Stephen Boyd (4 July 1931 – 2 June 1977) was an actor from Glengormley, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. He appeared in some 60 films, most notably as Messala in Ben-Hur (1959), a role that earned him the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture. He received his second Golden Globe Award nomination for Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962).
Boyd was born William Millar in 1931 (some references say 1928). One of nine siblings, he attended Ballyclare High School. At the age of seven he became well known in Belfast for his contributions to the Ulster Radio's Children Hour. At the age of sixteen, Boyd quit school and joined the Ulster Group Theater. Boyd learned the behind the scenes tasks of the theater, and eventually worked his way up to character parts and leads, touring both Canada and the United States with stock companies.
By the time he was twenty, Boyd had a wide range of theater experience, but he longed for the big stage. In 1952 Boyd moved to London and worked in a cafeteria and busked outside a cinema in Leicester Square to get money as he was literally close to starvation. Boyd caught his first break as a doorman at the Odeon Theatre. The Leicester Square Cinema across the street recruited him to usher attendees during the British Academy Awards in the early 1950s. During the awards ceremony he was noticed by actor Sir Michael Redgrave, who used his connections to introduce Boyd to the director of the Windsor Repertory Group.
Boyd's first role which brought him acclaim was as an Irish spy in the movie The Man Who Never Was, based on the book by Ewen Montagu. The movie was released in April 1956.
Shortly thereafter he signed a ten-year contract with 20th Century Fox studios, who began prepping him for Hollywood. But it would be a while until Boyd actually set foot on a Hollywood back-lot. Boyd's next stop was Portugal to make Hell in Korea, which also featured future stars Michael Caine and Robert Shaw. In June 1956, Boyd was cast in the nautical, ship-wreck adventure Abandon Ship! for Columbia Studios starring Tyrone Power. This was filmed in the summer of 1956 in London where the British Navy apparently built a huge 35,000 gallon water tank for the movie.
In November 1956, for Twentieth Century Fox, Boyd traveled to the British West Indies as part of a large ensemble cast in Darryl Zanuck's racially provocative film Island in the Sun, based on the Alec Waugh novel. Boyd portrayed a young, English aristocrat who becomes the lover of Joan Collins. Recently signed by 20th Century Fox, Boyd would be loaned out to the J. Arthur Rank production of Seven Thunders (Beast of Marseilles), a World War II romance set in Nazi-occupied Marseilles. This movie was filmed on location in Marseilles and at Pinewood Studios in London in the spring of 1957, and featured Boyd in his most prominent starring film role yet.
Around the same time French sex kitten/actress Brigitte Bardot was given the opportunity to cast her own leading man in her next movie after her success in Roger Vadim's And God Created Woman, and she chose Boyd. From August to October 1957, Bardot, Boyd and Alida Valli filmed the lusty romance The Night Heaven Fell, directed by Roger Vadim, in Paris and in the region of Málaga, Spain, specifically the small, white-washed town of Mijas. Being in the Bardot spotlight added much to Boyd's film credit, in addition to bringing him notice in Hollywood.
Stephen Boyd finally arrived in Hollywood in January 1958 to take on first true Hollywood role as a renegade cowboy in the Fox western The Bravados, which starred Gregory Peck and Joan Collins. Even though this was a Hollywood production, the actually filming took place in Morelia, Mexico.
After the filming of The Bravados was complete in late March 1958, Stephen Boyd returned to Hollywood to audition for the coveted role of Messala in MGM's upcoming epic Ben-Hur. Many other actors, including Victor Mature. Kirk Douglas, Leslie Nielsen and Stewart Granger had been considered for the part, but Stephen Boyd's screen test convinced director William Wyler that he had found the perfect villain for his epic, along with Wyler's admiration for Boyd's performance in The Man Who Never Was from the previous year. Boyd was hurried off to join actor Charlton Heston in Rome in May 1958 to learn the chariot racing aspect of his role. Heston had already been practicing behind the chariot for weeks, so Boyd needed to learn the sport quickly. Boyd was also required to wear brown contact lenses as Messala, which irritated his eyes and caused vision problems for a few months after the movie was completed. Despite this, Boyd described the filming experience of Ben-Hur (which took place in Cinecittà Studios in Rome), as the most exciting experience of his life.
