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 on 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.*

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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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Stephen Boyd (as Messala) talks about that famous chariot race in “Ben-Hur”

Stephen Boyd gives a fun, facetious account of how Messala should have run that famous chariot race!

Stephen Boyd Interview from The Miami News July 10, 1960

The Good Guys Finish Last

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by Art Buchwald

Paris  – The greatest race of the year was in the motion picture “Ben Hur.” The winner of the race was Charlton Heston, who received an Academy Award for it. The loser was Stephen Boyd, who, as Messala, was the favorite until he got knocked out in the seventh round. Mr. Boyd is now in Paris making a filme called “The Big Gamble” for Darryl F. Zanuck. The picture stars Mr. Boyd, David Wayne and Juliette Greco.

When we saw Mr. Boyd on the set he still felt he should have won the race. He believes that if he had won, things would have been a lot different for him now.

“I should have used my spikes sooner,” he said. “It was my fault.”

For those who haven’t seen the picture, the chariot race, which goes on for about fifteen minutes, is its establishing feature. Messala has challenged Ben-Hur and, unbeknownst to Ben-Hur, has fitted a razor-sharp spike to this chariot to cut the spokes of Ben-Hur’s wheel. This, according to the Imperial Chariot Jockey Club, was fair.

“What went wrong?” we asked Mr. Boyd. “Did your trainer give you bad advice?”

“No,” he replied, “I never took orders from anyone. I had won my last seven races and I figured this would be a piece of cake. I bet more money on myself than I had ever bet before. The only thing that bugged me was that Ben-Hur intended to ride a clean race, which is much more dangerous. I should have fixed his chariot before the race, but I was over-confident.”

“It happens a lot with Romans.”

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“My strategy was perfect,” he said. “I was running second on the first round on the outside, an excellent position. If anyone tried to pass me I could knock him against the Spina, the giant inside wall of the track.

“I wasn’t worried about the other chariots. Most of them were dogs and broken-down pace-setters. But my big mistake was the way I played it when Ben-Hur made his move.”

Mr.  Boyd relives it as if it had only happened yesterday. “I should have gone for his wheel with my blade. Instead, I decided to close in and whip him. I had ripped open the side of his chariot, and instead of concentrating on his axle, I tried to pull his wheel off. It was a great mistake, because I pulled off mine instead.

“But everyone had complained over the fact that I used my whip on Ben-Hur. Why don’t they mention that he used his whip on me? My trainer complained to the stewards after the race was over, but even after viewing the film they gave Ben-Hur the race.”

Mr. Boyd said he had an opportunity to do away with Ben-Hur in the third round, but he became overconfident. “I should have killed when I had the chance. Maybe then I would have gotten the Academy Award.”

Instead Ben-Hur killed Mr. Boyd, this ruling out a chance for a rematch.

“What is your advise to other young charioteers?” we asked.

“If you’ve got a blade on your wheel, use it. If you try to use your whip on the other guy, you don’t have enough control of your horses. Chariot racing is a dirty business and the good guys finish last.”

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Photos of Stephen Boyd from “Ben Hur”, 1959

Easter is almost upon us, and that means it’s Ben Hur time! TCM will be airing Ben Hur on Sunday afternoon, April 16th, 2017. To celebrate, here are some pictures of Stephen Boyd during the filming and promotion of the epic classic, Ben Hur, from 1959.

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Stephen Boyd and Charlton Heston in the  ‘Circus’ at Cinecitta Studios, Rome.

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A tall order –  Six footer Stephen Boyd gets to test out a plumed Roman helmet for size.

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Ready for the cameras to roll – Messala comes to life!

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Stephen Boyd as Messala

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Friendly adversaries : Heston and Boyd pose for the press on a Vespa in the back lot of Cinecitta Studios in Rome.

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American actor Charlton Heston and British actor Stephen Boyd, wearing stage costumes, having fun in riding a Vespa and a bicycle on the set of the film ‘Ben Hur’ in the studios of Cinecittà. A background actor is with them. Rome, 1958
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Heston offers his help to Boyd, who has fallen off the overturned Vespa.
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Stephen chatting with the Roman Centurion extras of Ben Hur.
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An iconic Messala pose- whip in hand.
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Heston, director Wyler, and Boyd are ready for the chariot race.

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The magnificent chariot race of Ben Hur!
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Messala (Stephen Boyd) takes a soda-pop break during the chariot race.
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Boyd and Heston are prepped by director William Wyler for their initial meeting.
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Stephen Boyd : ready to ride into cinema history as the Roman Tribune Messala
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Hail Caesar! Messala (Stephen Boyd) makes the Roman salute before the chariot race begins.

Stephen Boyd- “The Tiger Hollywood has by the Tail” 1959-1960 articles

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This is a fascinating article released just as Boyd’s career was rocketing  at the opening of Ben Hur in late 1959. Famed  columnist Hedda Hopper, always a major fan of Boyd’s, highlights some of Stephen’s persistent characteristics – specifically his desire to have more character roles instead of leading men parts. Hedda describes Boyd has having “terrific screen impact and vitality beyond any actor I know.” That is certainly high praise! This article also includes Boyd’s notorious comment that “I won’t work in a brass hat to the end of my days,” a comment which did not please his studio Twentieth Century Fox, as they had several ‘brass hat’ roles lined up for him, including “The Story of Ruth”, “The King Must Die”, and perhaps even an off-shoot Messala project. Stephen had already talked to the studio about playing Mark Anthony at this point (late 1959) for the upcoming Cleopatra. It was a role he would eventually sign up for. This is also the comment which may have in fact prevented Stephen from even being nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Messala in Ben Hur. Stephen did win the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor for Ben Hur, but he was strangely overlooked for an Academy Award. See below for Stephen’s opinion about being overlooked as a Supporting Actor by the Academy for Ben Hur (See below article “Supporting Actors Pose Movie Woe”.)  Stephen also mentions, interestingly, that he would have liked to have played a few famous Lawrence Olivier roles for live TV -including  Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. I have always wished that Stephen could have played Heathcliff! I am surprised this movie never got remade in the 50’s or 60’s. Stephen would have been a perfect choice!

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Boyd in Woman Obsessed, 1959– the closest Stephen got to a ‘Heathcliff’ type role

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Released by the Chicago Tribune, November 29, 1959

Even the mainstream press was shocked that Boyd was overlooked for his performance as “Messala” in Ben Hur by the Academy. He wasn’t even nominated. Stephen was quite outspoken at the time, and this article by Bob Thomas is full of rebellious Boyd quotes such as this.

 Yet he drew no Oscar nomination, because he had star billing in the film. “Ridiculous!” declares the outspoken Irishman, “I was a supporting player in the picture. Every other role in Ben Hur was in support of Chuck Heston. Why, not counting the chariot scene, my role lasted a half-hour on the screen. Now how can you call that a starring role?”

Luckily for us, Ben Hur still is well known by movie-goers, and Stephen’s amazing performance as Messala sometimes still gets referred to (mistakenly) as an Oscar winning performance! Frankie Fane would be proud.

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Corpus Christi Caller Times 23 March, 1960