In honour on what would have been his 90th birthday, Joe Cushnan celebrates the life and career of Co Antrim actor Stephen Boyd
Carrickfergus-based Joymount Dramatic Society in 1951. A touring production of the comedy Boyd’s Shop featured a part-time actor in his late teens, William Millar.
His reward was a three pounds, three shillings cheque (about £100 today). By the end of the decade, he was earning eye-watering salaries in Hollywood, as film star Stephen Boyd, adopting his mother Martha’s maiden name for his screen career. He made around 60 films from 1955 to 1977.
He was born to Martha and James in a house at Doagh Road Corner, Whitehouse, 90 years ago on July 4. Later, the family moved to Glengormley. He died following a heart attack at 45 on June 2, 1977 in California. There is no doubt he has a permanent place in movie history, mainly for his stunning performance as Messala in William Wyler’s 1959 extravaganza, Ben-Hur.
Three years earlier his role as a wartime Irish spy working for the Germans in The Man Who Never Was attracted the attention of studios, notably 20th Century Fox who put him under contract for seven years. It gave him financial security but also the frustration of having little choice in the films he made.
Boyd was as big a star as anyone and his profile was helped enormously by a dazzling array of co-stars in his two decades in movies; Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Gregory Peck, Brigitte Bardot, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, James Mason, Gina Lollobrigida, Omar Sharif, Doris Day, Sean Connery and Raquel Welch to name but a few.
Apart from epics, including The Fall of the Roman Empire, he starred in action films, romances, westerns and even a musical, Billy Rose’s Jumbo. There were some duds along the way like The Bible: In the Beginning, a starry but laborious 1966 film directed by John Huston in which Boyd played Nimrod, the hunter.
Other high profile and influential directors featured in Boyd’s career including Roger Vadim (Heaven Fell That Night), Henry King (The Bravados), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), Henry Hathaway (Woman Obsessed), Anthony Mann (The Fall of the Roman Empire), Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage) and Edward Dmytryk (Shalako).
After a dozen years of success, Boyd, free from any long-term contract, continued as an independent star but most of his film choices were poorly received.
Throughout his career, he rarely used his Northern Irish accent but, in the London-based gangster movie The Squeeze (1977), he played a nasty kingpin villain, mixing malice with deadpan Belfast humour. Leon Griffiths, who later created Minder, wrote the screenplay and told me that Boyd was a pleasant and modest man, and that the other actors in the cast were greatly impressed by his ease and professionalism.
Not long before his death, Stephen Boyd’s friend and producer, Euan Lloyd (Shalako, The Man Called Noon) pencilled him in to play the Sergeant-Major in The Wild Geese, but it was not to be. Boyd suffered a fatal heart attack in 1977. Lloyd wrote to me: “Stephen Boyd was one of the nicest, kindest people I have met in my lifetime, rare in this profession.”
In 1984, when researching his life, I wrote to Boyd’s wife, Elizabeth, and she replied: “I do not feel any reason why you should not continue with your research for a proposed biography of my most beloved and talented husband Stephen Boyd. We were two very private people, devoted to each other and lived our lives very quietly away from the Hollywood scene. I am still devastated and unreconciled that he was taken so suddenly, and it is very difficult not to keep asking ‘Why?’ He had so much talent left to give this troubled world.”
Stephen Boyd’s fame diminished rapidly after his death but better late than never, thanks to the efforts of the Ulster History Circle, a blue plaque was erected in 2018 on the Shore Road near to his birthplace. It is a lasting tribute to a talented man taken too soon.