Wyler!

Always a little too self-critical, Boyd was asked once in a a “Movieland” Magazine interview in December of 1962 to critique his own work. The answers may surprise you!

 “Tell me – even though you feel you’ve done nothing to deserve the current interest in you, what performances do you feel proudest of?”

“In motion pictures?”

“No, you can include the stage, TV and radio if you like.”

He tilted his head thoughtfully. “The best performance I ever gave in my life was Stanley Kowalski in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’  The second best performance that I ever gave was the part of Dr. Miller in ‘The Deep Blue Sea.’ Both were on the stage in London.” He leaned forward, counting now n the fingers of one hand. “And probably Number Three is a performance I gave on television in London in a play called ‘Barnett’s Folly.’ I played a very shy, weak young man. Next I would put ‘The Man Who Never Was.’ And somewhere in there I’d put ‘Ben-Hur.’ But only the death scene. It was the only thing I liked in my performance, the only thing where I felt I was getting close to what I wanted in that picture.”

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Boyd as Stanley in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Boyd also continued to speak about filming “Ben-Hur” and working with director William Wyler.

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“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.*

Stephen Boyd Interview, July 1964 : “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”

It’s so interesting to read some of Stephen’s interviews back in the day. Sometimes he could be too honest when speaking to the likes of journalists Hedda Hooper, Erskine Johnson, Sheilah Graham, Joe Hyams and Louella Parsons. Occasionally Stephen would completely knock down one his own current releases, like in the article below. Stephen had already disappointed Paramount executives by failing to appear at the premiere of “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” In the same summer he told Sheilah Graham that the best movie he had ever done up until then was “Ben-Hur.” This was probably an honest statement, but maybe not the safest path to steer in a sensitive town like Hollywood!  Yes, despite his overtly honest comments, Stephen still continued to thrive with a solid career there for several years, even until the early 1970’s when he truly had to seek projects abroad.

Roles Disappoint Stephen Boyd

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 London- July 3, 1964 (Asbury Park Press) by Sheilah Graham

 “The only really good film I’ve made in the past eight years, said Stephen Boyd, complete with heard and ginger mustache, “is Ben Hur.”

 Stephen is in London being fitted for his Genghis Khan costumes for “The Golden Horde” which he will film in Yugoslavia for the next three months.

 “I’m under contact to 20th Century Fox,” continued the likable actor, “but I haven’t made a film for them (in Hollywood) since 1959 – ‘The Best of Everything’ with Joan Crawford and Suzy Parker. The last picture I made in Hollywood was ‘Jumbo’ in 1961, with Doris Day. It was a poor picture.”

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 Boyd has the usual Hollywood problem of the past decade. In 1961, he bought a house in the Valley, a charming place, with the idea of living in it, of course.

 “Ever since, I have made pictures abroad and spent only a few months in the house. Now I am thinking of selling it for something smaller. With being away so much it would be more practical. The day after I moved in, I left for Egypt, to play Mark Anthony in ‘Cleopatra.’ Every time I see Richard Burton I say, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.” (On a side note, Boyd is exaggerating here – He was actually sent to Egypt in April of 1961 on a publicity tour for ‘Cleopatra’ to attend the Pyramid Light Inauguration, not for filming ‘Cleopatra’, which was already on the skids since late 1960.)

 He sounded somewhat regretful. He likes Elizabeth Taylor.

“I think she’s a dream.”

 Stephen also likes Dolores Hart, with whom he made some films when she was a movie star and under contract to Fox. Dolores is in a convent in Connecticut.

 “She wrote to me very frequently and I wrote to her. But this stopped on June 29, when she went into complete seclusion – no visitors, no phone calls,no letters for a year. After that she will decide if her future is in a convent, or she can return to the world. She seems very happy in her life. But at the beginning it was not easy for her. She was frank in her letters to me. She was climbing the movie ladder and she wrote to me that she missed the applause, and her life as an actress. But now she had made the adjustment. The chief thing, I imagine, is that you must find love within yourself before you can live with yourself.”

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We returned to Stephen’s career, and why he has not cared for most of his films. He’s attractive and a good actor.

 “But they won’t let me be myself. I’m always having to play some character. The secret to Gary Cooper’s and Clark Gable’s success is that they always played themselves.”

“I was terribly disappointed,” he laughed, “when they didn’t let me play ‘Jack the Ripper!’”

 I was surprised to have caught up with the Irish-born actor earlier this year in Europe. He flew over to star in “The Unknown Battle” in Norway with Elke Sommer.

 “But I sat on my rear end in London, waiting for it to start. A major studio was supposed to provide 50 percent of the finance. Two weeks before production, they backed out. Tony Mann, the director, had promised me we will make the picture later this year, then the snows come again to Norway.”

 Stephen is sure that pictures are coming back to Hollywood.

 “There is a definite upturn, but we won’t see the results until next year. Then maybe I can get to live in Hollywood, as I did when I first went here in 1958. But most of my movies have been abroad, as I told you. I made “The Night Heaven Fell” with Brigitte Bardot in Paris. She was very big then because this was her first movie after her hit  in ‘And God Created Woman.’”

