Stephen Boyd: Born to Play a Roman

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Anyone who has read this blog may have noticed I have a fondness for Ancient Rome and Greece. And I do – I have studied it most of my adolescent and adult life and is one of my great passions. One of the reasons I got into the history of that period was from seeing movies like Ben-Hur, Cleopatra & The Fall of the Roman Empire when I was a teen. So in honor of all the Romans I love to read about, I thought I would collect a few quotes from Stephen Boyd about Ancient Rome and the famous Romans he studied for many of the roles he played (or would have played). If anyone was born to play a Roman, it was Stephen Boyd.

Quotes about Mark Anthony/Cleopatra

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Never was any actor so prepared for a role. I had studied Anthony from every possible angle, reading everything about him I could lay my hands on. (July 11, 1961, Petaluma Argus Courier)

I am interested if Anthony is played as a warrior, as he was in the original script. But I’m not interested if he is only a lover. He can be shown as a warrior making love. But no actor can convincingly play a warrior-like figure as a lover. Marlon Brando found that out when he did Napoleon in ‘Desiree.’ (July 11, 1961, Corpus Christi Caller Times)

She (Cleopatra) was an ambitious housewife who dabbled in politics and who wanted Egypt to share the honors with Rome. So she romanced Ceasar, and they had a child. Then later with Anthony, with whom she had four children.

I love the Mark Anthony role; I believe the film will be a tremendous success. It’s not often you get to play a role summed up in the classic line: ‘Who lost Marc Anthony the world? A woman. (Screenland Magazine, July 1961)

Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon and Marcus Aurelius

And strangely enough, in a flash, the conversation veered off from romance to Stephen’s other interests: the science of cybernetics, self-hypnosis, and then to historian Edward Gibbon and his classic work, “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” as well as to the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome! ….But far more goes into a role. He (Boyd) reads everything he can find on the period of the film, particularly if it has an historical background. Before he portrayed the evil Messala, and while he was working on “Cleopatra,” he immersed himself in Roman history. All this scholarly reading paid off, for once again he will be involved in the Roman Empire, but this time on a broader canvas. It was this reading which gave him an interest in the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (Why, even Freud was influenced by him.) (Silver Screen Magazine, April 1963)

Quotes about Rome, Romans and Chariots

I may be tempted to settle down in Rome because I had such a big part in building the place. (September 17,1 1962, Standard Speaker)

Try walking down a street someday and make believe you’re a Roman. You have to walk like a Roman, talk like a Roman and act like a Roman. It’s much harder than just playing a modern man–then, all you have to do is act, but you don’t have to think about your walk or your costume or your speech. (June 26, 1966 Brownwood Bulletin)

Chariot racing cannot be mastered without complete muscular control. Enormous pressures challenge the driver every second of the way. To pull of galloping horseflesh, the weight of the Roman two-wheeler and unpredictable terrain features constantly threaten the charioteer. He must be prepared to react with violent resourcefulness to stay alive. (Salt Lake Tribune Nov 16, 1963)

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Stephen Boyd studies his Ancient Romans at the Prado Museum in Madrid before staring the filming of The Fall of the Roman Empire.

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Stephen Boyd at the Prado with statue of Nero (?)
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Stephen Boyd at the Prado viewing the statue of Agrippina, mother of Caligula
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Stephen Boyd at the Prado with statue of the Emperor Vespasian
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Stephen Boyd at the Prado with the statue of the Emperor Augustus

Stephen Boyd in Roman costume

1962 Stephen Boyd Interview regarding the runaway production of “Cleopatra”

I sometimes wonder how Stephen’s career – and the 1960’s – would have turned out had he waited just a few months longer to start filming “Cleopatra.” He would have been a part of one of the biggest cultural movies of the 1960’s. The problem was, however, he would have spent literally two years filming (or waiting to film) this project! Stephen arrived on set in London in the later summer of 1960 to start filming “Cleopatra” (he was going to be Marc Anthony, of course). By late spring of 1961 he was still waiting. Stephen opted out “Cleopatra” in June of 1961 to start work on “Lisa” with Dolores Hart. When Richard Burton replaced Boyd in July and production on “Cleopatra” finally crawled to a start in late 1961 in Rome. “Cleopatra” was still filming in the summer of 1962 when Boyd was on hand in Rome filming “Imperial Venus” with Gina Lollobrigida! Below is a fascinating glimpse at this production from Stephen’s point of view while he was filming “Jumbo” in Hollywood.

