Stephen Boyd: “Hollywood Star Who Never Forgot His Roots” (an interview with Rita Millar)

*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* 

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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.

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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.'”

Fullscreen capture 1212018 55244 PM.bmpThe 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.

mariella“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.”

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Stephen Boyd and Sir Michael Redgrave

It’s fairly safe to say that without Sir Michael Redgrave, we may never have had the joy of watching Stephen Boyd on the movie screen. Michael Redgrave basically discovered Stephen when the later was down and out in London trying to kick start his acting career. Stephen was asked to serve as an usher during the British Academy awards in the Leicester Square Theatre. During the ceremony, Michael noticed Stephen- undoubtedly looking handsome in his usher uniform – and asked him what he was doing up there as “certainly,  he was a actor!” Stephen replied, “Yes, I am an actor”, but explained he had been unable to find work. Thanks to Michael Redgrave, Stephen was able to make some good connections with Theater Companies in London, and this eventually led to his successful movie career.  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?  I’m sure many people who hazard a guess. Whatever the case may be, Stephen truly appreciated, no doubt, Redgrave’s role in sparking his career.

Yet an actor, Michael Redgrave, did more for his career than anyone. He was working as a doorman at the Odeon Theater in London when the cinema theater across the way was having its Academy awards event and wanted someone to present the stars to Redgrave. Boyd was chosen for the job. Redgrave recognized his quality and put him in the way of getting work.

“His advice and criticism- sometimes scathing but always brilliant –  helped me overcome my awkwardness and mistakes,” Boyd said. (Hedda Hopper, Chicago Tribune Feb 22, 1959)

Redgrave would proudly observe Stephen’s rise to stardom. He even appeared on on the TV Program “This is Your Life” via a recorded message when the program featured Stephen as the main guest. The two actors would only appear on the big screen once together  – in the spy film “Assignment K” in 1967. It is special to see the two of them together, and to think about that first moment they met back in the early 1950’s. All we can really say is – thank you Michael Redgrave!

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Boyd and Redgrave in Assignment K

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Meet Stephen Boyd, That Guy from The Oscar

Meet Stephen Boyd, That Guy From The ‘Oscar’

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Feb 16, 1966

By Ken Barnard

Free Press Staff Writer

Stephen Boyd, 37, is nibbling on a big chunk of fame as a result of his impressive performance as the heel actor, Frankie Fane, in “The Oscar.”

“That picture cost me three hours of throwing up,” he declared on a recent Detroit visit. But this was not a critical judgement, rather a measure of the strain that the role put on his nervous system. It was the final arduous scene, at the Oscar ceremony, that brought on a sudden sick reaction.

“We did it in two days,” he recalled, “to get all the people in, such as Bob Hope and Sinatra, when they were available. As soon as that last scene was over, I left the set and vomited for three hours. I hate like hell to talk like this because I begin to sound like a method actor.”

And method acting is not his style. “I am very much against actors’ schools that say, ‘Come here and we’ll teach you how to act.’ But I’m very much for schools of actors. Actors tend to lie around and get lazy. The majority of them work six to seven months a year. The rest of the time they’re playing tennis and running around. I don’t know anyone who can spend that much time away from his profession and stay fresh. You can’t take it easy for a year or so, then go before the cameras —someone shouts ‘Action!’—then what do you do? It sounds like a deodorant.”

Boyd came upon one of the big breaks of his career in London when Michael Redgrave invited him to join the Windsor Repertory Company. Whenever he goes back to London to see Redgrave, he takes due note of the fact that his appointment is usually sandwiched between Redgrave’s voice lessons and fencing workouts. And, says Steve, “Olivier is also a positive nut about working all the time.”

Another scene besides the last on in “The Oscar” gave Steve a shaking up. It’s one that takes place in a club pantry between him and Peter Lawford, who is cast as a washed-up actor working as a maître-d’.

Of Lawford, Steve said, “My God! That guy’s a professional down to his fingertips. It was a little frightening watching him – I always just thought of him as part of the Rat Pack. He amazed the hell out of me.”

While performing as Messala for the filming of ‘Ben Hur’, Boyd met and married Mariella di Sarzana, an employee of his agents, but the marriage had a short run–23 days. Now he maintains bachelor quarters just over the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Single status seemed particularly suitable when during the filming of “The Oscar,” he had to live every day as the odious Frankie Fane. “I’m lucky I didn’t have anyone to snarl at. I was pretty well worn out.”

Stephen Boyd was born in Belfast, Ireland but it was in July 4, so perhaps it was in the cards that he wound up a Yankee Doodle Dandy by naturalization.

His mother is Irish and his father, a retired truck driver, is Canadian. Steve, born William Millar, took his mother’s maiden name, Boyd, for professional use, and thought Stephen went well with it. He has since legalized his stage name.

The family home is actually in Glengormley, just outside Belfast, and Steve gets back for a visit two to three times a year. He has four brothers and four sisters.

One brother, Alexander, lives in Van Nuys, Calif., where he operates a liquor store. “Like every good Irishman should,” noted Steve. “I’m a disgrace to the Irish; I just nibble on a little wine.”

Steve has worked as a stage director, would like to direct one movie “just as an exercise.”

It looks as if his next acting assignment will be ‘The Caper of the Golden Bulls,’ which Joe Levine’s Embassy Productions hope to have the cameras turning on by May.

Not interested in seeing his own movies, Steve confesses that he did watch the chariot scene in ‘Ben Hur.’ Yet he thinks that ‘Ben Hur’ and ‘The Man Who Never Was’ represent his best work prior to this year.

“They were easiest,” he said a bit cryptically, “because they were right for me. When they’re wrong, it’s like climbing up walls.”