A Candid Stephen Boyd Interview from 1969

Stephen Boyd Explains His Lousy Movies

The Journal News – White Plains New York, 09 Jul 1969

By Bernard Shaw

New York – Stephen Boyd was in town briefly to publicize “Slaves” in which he plays a plantation owner and which was to open in a few days. I hadn’t yet seen the film when its publicist called and asked if I cared to meet Boyd. I hedged and said that the only burning question I had for him was why he made so many lousy pictures.

“Ask him that, “ the publicist urged. “I did and found that he’s very bright and articulate and he has no illusions about the business. He’ll speak candidly about anything.”

I agreed to see him, the date was set, and in the meantime, I attended the premive of the 70-mm elongation of “Ben Hur” in which Boyd had played Messala way back in 1960, and I found, to my surprise, that his was by the far the best performance in the film.

He had managed to endow an almost impossible villain with so much humor and intelligence, even sympathy in his 27 minutes out of a total of four hours on screen, that he rather threw the whole marathon epic out of kilter. I even found myself hopelessly rooting for him to win the chariot race against the archangel Heston.

I meet Boyd a week later in his suite at the Elysee, still not having seen “Slaves.” He is a tall, handsome Irishman from Ulster – Belfast is his home- and he was dressed in conservative black, having some kind of semiformal luncheon to attend later on.  He had a ruddy bloom on his cheeks all the Irish seem to have when they arrive here, but lose too soon. His sole concession to the now look was an elegant guardsman moustache.

After the usual amenities, my first question, predictably, was “How come you’ve made  so many lousy movies?”

“20th Century Fox,” he answered immediately, “20th Century Fox. I was under contract to them- chattel- and if you think and you are correct in thinking, I made so many lousy movies, you should see what I turned. Down. I was under contract with them for eleven, which should give you some indication of how many suspensions I took.”

Why did he ever get himself involved in such a situation? Simply because at the time the contact was waived before him, it seemed like mana from heaven. He comes from a large, poor family in Belfast, and at the age of seven he went on Ulster Radio’s Children’s Hour because the family needed the money.

At sixteen, he left school and broke with the family trade – which his father and brothers all practiced – truck driving, to work with the Ulster Theater Group, and then there were long, fruitless years in stock companies in Canada and the United States where he made alarming progress getting nowhere.

In 1952 in London, where he had gone to storm the British theater, he was literally starving, and reduced to playing his guitar and “busking” to the cinema queues in Leicester Square for pennies.

That did lead to a job as doorman of the Odean Cinema which in turn led to his becoming an usher and then to his meeting Michael Redgrave who gave him an introduction to the Windsor Repertory Theater and the Midlands Theater Company and several more years of playing all kinds of roles in addition to some small parts in British films.

So that when 20th Century Fox, impressed with his performance in “The Man Who Never Was, “ offered him a Babylonian Captivity, he had to accept.

“I don’t know how I lasted,” he said, “And I’m about the only one of the bunch of white hopes who came in when I did, who did last – there were Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman, Bobby Wagner – they put you in anything they want to and  there’s nothing you can do about it. When you try to speak to them, you’re told you’re a tax deduction. It isn’t so much a question of your making money for them but your’e enabling them to save money. You mean nothing.”

“But you’ve been living in Europe these last few years,” I said.

“I’ve been a resident of the United States,” he said, “ and a United States citizen for the last ten years. My home is in Los Angeles. Of course I never see it. They keep shipping me abroad which is another way of their being able to make money on you.”

“Were you forced to make things like ‘The Oscar’ and ‘The Caper of the Golden Bulls?’ ” I asked.

“I would do ‘The Oscar’ again with the original script I saw, but not with the people involved in it,” he said, “and I would do ‘Caper of the Golden Bulls’ again, but not with people involved, and many others which turned out so badly.”

“And ‘Slaves’ is different?” I asked.

He nodded, “You’ll search a long way before you find a more technically imperfect film, but that’s not what we were trying to do. We were trying to make the first true picture of slavery in America, and we did.”

“At least it’s an original of the Irish Rebellion,” I said, “I saw Sidney Poitier’s ‘The Lost Man’ which is an adaptation of ‘Odd Man Out’ and it’s terrible.”

“Sidney can’t do what he wants, superstar though he is, “ Boyd said. “He can do what he wants provided that it’s salable amd makes money. Remember, he and Jim Brown knocked themselves out, but they made it as personalities, not as blacks. The black problem was still an untouchable on the screen prior to ‘Slaves’ because the few films made that touched on the problem didn’t make money. But we’re breaking records everywhere we opened, and that’s where it counts with those boys. Will it make money?”

I asked him about some of his earlier films, about his brilliant but aborted Nimrod in John Huston’s “The Bible.” The role ended in the middle of nowhere.

“I had just made the test of Huston and had been on the film for only a couple of days when Fox yanked me off to make ‘Fantastic Voyage.’”, Boyd said. “I assumed they were going to junk what I did or do it over with someone else, but later on, Huston decided to use what little he had, so of course, the actor is blamed for it. You have to make compromises all the way. Big ones on the big picture, smaller ones on the smaller ones, you even have to make them on the good pictures, and I say the hell with it.  You can make a lot of stupid pictures that make a lot of money, so why eat your heart out?”

I wondered if he was looking for a stupid picture now, but I asked instead, “Why did you bow out of ‘Cleopatra?’”

“They changed the story on me, “ he said, “When I was scheduled to do it, when Mamoulian was supposed to direct, Peter Finch was to play Caesar and I, Anthony, and it was the story of Caesar and Cleopatra an then Anthony and Cleopatra. But then it became just the story of Cleopatra, “ he shrugged.

“And you let Richard have it, “ I said.

“I let Richard have it, “ he said.