Harold Hefferman, Philadelphia Daily News, March 8, 1962

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HOLLWOOD. – Behind movie headlines:

“Runaway production” is a terrifying term striking hard at every layer of the Hollywood foundation. As to its personal impact, no actor in town has greater reason for despising it than Stephen Boyd.

Boyd came back from two years movie making in Europe with little more than wasted time and the unhappy feeling both his career and personal life had been adversely affected by his absence.

The blond actor, who spent an earlier two year period villainizing Charlton Heston in “Ben-Hur,” went back to Europe in 1960 to make “The Big Gamble” with Juliette Greco. While there 20th-Fox notified him he was to play “Anthony” to Elizabeth Taylor’s “Cleopatra,” so he remained on- and on.

“The whole two years – minus a few weeks I spent back here in Hollywood – added up to nothing short of a fiasco,” growled Steve, on the set of “Billy Rose’s Jumbo” at MGM. “While waiting for ‘Cleo’ to get started, I went to Cairo for the big lighting of the Sphinx. That was when they were planning to shoot the picture in Egypt – but, of course, that fell through.

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“I’d say that about the personal high points of those 24 months was my trip to Cairo and Lebanon. The countries are beautiful, and it’s too bad so many things came up to prevent shooting ‘Cleopatra’ there.”

A few weeks after Steve reported for the big Queen of the Nile spectacle, Miss Taylor was stricken with her first and near fatal illness, followed by innumerable script and change-of-producer- director delays. Meanwhile, he was assigned by the studio to do “The Inspector” opposite Dolores Hart in Holland. This is a film he has yet to see.

“I can only say I hope it came out better than ‘The Big Gamble,’” Steve chided candidly, “because that one, I’m sure, won’t do a thing for my career. But that did save me from doing ‘Cleopatra,’ for which I am undyingly grateful.”

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Dolores Hart and Stephen Boyd in “Lisa”

Steve doesn’t put much stock in the “Roman holiday” rumors of a romance between Liz Taylor and Richard (Antony) Burton. He attributes the notoriety to “a dream creation” by the over-imaginative Italian press.

“Why, the fan magazines and even a couple of Italian newspaper columns had me linked romantically with Elizabeth- a month before I’d even met her!” he laughed. “One headline read: ‘Will Steve divide Liz and Eddie?’ And I’d never even seen the lady, except in a couple of her movies. She and Eddie and I joked about it when we finally did meet on the set – but sometimes rumor and gossip can get way beyond the amusing stage.”

Steve blasts “runaway” for two other personal reasons. It cut into his burning romance with Hope Lange – she didn’t wait, and took up with others – and financially he took a shellacking.

I didn’t get anything resembling tax breaks,” he explained, “and, in fact, I paid both British and U.S. taxes all the time I was away. (Steve is a British citizen, of Irish descent.) I’m not dead set against pictures being made in foreign countries—sometimes they really turn out better – but in far too many cases, such as ‘Cleopatra,’ if they don’t film them on the McCoy locations, they’d do better to stay right in Hollywood and let everyone relax, including the actor.”

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Hope Lange and Stephen Boyd, 1961

Stephen Boyd is sent to Egypt on a “Cleopatra” publicity tour, 1961

Mark Anthony is sent to Egypt!

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In April of 1961, Stephen Boyd had just moved into his newly purchased house in Tarzana, California, a ranch-style home which was built in 1949. Stephen would own this home until his death in 1977. Stephen had been lingering on for quite some time waiting for the call back to the set of “Cleopatra” in London, which he had left in December of 1960. The full cast and crew had been waiting forever for an ailing Elizabeth Taylor to get better. Eventually the project would be revamped with a new cast, director and location. But during this time, the Twentieth Century Fox moguls were talking to the government of Egypt for the possibility of filming some scenes there (obviously – this is “Cleopatra”!). The Egyptian government was under the sway of strongman President Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein, who had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. Interestingly, because Elizabeth Taylor had recently married singer Eddie Fisher and converted to Judaism, Egypt did not want her coming to their country because she was now Jewish. Nasser also banned all Elizabeth Taylor movies in the country! This made the possibility of filming some of “Cleopatra” in Egypt rather awkward for Fox Studios. (Los Angeles Times, July 29, 1960)

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The filming of Cleopatra in London, September of 1960. Stephen can be seen on the right in full Mark Anthony costume. Elizabeth Taylor on the horse? It’s hard to say.

