BBC News

Stephen Boyd, the busker who became a big screen idol

By Ross McKee
BBC News

image captionNorthern Ireland actor Stephen Boyd, who is the subject of a BBC documentary

There are not many people who can go from being a busker to a Hollywood film idol, but then not everyone was Stephen Boyd.

Not even Billy Millar, the actor from Glengormley, County Antrim, who adopted that stage name after a chance encounter with Sir Michael Redgrave in a London cinema which helped propel him to stardom.

As a new BBC documentary explains, the Northern Ireland man, famed for his role in the 1950s blockbuster Ben Hur, encountered Redgrave at the Leicester Square venue while he was working there as a doorman.

In London in a bid to bring his talents to a higher level, Millar was so frustrated in his attempts at acting glory that he was forced to spend some nights on a park bench and even busked outside the cinema itself.

But as renowned Belfast thespian, Jimmy Ellis, explained, one meeting was to change his life.

"Billy (Stephen) had got himself a job as a commissionaire in Leicester Square, before that he had been reduced to busking and he had nearly starved," he said.

"On this particular occasion there was an awards ceremony at which Michael Redgrave was handing out the awards.

"Redgrave spotted him and was friendly and came up and said I am looking for somebody to introduce the stars and Billy couldn't believe it.

"He said:'Would you do this, am I mistaken or are you an actor?' and Billy said 'As a matter of fact I am'.

"Redgrave took a bit of a shine to him and asked him what he was doing, Billy told him how difficult it was to find work so Redgrave decided to help him."

Within weeks, Billy Millar had become Stephen Boyd (the surname was his mother's maiden name) and he began to garner interest in English theatre circles.

Brigitte Bardot

Ellis, who had worked with Millar at the Group Theatre in Belfast, acknowledged the difficulties a Northern Irish accent posed for budding actors aiming for screen success in Britain at that time.

"I was the first to break this barrier of actually getting on to a screen with a Belfast accent," he said.

"But in the days when Billy (Stephen) was trying to get work over here (England) if you came from the south of Ireland you had a chance, but they didn't recognise the accent of the north at all - it was as though they had never heard of it."

Ellis said these difficulties led Millar (Boyd) to pretend he was from Canada and to assume a "transatlantic" accent when he attended interviews for potential parts in films.

He then obtained a seven year contract with the prestigious 20th Century Fox film corporation, and featured opposite a number of leading actresses including Doris Day, Sophia Loren and Brigitte Bardot.

Stephen Boyd is best known for his performance as Messala in the Biblical epic Ben Hur, which broke Academy Awards records when it collected 11 Oscar statuettes.

But Paramount Pictures producer A C Lyles said his qualities were evident from an early stage of his career in the US.

"We see so many people come through those Paramount gates and a lot of them become famous and big stars, unfortunately a lot of them don't." he said.

"You immediately knew Stephen Boyd was going to be one coming through those gates who was going to be remembered, you were captivated by his personality, his great charm and that wonderful smile that everybody loved.

"Within a few weeks he was very popular and everyone loved Stephen Boyd."

Boyd and legendary co-star Charlton Heston were taught how to drive "multiple horse teams" for the famous chariot race sequences in the picture, with the County Antrim man sustaining a number of cuts to his body as he strove to master his role.

Lyles recalled the on-screen aura that both men brought to the film and how Heston had been impressed by the skills Boyd brought to the production.

"There was chemistry in that picture the way they listen to each other," he said.

"I remember Charlton Heston saying how much he enjoyed working with Stephen Boyd because he said he listened when you are doing a scene with him.

"It's like John Wayne used to say: 'I'm not an actor, I'm a reactor'."


Boyd went on to be a key figure in films such as The Fall of the Roman Empire and Genghis Khan in the 1960s, but opportunities for major roles faded in the 1970s, with Ellis among others citing his reluctance "to play the Hollywood game".

He was 45 when he died on a golf course in California in 1977, in the company of his wife Elizabeth.

image captionStephen Boyd (centre) on the set of Ben Hur with Charlton Heston and film director William Wyler

Ellis said that as a young actor at the Group Theatre in Belfast, Billy Millar had been "one of the lads" and had not wanted to be seen as anyone different.

Relatives recall him returning to Northern Ireland in secret to visit his family and purchasing a house for his parents and Ellis said his adoption of a Canadian persona was not a rejection of his roots.

"Billy never forgot where he came from which I like to think is the best characteristic about people who come from our part of the world," he added.

"I remember picking up a magazine and there Billy at long last at the height of his career did this big article where he withdrew his Canadian identity and re-established himself as the boy from Glengormley.

"He explained why had he not invented this fiction he might still have been busking in Leicester Square."

Indeed the former doorman at the Leicester Square cinema did return to it at the height of his fame, as one of the stars of its premiere of Ben Hur. As comebacks go, it's not a bad one.

Stephen Boyd: The Man Who Never Was will be shown on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday, 10 January at 2235 GMT.