Vintage Hunk: Stephen Boyd
Stephen Boyd was a beautiful Irish actor who made a smash hit with (and won a 1959 Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe Award for) Ben-Hur. He played the hunky Messala who had the hots for Charlton Heston, though according to Gore Vidal (who worked on the script) Heston had no idea what was going on.
I was in 9th grade when my Aunt took me to see Ben-Hur at the Whalley Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Even at that age I could figure out what Messala's problem was.
Chuck may have been clueless, but little Mikey knew exactly what was going on!
Born William Millar in Northern Ireland, William Boyd's first notable role was playing an Irish spy in the 1955 film The Man Who Never Was. This true life story starring the great Clifton Webb and unbelievable greasy Gloria Grahame was a top notch war film that gave Boyd a contract with 20th Century Fox.
Boyd's first Hollywood films were pretty ordinary (except for the great women's film The Best of Everything) and his performances were pretty bland; at least he had a light, sexy accent.
It was famed director William Wyler who chose Boyd to play the evil Messala in MGM’s epic remake of their silent classic Ben-Hur. Filmed in Rome, this massive film not only made a fortune but won most of the tops Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Actor and Supporting Actor. The fact that this film is pretty hideous — chariot race or not — is beside the point now. How The Nun's Story, Room at the Top, Anatomy of a Murder, Suddenly Last Summer and James Stewart lost to this bloated turkey and Heston is beyond explanation.
But on the upside, it did make Stephen Boyd a star.
Legend has it that Vidal told Boyd that the whole point of his character is Messala's unrequited love for Ben Hur— the wooden Ms. Heston. Apparently they did not tell Chuck about this Lee Strasberg moment, but if you watch the scenes between Boyd and Heston you can see the lust and amour pouring out of Messala. Why poor Messala is so besotted with Mr. Hur that he sends Hur’s mother and sister to a leper colony we’ll never know; after all, it’s not the way to win a man—either then or now!
But the real reason to see this movie is watching Boyd run around in his loincloth or toga or whatever. To be wildly sexually attracted to Heston takes first rate acting, and Boyd certainly gave it all he had. Even in his death scene, after being dragged by the chariot, Messala can think of nothing but Hur.
Unfortunately, Boyd never had a part that good again. He was in the original cast of Cleopatra opposite Elizabeth Taylor as Mark Antony, but when Taylor's health and the English weather forced the film’s postponement, Boyd was replaced (so was England!) by Richard Burton. And the rest was tabloid history.
Boyd did have a good part in another epic, The Fall of the Roman Empire, but his subsequent films— including the worst movie ever made in Hollywood, The Oscar— were decided comedowns.
Boyd died in 1977, at the early age of 45, while playing golf in Northridge, California. His death at such an early age robbed us of one of the most handsome leading man of his era. But we will always have his great, sexy performance in Ben-Hur.