Fox Chairman Spyros Skouras was still trying other ways to flatter the ego of the Egyptian President. At this time, Egypt itself was prepping for an exciting new tourist gimmick – a sound and light show at the Great Pyramids of Giza. The light show (which I have seen myself in person when I was in Egypt in 2009), is an impressive display of multi-colored lights highlighting both the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids, and the sound show (at least in 2009) was narrated by actor Omar Sharif telling the tale of the ancient Pyramids and Sphinx. The inauguration of the sound and light show was set for the end of April and, along with other dignitaries and celebrities, Twentieth Century Fox decided to round up a few of its own (since Nasser was demanding glitch and glamour) and shuffled a few actors off to Egypt to attend the ceremony. Because Stephen had been part of the original cast of “Cleopatra” (he was still technically scheduled to be Mark Anthony, as he had not yet dropped out of the role), he was an ideal choice for this publicity tour. He was joined by svelte, blonde beauty Barbara Eden, soon to be of “Bewitched” fame, and TV star Julie Newmar, who would be better known later on as Catwoman from the 1960’s “Batman” TV series.

Julie Newmar, Barbara Eden, Stephen Boyd

Stephen got the call from Fox executives almost immediately after he was moving into his home. His reaction was – not pleased, according to Hedda Hopper.

Steve Boyd was just moving into his Encino home when he was ordered on a plane to Egypt where he’ll attend ceremonies inaugurating light and sound on the Sphinx and Pyramids outside of Cairo. He’ll be gone ten days, said: “I’m leaving my home in utter and abysmal confusion.” (Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1961)

Stephen was dutiful, however, and traveled to Egypt as the handsome, male film celebrity. It was on this first trip to Egypt where he first met Omar Sharif and his wife, who were also attending the celebration. Stephen recalled their meeting during the filming of “The Fall of the Roman Empire.”

“Omar Shairf and I met two years ago in Egypt on a publicity tour for 20th Century Fox. Omar and his wife Fatem Hamama are the biggest stars in Egyptian films today. With Omar working on ‘Fall of the Roman Empire’ now, its like old home week between us.

“Lo and behold,” says Stephen, “Omar and I are working out a deal to costar in a picture to be made late this year. Naturally his lovely wife would have an important role. It would be a join project between my company and his. So far we have the temporary title of ‘The Secret’ and it’s a mystery comedy with romance.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb 22, 1963)

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Now that would have been interesting! Anyhow, Stephen also seems to have enjoyed himself and the sound and light show as well, telling Hedda Hopper the details after he returned from his adventure abroad.

Steve tells me he had a wonderful time in Cairo. He said: “The new sound and light is turned on at night and the Pyramids are the most beautiful sight I’e ever seen. Barbara Eden and her husband, Michael Ansara, and Julie Newmar got a terrific reception there. Nasser attended the opening of their movie, but Spyros Skouras, our host, left before we arrived…” (Chicago Daily Tribune, May 11, 1961)

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Stephen was finally freed up from his “Cleopatra” obligation in June of 1961, and was off to London to begin filming “The Inspector” with Dolores Hart. By late June, Richard Burton to stepped into the role of Mark Anthony to replace Boyd. Stephen Boyd could finally leave this role behind.

Even though he never got to star in “Cleopatra,” at least Stephen Boyd, the original Mark Anthony, has the small consolation of visiting Egypt, the Great Sphinx and the Pyramids before he moved on to other projects. The only thing he was missing was Elizabeth Taylor as “Cleopatra” on her purple barge floating down the Nile!

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“Actress Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Eddie Fisher, have filed $7.25 million libel actions against eight movie and TV magazines, charing them with character damage through ‘lurid’ headlines.” (Town Talk, Dec 10 , 1960) The above headline involving Stephen Boyd was one of the magazine articles in question.