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An Ulster Log: Why Stephen Boyd never got an Oscar for Ben-Hur

By Eddie McIlwaine

Cinemagoers of a certain age here will take a closer than usual look when the remake of the epic Ben-Hur arrives on our screens next February.

For the original film, circa 1959, starred the late Stephen Boyd as Messala who challenged the late Charlton Heston, as Ben-Hur, in that spectacular chariot race, still regarded in Hollywood as one of the great cinematic events.

Those who saw it first time round, will be keen to see how the new Messala, Toby Kebbell, compares with my old friend Boyd. Toby (33) wasn't born when Stephen had his standing in films like Ben-Hur and The Man Who Never Was and appeared opposite the likes of Doris Day, Raquel Welch and Brigitte Bardot. He was also the first choice to co-star with Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra but shooting was delayed for months and he had to move on, leaving Richard Burton to the role.

Boyd, whose real name was Billy Millar, was from Glengormley and was only 45 when he died in 1977. Heston once told me when we met up in Dublin that Boyd was hard done by when he was the only major member of the cast who missed out on an Oscar in the 1960 Academy Awards.

"The film got 11 Oscars and Stephen should have made it 12," declared his co-star. "Hollywood politics was to blame for him missing out."

The new Ben-Hur is being produced by Londonderry's own Roma Downey - now a force to be reckoned with in the home of big movies - and husband Mark Burnett, with Timur Bekmambetov directing.

But there's a snag. The chariots of Ben-Hur and Messala have been banned this time from Rome's Circus Maximus, the site immortalised by the race in 1959. Downey and her husband have been forced to reproduce the ancient Circus in a Rome studio.

The new Ben-Hur also stars Morgan Freeman as Ilderim and the beautiful Nazanin Boniadi as Esther.

Stephen Boyd used to sit in the gallery opposite me in Carnmoney Presbyterian Church when we were young and my first bylined newspaper story was an exclusive about him signing a seven year contract that took him to Hollywood.

How Nazanin is adding a touch of class to a new classic

And here is a glamorous spin-off in the Ben-Hur saga. As I mentioned in my main piece, the intrigue and romance in the new movie will be provided by stunning Nazanin Boniadi, who has the  role of the much sought-after Esther. An actress with brains as well as beauty.

Born in Tehran and raised in London, Nazanan earned an honours degree in biological sciences at the University of California, but changed her career path from medicine to pursue an acting career only nine years ago - and with spectacular success. Her first major role was in the American daytime soap General Hospital and she soon went on to appear in major films like Charlie Wilson's War, Iron Man and The Next Three Days.

She also appeared in the US TV political thriller Scandal.

Aidan walks his lovely bride Fiona down a pier

The tide was out on Carlingford Lough, but love and romance were very much in as the sun beamed down on the pier of Woodquay House for the open-air wedding of Aidan McAlindon (32) and Fiona Henderson (30), which took place on the water's edge with a moored dredger rocking gently at anchor out there on the waves as a witness.

I've been at many weddings, most of them in a church and others in hotels. However, this was my first time as a guest at nuptials on a pier. You could say the sands of time (and Carlingford) will never run out for Aidan, originally from near Aldergrove, now based in Glasgow, and Fiona, from Perth in Scotland.

The son of Ciaran and Frankie McAlindon and the daughter of Keith and Rosalind Henderson were pronounced man and wife by the Rev Hunter Farquharson of Perth Cathedral, as fishermen and scullers rowing by waved their congratulations.

And prayers were answered when that sun came out to shine on the young couple just as the ceremony began, after a morning of torrential rain threatened to disrupt the proceedings.

Judy to sing writer Joni's praises

Judy Collins will be paying tribute to songwriter Joni Mitchell (72), who is fighting illness, when she comes to Belfast in the autumn. It was her cover version of Mitchell's emotive Both Sides Now in 1967 that changed Judy's life and turned her into an international star.

Joni was full of praise for the way Judy sang her song, which is about Mitchell's own life, as she told me when we met at the Grand Opera House in Belfast a few years back. The single hit the Billboard Top 10 and won Collins her first Grammy.

Judy, who will be at the Waterfront in Belfast, on October 9, also had a hit with Stephen Sondheim's Send In The Clowns from for the musical A Little Night Music.

Who would want to visit Earth?

I'm in a preaching mood today and have a word of advice to scientists who are preparing to probe outer space for signs of life on other planets.

That great mind Stephen Hawking has suggested people just like us could be watching us from way out there among the stars.

I think exploration in search of another world should be forgotten.

Haven't we made a big enough mess of our own Earth without seeking to do the same somewhere else in the Universe?

Anyway, if life does exist on some other remote world, I'm certain those watching us from space won't want to let on they exist.

Lovely Day for all summer brides

There's a song called Lovely Day that brides everywhere this summer want played at their weddings.

When I wake up in the morning, love

And the sunlight hurts my eyes

And something without warning, love

Bears heavy on my mind

Then I look at you

And the world's alright with me

Just one look at you

And I know it's gonna be

A lovely day

A lovely day

Lovely Day was written by US soul singer Bill Withers for his 1978 LP Menagerie.

My mate Andrew enjoys it so much that he says he'll have it played at his next wedding.

Belfast Telegraph


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