Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Treasured gift from a film legend

Only months before he was offered the role that turned him into a household name, film star Stephen Boyd came home on holiday from Hollywood and we met up at his home in Antrim Line, Glengormley.

And not only did he tell me he was soon to take the part of Messala, the Commander of a Roman Garrison, in Ben-Hur opposite Charlton Heston as the Prince Judah of the title, he made me a present of a copy of the hardback book by Lew Wallace on which the movie is based.

Only one thing is missing from the Harper Brothers publication.

Boyd - whose real name was Billy Millar - didn't bother to sign the flyleaf.

Just the same I have kept the print for years as a reminder of the star who was one half of that famous chariot race with Heston in the 1959 movie from the novel, written originally in 1880.

Boyd, who died prematurely in 1977 at only 49, remained close friends with Heston.

It was a mighty injustice when Boyd didn't get the Academy Award he deserved.

In Dublin a few years before his death, Heston told me how he deplored the fact that Stephen missed out on one of the 11 Oscars that were awarded to the film.

"It was Hollywood politics at their worst," Heston confided. However, nowadays when anyone mentions Ben-Hur all they talk about is that spectacular chariot race between Messala and Ben-Hur. I know that Boyd was putting in his time at home on that holiday reading up on the story of a cruel, ruthless time in history when Caesar ruled the world.

He also took time to meet with old friends at the BBC where he had played a policeman in the radio serial The McCooeys by Joe Tomelty .

It was the first time he and I and Alex, who spent some years in Hollywood with his famous brother, had met up since they had sat opposite me across the balcony of Carnmoney Presbyterian Church when they were teenagers.

How was I to know that only a few feet away was a budding actor who would one day star opposite Doris Day, Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren?

In his tale based in lst Century Jerusalem Lew Wallace, one of America's great storytellers, tells of the violence and tragedy that follows when Judah Ben-Hur greets his childhood friend Messala on his return home as a Commander in the Roman legions.

A huge bestseller, beating the likes of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Ben-Hur the book has been republished several times including one edition in 1965 by Dean -amp; Son of London..

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