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 “Is it true,” I asked, “that you will never make another movie in Rome?”

 “What I said was,” he replied, ”that I would never make a picture in Rome under those circumstances. In the first place this picture will not be shown in America. They can’t get it past the censors.  And more important, they didn’t pay me my full salary. They still owe me money. If I make another picture in Rome, the money will have to be in the bank first. Also, what I did receive was taxed in Italy as well as in America. It just isn’t practical to work there.”

 One picture Stephen would like to make in Hollywood is the Mildred Crem story, “Forever.”  Metro bought it years and years ago with the idea of starring Janet Gaynor.

 “I’d like to do it with Audrey Hepburn,” said Boyd.

 Another film he wants to make is “Clive of India.”

 “Terence Young had written this treatment, and of course this one would have to be made mostly in India.”

 This is a happy weekend for Stephen in London. The actor who became an American citizen last December 23 has a birthday on July 4.

 “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, and I’m looking forward to the day I can work, as well as live, in America.”

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Critics talk about Stephen Boyd’s performance as Messala in “Ben-Hur” from 1960 Reviews

“If there was an Academy Award deserved by any cast member of “Ben-Hur, ” it belonged to Stephen Boyd, playing the villainous Messala who turned his boyhood friendship into a vendetta of hate. Boyd was a near absolute personification of the power which corrupts.

Particularly, Boyd’s performance as the dying Messala spewing out his last arrogance was superb.” (The Akron Beacon Journal, Dec 25, 1960)

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“And Charlton Heston is the nominal star of “Ben-Hur”, doing mighty well too. But while Heston get top billing, it’s Boyd who gets the low cooing from the girls.

And he’s way ahead in the all important “word of mouth,” as well he might be, for he’s strong, rugged and handsome in a bristling, masculine way. Of course that death scene- the goriest death scene in movie history, what with Boyd as Messala gasping out his last tortured breath from his mangled body, torn and broken from pounding hoofs and churning chariot wheels in the dust of the hippodrome.

Any any will tell you that as accelerator to a stymied career nothing can match a strongly dramatic death scene.” (Pittsburgh Press, March 09, 1960)

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“To wit, the touted chariot race, worth every ounce of its publicity. And, a realistic (with reservations) sea battle between first century vessels. And, the most vivid, most believable death scene (Messala’s, after the race) you’ll see outside of the real thing. Or maybe including the real thing.

Point two, good: there are excellent actors, good actors, capable actors, and a few bad ones. Heston, to me ( a Heston fan) was overshadowed by Hugh Griffith (Arab relief), Jack Hawkins (as Arrius, with dignity almost out of place in this movie), Stephen Boyd (Messala, the noblest Roman of them all), and even Terence Longden (Drusus)  in too small a role.” (Clarion Ledger, Nov 11, 1960)

“Much of what happens in the chariot race is pretty bloody too, but you’d expect it although the death of Messala–trampled by several teams when his chariot breaks up – becomes excessively so.”

“Boyd as Messala, however, is the guy who should have won that supporting actor Oscar. He’s a player of real intentisy and much, much better than Hugh Griffith who did win the prize for his role as the Arab owner of Ben-Hur’s horses. Heston, this year’s ‘best actor’, is …quite a charioteer- and when he and Messala get to exchanging lashes while their chariots run side by side, you can barely keep from shouting.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin, July 6, 1960)

“As the power-hungry Messala, handsome Stephen Boyd brings to the character a believable arrogant ruthlessness of the degenerating Roman civilization.” (The Lawton Constitution, Nov 3, 1960)

“In the title role, Mr. Charlton Heston surpasses himself; his Ben-Hur has a regal strength inside and out, the pride and bearing of a prince and warm nature of a man of God. As Messala, the previously practically unknown Mr. Stephen Boyd is superb, handsome, virile, properly arrogant, dedicated to his Emperor and immersed in his dreams of influence. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jan 21, 1960)

“Guess I’m in the minority. I found Stephen Boyd a handsome Messala. But stiff, mannered, a posturer, and the only actor in the world capable of over-hamming this superspecial which calls for high-keyed playing.” (Cincinnati Enquirer, Mar 16, 1960)

“…Messala is just about as ornery a cuss as a writer could dream up. He doesn’t bat an eye when he sentences his best friend to the galleys. Nor does he flinch as he condemns his friend’s mother and sister, both of whom helped nurse him through childhood, to prison for life. He is unmoved when, years later, he learns they’re in a leper colony. And in the climactic chariot race of “Ben-Hur,”  Messala uses the foulest and most unsportsman-like means at his command in an effort to emerge the victor. In short, he is not exactly the type a girl would want to take home to meet mother.” (Shamokin News-Dispatch, Mar 31, 1961)

“Messala was such a strong, vital character, and I’ve heard so many people say that when he died in “Ben-Hur,” the picture was over. ” (Hedda Hopper,  Hartford Courant, July 1, 1960)

“Charlton Heston  as “Ben-Hur” gives a performance of utmost conviction and sincerity, while Stephen Boyd as Messala brings to the screen one of the most vital portrayls since Gable’s Rhett Butler.” (Pittsburg Press, Jan 20, 1960)

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