“How come you don’t return to the theater?” I asked, “Isn’t it more satisfying for an actor?”

“From an ego point of view, yes, “ he said, “but films could be satisfying too for an actor is he was involved in the creation. We all make a picture together, but nobody talks to anybody. Nobody will sit down and discuss it beforehand, and you never do discuss it – with very, very few exceptions- unless some crisis occurs. The cameraman is off creating his mood, the actor is creating his mood, the set designed only worries about how his set looks, the costume designer, her costumes.”

He shrugged “It’s no wonder so few things turn out well. If I did do a play, I’d like to do O’Casey. ‘Juno and the Paycock.’ But it would have to be played right, as it was originally in Ireland. The first two acts are comedy and the last, tragedy. You have to be very careful about the way you do Irish drama. There are so many misconceptions abroad about Catholic and Protestant in Ireland. I heard Bernadette Devlin’s maiden speech in Parliament and I was deeply moved. She was elected, remember, in a predominantly Protestant community, and she said, “There is not a religious question in Ireland. It is simply a question of poverty.”

“Of course, that was distorted in all of the foreign press,” Boyd said angrily, “Nobody had it right but the London Times. Of course it’s a question of poverty in Ireland, and people everywhere was so ignorant of the situation. Only yesterday someone said to me, ‘But you’re Catholic,’ and I said, ‘No I happen to be Protestant, but what has that to do with it?”

“I come from an Irish family, the youngest of nine. My father was a truck driver. When he retired, he was at the height of his earning power. He was making six pounds a week, that’s about thirteen dollars. How the hell are a man and his wife and nine children going to live on thirteen dollars a week?”

Then he grew less angry and he said, “And then I think of something O’Casey said when I did ‘June and the Paycock’ in Belfast and he came up to see it. He said, ‘There are many, many, many noes in the world , but there is always a bigger yes.’”

Stephen Boyd and Dionne Warwick – “Slaves” World Premiere in Baltimore, May 10, 1969

It was 47 years ago that the controversial movie “Slaves” premiered in Baltimore. When this movie came out, it was very controversial. It was rated X (or today’s NR) so no one under 18 was admitted. By today’s standards, this movie might be rated R or even PG13 with its brief nudity and Cassie and MacKay’s mildly violent sexual foreplay scenes. The movie poster was titillating if not shocking, and the film trailer was banned. It was one of the first Blaxploitation movies to be released. It was a popular release when it came out, playing in theater’s and drive-in’s. It was re-released at least two more times during the 1970’s in theaters again.  It was filmed in the summer of 1968 near Shreveport, LA, on an actual plantation. The plantation itself, Buena Vista, is actually considered to be haunted by both Civil War soldiers and former slaves. Several of the people who acted as extras in the movie were descendants of the Buena Vista slaves themselves. During 1969, racial tension in America was at an all time peak. Slaves could be considered either a reflection of that, or a movie that wanted to capitalize on it. The premiere took place on May 6, 1969 in Baltimore. Both Dionne Warwick and Stephen Boyd attended. The fact that Baltimore is a predominantly Afro-American city made this a perfect place to premiere a movie about the struggles of slavery.

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It is actually based almost exclusively on the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe novel ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘. Before the term ‘Uncle Tom’ became a derogatory word, Uncle Tom’s character in Beecher’s novel was actually portrayed as very heroic, but in a muted way. He stands by his Christian values against his cruel but superstitious slave-master, Simon Legree, and he helps Legree’s mistress, Cassy, escape. Later theatrical productions of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ created a caricature, which led to the African American viewpoint that an ‘Uncle Tom’ was a subservient person. The Slaves screenwriters was very clever to take Beecher’s incredible story and modernize it, leaving out all references to ‘Uncle Tom’. Ossie Davis plays ‘Uncle Tom’, but his character’s name is changed to Luke. Cassy, played by songstress Dionne Warwick, keeps the same name from the novel. Stephen Boyd plays the sadistic slave master, and his character’s name is changed to Nathan MacKay. But the story is virtually the last half of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, including some dialogue that is almost verbatim. This passage from ‘Uncle tom’s Cabin’ truly captures the relationship of Legree/Cassy or MacKay/Cassy, and is perfectly portrayed both Boyd and Warwick in the film.

The influence of Cassy over him was a strange and singular kind. He was her owner, her tyrant and tormentor. She was, as he knew, wholly, and without any possibility of help or redress, in his hands;and yet so it is, that the most brutal man cannot live in constant association with a strong female influence, and not be greatly controlled by it. When he first bought her, she was, as she said, a woman delicately bred; and then he crushed her, without scruple, beneath the foot of his brutality. But, as time, and debasing influences, and despair, hardened womanhood within her, and waked the fires of fiercer passions, she had become in a measure his mistress, and he alternately tyrannized over and dreaded her.

Reviews of the film when it came out were understandably mixed. It is a low-budget production, so some of the usual slickness that covers up flaws in any film was missing here. The dialogue is sometimes strangely quixotic. Some reviewers liked it, others loathed it. “Boyd’s role as MacKay is a curious blend of a philosopher with a sound outlook and an evil man who wields a big whip. At times he’s whimsical, reasonable and agrees that the slave trade is a wretched, inhuman business.”  (Pittsburgh Press review, June 5 1969) Stephen flourishes in the role as this particular villain- he is virile, handsome, commanding, eloquent, and evil. In his ruffled white-shirt and debonair mustache,  Boyd reminds me of a twisted version of Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. His disturbing philosophical diatribe about slavery is delivered brilliantly, and brings to mind DiCaprio’s speech in Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”.

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I recommend to take another look at this film now, after 47 years, and appreciate it for the barriers it broke at the time it came out. It’s a fascinating look at the 1968-1969 time period even though it’s set in the 1800’s.