After Ben-Hur filming was completed, Boyd starred with Academy Award winner Susan Hayward in the California-based drama Woman Obsessed. Some advertisements for this movie labeled Boyd as "The New Gable." He was then part of another excellent ensemble cast in the adaptation of Rona Jaffe's novel The Best of Everything, filmed in early 1959.
Ben-Hur was released in December 1959 and made Boyd an international star overnight. His portrayal of the Roman tribune Messala brought in rave reviews. Press columnist Erskine Johnson wrote, "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." Ruth Waterbury, in her Boyd feature in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, would describe Boyd's character as "the dangerously masculine and quite magnificent Messala." Modern Screen magazine in 1960 stated that Boyd's ruthless Messala had "lost the chariot race but captured the sympathy and sex appeal of Ben-Hur."
He was featured in the popular TV program This Is Your Life on 3 February 1960, a show which featured many of Boyd's family members and acquaintances (including Michael Redgrave) telling stories about his early life and film career. This should be some indication of how "Stephen Boyd fever" was catching. Newspaper columnists were getting swarmed with letters from female fans of all ages wanting to know more about Boyd. He was being sent dozens of starring roles, which most he had to turn down due to other obligations, or he himself turned down. He opted out of the biblical epic The Story of Ruth, which didn't please Fox studios, and he was one of the front-runners to star with Marilyn Monroe in her picture Let's Make Love.
In early 1960 Boyd won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for his performance in Ben-Hur. He made a guest appearance alongside the silent-era Ben-Hur stars Francis X. Bushman and Ramon Novarro on Hedda Hopper's special television programme Hedda Hopper's Hollywood. In February 1960 he starred in the Playhouse 90 television performance called The Sound of Trumpets with Dolores Hart, which garnered good reviews. He also appeared as a singing guest on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show on March 13, 1960, where he performed two Irish folk songs with Dinah Shore, "The Leprechaun Song" and "Molly Malone", and an Irish step dance.
Boyd himself chose to do roles which he felt comfortable in. His next choice was The Big Gamble, which featured Darryl F. Zanuck's current paramour and French icon Juliette Gréco. It was filmed on the Ivory Coast of West Africa, Dublin and the Southern Part of France in the spring and summer of 1961. The adventure of making this film almost outdid the adventure in the film itself as the crew slept in tents in the jungle that were guarded by natives on parole for cannibalism. Boyd nearly drowned in the Ardèche river during the making of the film. Luckily he was saved by his co-star and excellent swimmer David Wayne. Boyd spoke about this incident during his appearance on the popular TV programme What's My Line?, which aired on 11 December 1960.
Boyd was originally chosen to play Mark Antony opposite Elizabeth Taylor in 20th Century Fox's epic production of Cleopatra (1963) under the direction of Rouben Mamoulian. He began film work in September 1960 but eventually withdrew from the problem-plagued production after Elizabeth Taylor's severe illness postponed the film for months. (Cleopatra was later directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and the role of Mark Antony went to Richard Burton.) During this period of waiting, in April 1961, Stephen Boyd was sent to Cairo, Egypt on a publicity tour by Twentieth Century Fox, along with fellow actors Julie Newmar and Barbara Eden, to attend the inaugural ceremony of the sound and light show at the pyramids of Giza.
