Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

A salute to the Hollywood star not seduced by fame

Celluloid Closet. Gore Vidal says of Ben Hur and the relationship between Boyd & Heston. Gore Vidal, screenwriter: "I said well, look, let me try something. Let's say that these two guys, when they were 15 or 16 when they last saw each other, they had been lovers and now they're meeting again and the Roman wants to start it up. Masala, played by Stephen Boyd, wants to start it up with Ben Hur, played by Charlton Heston, heaven knows why but he does."

Did you see that programme on BBC1 on Monday night? It was called Stephen Boyd - The Man Who Never Was. Stephen Boyd (real name William "Billy" Millar) was a devastatingly handsome yet very shy and self-effacing actor from Glengormley.

Through sheer hard work and determination Stephen made it all the way to Hollywood to star in Ben-Hur alongside Charlton Heston.

Stephen never quite made the A-list, however, even though he had both the looks and the talent to do so, because he refused to play the celebrity game.

He didn't feel comfortable posing for the tabloid gossip pages. Stephen preferred to spend his time off playing golf with his devoted wife Elizabeth. And in the end Hollywood sidelined him.

He died suddenly at the age of 45 in 1977. Stephen's relatives in Northern Ireland, and his friends in LA, still remember him with great affection. His wife Elizabeth still mourns him.

I've never had much time for the fame game myself. Don't laugh, for even as a lowly writer of commercial fiction there can be a fair bit of showbiz involved.

There are signings in bookstores and shopping malls, national and international book tours, TV appearances on daytime panel shows, late-night radio phone-ins, talks to schools and colleges, and visits to book clubs and libraries.

I turn down most requests; not because I can't be bothered but because I have a genuine phobia of public speaking and of being the centre of attention.

It's a lot harder than it looks, you know, being glamorous and mysterious yet still down-to-earth and approachable.

You can't be too humble and modest or people will treat you with contempt. You can't be too precious and arty or people will treat you with contempt. If you dress down you're regarded as weird and eccentric. If you dress up you're regarded as vain and arrogant. If you try to be charming people will assume you're flirting with them. If you bring along a friend or two for moral support you're accused of having an entourage. If you talk too much you're tiresome, and if you talk too little you're hard work. If you try to explain that good reviews don't always translate into pound signs you're a complainer.

If you say you're in love with your spouse you'll sound defensive. If you don't say you're in love with your spouse there'll be endless speculation about your love life. If you speak frankly people will admire you. Until you overdo the frankness and then you're an embarrassment. In short, it's exhausting being famous which is probably why I've not become terribly famous already, and likely never will be.

I so admire people like the late Stephen Boyd. He wanted to act, so he went to Hollywood and he acted his heart out. But he never forgot where he came from. And he never wanted to embarrass his parents by being photographed leaving fancy restaurants with a string of beautiful starlets.

Stephen didn't want to be a part of that silliness so he played golf and he kept his head down and hopefully he was happy and content for the majority of his time in Hollywood.

I suppose I can't get away from the idea that being famous is simply more trouble than it's worth.

Sometimes people ask me to read their manuscripts and give them my opinion on their work, even if I don't write in their chosen genre, and usually they don't believe that I'm not a commissioning editor.

I have as much influence in the publishing world as Stephen Boyd had in the Hollywood "system".

I couldn't get a friend's book published if my life depended on it. I don't even have a say in my own book covers, or even in the final title.

In fact, I often consider giving it all up and looking for a proper job with regular hours and regular holidays and a pension plan.

People love to meet someone famous. Heaven knows why. Famous people are invariably stressed and exhausted with the sheer slog of being famous: the sporadic work, the make-or-break reviews, the constant focus on looks, and the strain of being apart from loved ones. Is it really worth all that effort, for a gold star on the Walk of Fame? I don't think so.

We ought to put up some sort of memorial to Stephen Boyd. He went to Hollywood, yes, but he never let Hollywood go to his head.

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