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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Stephen Boyd in “The Bashful Genius”, summer of 1967

In 1967, 50 years ago this July, Stephen Boyd happily returned to the stage again. Of course Stephen had started on the stage, but after coming to Hollywood in 1958, movies had obviously taken priority. After completing his Twentieth Century Fox obligation, Stephen was excited to look for new projects, and “The Bashful Genius” soon followed. In the spring of 1967, Boyd started to grow a beard for the role and dyed his hair red. “With his two-month growth of beard for his role as George Bernard Shaw in the Broadway play, “The Bashful Genius,” Stephen Boyd made the mistake of walking along the hippie Sunset Blvd. section. One of the hippies asked Boyd to help sell their underground newspaper for three hours a day.” (Honolulu Star Bulletin June 28, 1967)

This play ran for a short time in the summer of 1967, being featured at the well known Playhouse in the Park in Philadelphia from July 31- August 5th, in Denver, Colorado (my hometown!) from August 7-12th at the renowned Elitch Theatre Company, and ending at the Fallmouth, Massachusetts Playhouse in mid-August. Unfortunately it didn’t make the cut to appear on Broadway.  It was a comedy about Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw written by Harold Callen.  The fact that Boyd would be portraying a famous Irishman certainly must have appealed to him! The play had originally debuted in London at the John Neville Nottingham Playhouse in 1964, with John Neville in the title role.  On a side note, a young Ian McKellen had acted a minor role in one of the original performances in London (http://www.mckellen.com/stage/00025.htm). The play was now revamped for Boyd as an American production.

As with all his projects, Stephen studied very thoroughly for the role.

“I play Shaw at the age of 40. At that time he had four flops on stage, five failures as an author, was a complete washout as a painter and a failure as a councilman. Then he met Charlotte Payne-Townsend, the woman who was to organize his life and remain his wife for 40 years.”

The film star recently completed a picture in London – “Assignment K.” “I decided to come back to Los Angeles the long way. The play was sent to me on my holiday in Hong Kong. By the time I reached Tokyo there was a cable: “You have to say Yes or No.” I said “No!”” (Philadelphia Daily News, July 27, 1967)

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Boyd did, however, eventually say “Yes!”

Stephen was interviewed by the Philadelphia Enquirer and had this to say

“Even if the play is a flop I don’t care. Success for me is within me. Audience reaction is only an ego thing. I have had more personal satisfaction from this in the last 10 days than I’ve had in the last 11 years. There’s not much room for personal satisfaction in movies because you’re not really in control of your own performance.

“What appeals to me about this play is said in the title, ‘The Bashful Genius.’ Inside, Shaw was really the Marchbanks of ‘Candida’, not the Dick Dudgeon as he would have like everyone to believe. The role is a complete alphabet of emotion and range.”

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Extremely rare picture of Boyd rehearsing on stage as Shaw, with Nancy Wickwire as Charlotte. (Philadelphia Daily News, July 29, 1967)

The comedy mostly involves Bernard Shaw’s fear of marriage to a woman called Charlotte Payne-Townshend.  I’m sure Boyd could relate to this aspect of the story as well, considering his own caution about wedding bells! It sounds like it was a fun play from the review in Philadelphia Enquirer as well.  Boyd himself received great reviews.

“Britain’s Stephen Boyd, in his American stage debut, scores solidly in the title role. His is a carefully drawn portrait, retaining an air of spontaneity in making Shaw a believable human being.  He is matched by the performance of Nancy Wickwire (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Wickwire) as the faithful Charlotte, who loses her cool only when their engagement of a few minutes seems to be broken.”   (Philadelphia Enquirer, August 1, 1967)

“A red-haired Irishman, Stephen Boyd, is cast as another redheaded Irishman, George Bernard Shaw, in “The Bashful Genius,” which opens tonight…Boyd wears a flowering beard grown especially for the production, stands 6-foot-1, which was Shaw’s exact height, weighs five pounds less than the master playwright when he was 35, the period in the Irish dramatist’s life with which the play is concerned.”

“The time is the 1890’s in London, and the story concerns the fulminating but shy writer and the wealthy and clever woman who persuaded him that, with her money and his talent, they could break into Britain’s literary establishment.”

“The comedy’s idea is the persuasive one that only Miss Payne-Townsend recognized the bashful, even timid, poet that was hidden beneath all the red-headed one’s buffoonery and opinionated intimidation.” (Philadelphia Daily News, July 31, 1967)

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A review by critic-at-large Otto Dekom from at the time criticized the play itself and the amateur cast, but had high praise for Boyd’s portrayal.

“This is English drawing room comedy and requires a very special kind of production and cast. There must be the charm and quality of the English, their gentility and particular quality of speech. Without these essentials, the play makes no significant impression…indeed, amateur night at the Playhouse.”

“The one significant exception is Stephen Boyd, the well-known movie star, who plays Shaw.”

“Despite the phony Irish brogue (Phony? I wonder if this critic knew Boyd was Irish!), he comes through with a great deal of fire and authenticity. That grin and wide-eyed look of self satisfaction are typical of Shaw. They are to be found in most photographs and motion pictures of him.”

“One cannot help but enjoy Boyd’s characterization, all the more because it comes as a surprise. Some of his pretty-boy movie roles were not intended to inspire confidence in his acting ability. Boyd appeared on Sunday evening on television on a replay of a motion picture with Doris Day. It was not possible to endure much of it.” (The Morning News, Delaware, Aug 2, 1967)

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The News Journal, Wilmington Delaware, July 29, 1967
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(Philadelphia Enquirer, August 1, 1967)

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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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The Great Sphinx of Giza and Stephen Boyd, 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.