After several months without active work, Boyd was thrilled to finally get his first post-Cleopatra role. The film was The Inspector, renamed Lisa for the American release. It was based on the novel by Jan de Hartog and co- starred actress Dolores Hart. The film was made in Amsterdam , London and Wales during the summer of 1961. On January 9, 1962, Boyd was featured in a television film from General Electric Theater called The Wall Between, co-starring Ronald Reagan and Gloria Talbott. Next, Boyd was again loaned out to MGM Studios to star with Doris Day in the circus-musical Billy Rose's Jumbo, filmed during the early part of 1962; the role earned Boyd a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. Boyd flew back to Rome in the summer of 1962 to act with Italian superstar Gina Lollobrigida in her long-time pet project Imperial Venus, a romantic epic about the many loves of Pauline Bonaparte, the sister of Napoleon. This film was the first film to be banned by the Motion Picture Association of America for male nudity. Boyd appeared in a humorous bedroom scene, naked, but covered by a sheet. The suggestion of nudity was too much for the censors and the movie was never released in the United States. Boyd returned to the States briefly after finishing Imperial Venus, where he appeared for the second time on The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, which aired on November 11, 1962, singing with Shore and entertainer Dean Martin.
Boyd arrived in Spain in early 1963 to begin work on Samuel Bronston's massive production of theThe Fall of the Roman Empire, directing by Anthony Mann. This was filmed during a severely cold winter in Europe, and the production of the movie in the Sierra de Guadarrama in Spain encountered several challenges. Boyd's co-star was another Italian legend, Sophia Loren. Boyd also had the opportunity to ride another chariot in this film. Boyd flew back to Hollywood in the summer to star in a Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre TV Program with Louis Jourdan called War of Nerves, which aired on January 3, 1964. He then returned to Europe to film the suspenseful The Third Secret (film) starring Pamela Franklin and Sean Connery's wife, Diane Cilento.
On December 23, 1963, Stephen Boyd became a naturalized U.S. citizen during a ceremony at the Federal Building in Los Angeles, California.
Throughout 1964 Boyd continued to make films in Europe, traveling to Yugoslavia to star as the villain Jamuga in the epic Genghis Khan. Boyd was the top billed and therefore the top paid star in the epic, and this apparently caused friction with up-and-coming star Omar Sharif. After completing Genghis Khan, Boyd trekked to Cairo, Egypt for a short stint in yet another epic, The Bible.
After all this globe-trotting, the world weary Boyd was very happy to return to the United States to start work on the Twentieth Century Fox science fiction adventure Fantastic Voyage, co-starring with soon-to-be icon Raquel Welch. This was filmed in the early part of 1965. In the summer of 1965, Boyd joined German star Elke Sommer and music legend Tony Bennett to film the Hollywood drama The Oscar, based on the eponymous Richard Sale novel. The movie was a popular success, but maligned by film critics. The producer of the film, Joseph Levine, however, was so pleased with Boyd's performance that he hired him for his next project as well, The Caper of the Golden Bulls. This film was made in Spain in the summer of 1966, and the actors took part in the famous Feria del Toro de San Fermin festival in Pamplona (known as the Running of the Bulls). Next, Boyd starred in a James Bond-like spy thriller Assignment K with Swedish model/actress Camilla Sparv, which was filmed in Germany and London during the winter of 1966.
In 1967, Boyd was excited to get back to the stage to star in a play called The Bashful Genius, about Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. The play had a very brief run during the summer of 1967. Boyd was cast opposite Sean Connery in the western adventure Shalako (film), which was based on the Louis L'Amour novel. It also cast him opposite Brigitte Bardot again, 10 years after the first film they made together. Shalako was filmed in the early part of 1968 in Almería, Spain. Returning to the United States, Boyd was cast as the cruel slave master Nathan MacKay in the Southern "Slavesploitation" drama Slaves, also starring Ossie Davis and songstress Dionne Warwick. The film was loosely based on the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was filmed during the summer of 1968 at the supposedly haunted Buena Vista plantation near Shreveport, Louisiana . The film was released during the volatile civil rights era and in May 1969 Boyd attended the premiere alongside Dionne Warwick in Baltimore, Maryland Closely following Slaves, Boyd starred in another story about racial tension, this time a World War II made-for-television drama called Carter's Army (or Black Brigade) which aired in August 1970, featuring a young Richard Pryor.
During this time, or earlier, is when Boyd began his interest in L. Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology, which would make him one of the first Hollywood stars to be involved in it. Boyd had always expressed an interest in esoteric religions. In an interview in August 1969 with the Detroit Free Press, he said that Scientology helped him through the filming of Slaves, and that it is "a process used to make you capable of learning. Scientology is nothing. It means only what you want it to. It is not a church you go to to pray, but a church that you go to to learn. It is no good unless you apply it. It is the application." Boyd apparently had been elevated to a Scientology Status of OC 6, a position beneath that of Clear. Boyd would actually go on to star and narrate a Scientology recruiting film called Freedom in 1970. A copy of this film can be found at the Library of Congress, but it is not available online via any Scientology resource, which may indicate a falling out Boyd had with Scientology using his name for recruiting purposes. There is no documentation of his later involvement with it.
During the 1970s demand for Boyd in Hollywood had diminished, so he focused his attention on European films and several television pilots and shows. He made three films in Spain with director José Antonio Nieves Conde, including Marta in 1970, The Great Swindle in 1971, and Casa Manchada in 1975. He worked with cult director Romain Gary in the drug thriller Kill! in 1971. He also made several Westerns, including Hannie Caulder with Raquel Welch in 1971, The Man Called Noon in 1973, Those Dirty Dogs in 1973 and Potato Fritz in 1976. He also kept travelling to exotics destinations to act, including Australia for The Hands of Cormac Joyce in 1972, South Africa for Control Factor and The Manipulator in 1972-1973, Jamaica for the scuba diving adventure The Treasure of Jamaica Reef in 1972, Florida for the television pilot Key West in 1973 and Hawaii in his last acting stint as a guest star on the popular television show Hawaii Five-O in 1977. The episode Up the Rebels was the premiere episode of Hawaii Five-O's tenth season, and it aired after Boyd's death on 15 September 1977. His most critically acclaimed role during the 1970s was as a colourful Irish gangster in the UK crime thriller The Squeeze in 1977.
A letter from film producer Euan Lloyd (who produced such films as Shalako, The Man Called Noon and The Wild Geese), states that "Stephen Boyd was one of the nicest, kindest people I have met in my lifetime, rare in this profession."
Although Boyd spent most of his adult life traveling abroad for film work, he made his permanent home in southern California. At one point in the 1960s, he had three homes there— one above the Sunset Strip, one in Tarzana and another in Palm Springs, where he enjoyed his favorite pastime, golf. He would make frequent trips back to his hometown of Belfast in Northern Ireland. to visit his family. On one particular visit to Belfast in 1971, Boyd exclaimed his dismay about the situation in Northern Ireland at that time: "Because of the divisiveness, the potential for displaying to the world all that is good in that lovely land is lost, perhaps even destroyed." Boyd was valued so highly by his native city of Belfast that during his visits he was always given a military escort from the airport to his home for security reasons.
Boyd died of a massive heart attack on 2 June 1977 at the age of 45 while playing golf with his wife Elizabeth Mills at the Porter Valley Country Club in Northridge, California. "Stephen and Elizabeth were in a golf cart between the fifth and sixth tees when suddenly he said. 'I don't feel well,' and slumped over. Elizabeth dragged him out of the cart and gave him artificial respiration, but it was too late." He was in talks to play the role of the Regimental Sergeant Major in Euan Lloyd's The Wild Geese before his death. Boyd was interred in Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California. His wife Elizabeth Mills Boyd was interred with him at the time of her death in 2007.
Silver Screen Magazine in 1960 wrote this about Boyd:
A supreme individualist, like most Irishman, he has a wonderful actor's face that easily switches from an engaging smile to sinister menace. Far handsomer in person than on the screen ... Stephen Boyd is a lean (180 pounds), well built (six-foot-one) charmer of 31, with a dazzling dimple, light brown curly hair, fair skin and the kind of grey eyes which take on color from what he is wearing. A man of tremendous vitality, moody and volatile, a typical Celt, he veers from humor to anger in the wink of an eye. He dresses conservatively; speaks wittily, and extremely well, though he confesses that he's had almost no formal schooling; is genial and friendly ('I have my brooding hours which wipe that grin off my face').
Boyd was first married in 1958 to Italian-born MCA executive Mariella Di Sarzana during the filming of Ben-Hur. They separated after just three weeks. Concerning his short-lived marriage to Sarzana, Boyd would explain, "It was my fault. I'm an Irish so-and-so when I'm working. I hadn't been married a week when we both knew we had made a mistake. She is a nice girl but we were just not meant for each other. I suppose I wasn't ready for marriage. Maybe I was still too much of an adolescent." They officially divorced in early 1959.
Boyd lived as a bachelor for most of his life and was wary of marriage after his first experience. His secretary Elizabeth Mills was a permanent resident at his Tarzana home during these years though the two did not marry until 1974. He was very popular with the Hollywood columnists, including his friend Hedda Hopper and her rival Louella Parsons due to his honest, open comments and sense of humor.
He dated some very prominent women in Hollywood, including Anna Kashfi (Marlon Brando's ex), Belfast socialite Romney Tree, actress Joan Collins, actress Tina Louise, ] TV star and Playboy centerfold Marilyn Hanold and Israeli actress Elena Eden. Hollywood columnists would also make note of Boyd's flirtation with Hope Lange. Hope Lange would later say in a Vanity Fair interview about The Best of Everything: "During the film we had a great camaraderie. He had that wonderful Irish charm, and wonderful humour. And anyone who has humor I'm a sucker for." Boyd was rumored to have been a romantic interest of Doris Day during the filming of Jumbo, which Boyd vehemently denied. Boyd seems to have been much enamored of his co-star Sophia Loren during the filming of the epic The Fall of the Roman Empire. Boyd said during an interview in 1963 that "I wouldn't die exactly for Sophia, but I'd come close to it." He would also comment in an interview in 1976 that Sophia was "the most beautiful person I've ever met."
Raquel Welch would claim in 2013 that during the filming of Fantastic Voyage in 1965, she became infatuated with Boyd, who rejected her advances. In her comments she would imply that Boyd was gay. No evidence of Stephen Boyd being a homosexual exists. However he possibly did play his most famous character Messala in Ben-Hur with a homosexual twist as instructed by screenwriter Gore Vidal. In Gore Vidal's autobiography "Palimpsest," Vidal describes his discussion with Boyd concerning the character Messala's underlying motivation. This was based on an idea by Vidal to enhance the tension between the two main antagonists . Vidal would subsequently argue years later with director William Wyler and actor Charlton Heston about Boyd's performance and the implications surrounding Ben-Hur. Neither Wyler or Heston believed that a homoerotic undertone existed in Ben-Hur'.
Boyd had a deep and lasting friendship with actress and French icon Brigitte Bardot. Boyd starred in two movies with Bardot — The Night Heaven Fell in 1958 and Shalako in 1968. During the filming of Shalako in Almeria, Spain, Bardot and Boyd's close relationship and open affection for each other sparked numerous rumors of a possible affair. It even caused Brigitte's husband at the time, Gunter Sachs, to ask for a divorce. In Bardot's autobiography, she described the events and states that Boyd "was never her lover, but a tender and attentive friend." In an interview with Photoplay Film in 1968, Boyd said, "Bardot is always Bardot. She's marvelous. She's an enormous star and she's a unique, marvelous woman. I adore her."
Boyd also had a close relationship with actress Dolores Hart. Hart describes what would be her only romance with a co-star in her autobiography The Ear of the Heart. Boyd eventually rejected her advances, but they remained close friends even after she turned to the cloistered life of a nun in 1963. He visited her in 1966 at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut and remained in communication with her up until the early 1970s.
Stephen Boyd’s most passionate affair seems to have been with beautiful Austrian actress Marisa Mell. They met while filming the movie Marta in 1970. Boyd initially dodged Marisa Mell's amorous advances, but during the second film they made together, The Great Swindle, the two became inseparable lovers. They married in a gypsy camp on the outskirts of Madrid in late 1971. The ceremony included a wrist cutting exchange of blood to seal their bond. The marriage was not considered legal, but Marisa Mell said, "Who cares? In our minds it will be real." According to Marisa Mell, their affair was so intense that while living in Rome they made a trip to the Italian town of Sarsina for a ritual exorcism at the Cathedral of St. Vicinius. A short time later, Boyd became physically ill over the intensity of the affair, and abruptly left Rome to return first to Belfast, then onto Jamaica to begin filming The Treasure of Jamaica Reef in early 1972.
Boyd's last marriage took place in 1974 to Elizabeth Mills, a secretary at the British Arts Council, whom he had known since 1953. Elizabeth Mills followed Boyd to the United States in the late 1950s and was his personal assistant, secretary and confidante for many years before marrying him in the mid- 1970s.
- Black 13 (1953) as Policeman (uncredited)
- Lilacs in the Spring (1954) as Beaumont's Poolside Companion (uncredited)
- An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) as Albert O'Shannon
- Born for Trouble (1955)
- The Man Who Never Was (1956) as Patrick O'Reilly
- A Hill in Korea (1956) as Pvt. Sims
- Seven Waves Away (1957) as Will McKinley
- Island in the Sun (1957) as Euan Templeton
- Seven Thunders (1957) as Dave
- Les bijoutiers du clair de lune (1958) as Lambert
- The Bravados (1958) as Bill Zachary
- Woman Obsessed (1959) as Fred Carter
- The Best of Everything (1959) as Mike Rice
- Ben-Hur (1959) as Messala
- The Big Gamble (1961) as Vic Brennan
- The Inspector (1962) as Peter Jongman
- Jumbo (1962) as Sam Rawlins
- Imperial Venus (1962) as Jules de Canouville
- The Third Secret (1964) as Alex Stedman
- The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) as Livius
- Genghis Khan (1965) as Jamuga
- The Oscar (1966) as Frank Fane
- The Poppy Is Also a Flower (1966) as Benson
- Fantastic Voyage (1966) as Grant
- The Bible: In the Beginning... (1966) as Nimrod
- The Caper of the Golden Bulls (1967) as Peter Churchman
- Assignment K (1968) as Philip Scott
- Shalako (1968) as Bosky Fulton
- Slaves (1969) as MacKay
- Carter's Army (1970) (TV) as Capt. Beau Carter
- Historia de una traición (1971) as Arturo
- Marta (1971) as Don Miguel
- African Story (1971) as Arnold Tiller
- Hannie Caulder (1971) as The Preacher (uncredited)
- The Great Swindle (1971) as Dave Barton
- Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971) as Brad Killian
- The Devil Has Seven Faces (1972) as León Urrutía, joyero
- Those Dirty Dogs (1973) as Cpt. Chadwood Willer
- The Big Game (1973) as Leyton van Dyk
- The Man Called Noon (1973) as Rimes
- The Treasure of Jamaica Reef (1974) as Hugo Graham
- The Left Hand of the Law (1975) as Lanza
- L'uomo che sfidò l'organizzazione (1975) as Inspector Stephen McCormick
- Potato Fritz (1976) as Bill Ardisson
- Lady Dracula (1977) as Graf Dracula
- The Squeeze (1977) as Vic
- Impossible Love (1977) as Alvaro
- Women in Hospital (1977) as Dr. Oberhoff