Blue plaque honour for Ulster-born Hollywood star Stephen Boyd

The life and work of legendary Hollywood actor Stephen Boyd is to be commemorated with the unveiling of a blue plaque close to his birthplace in Newtownabbey.
Stephen Boyd appeared in around 60 moviesStephen Boyd appeared in around 60 movies
Stephen Boyd appeared in around 60 movies

The Ulster History Circle – a voluntary organisation which erects plaques across the Province to celebrate people of achievement – will officially unveil the plaque at ‘Moygara’, Shore Road, Whitehouse, tomorrow at noon.

Stephen Boyd – real name William Millar – was born in a house, long demolished, at the corner of the Doagh Road, Whitehouse on July 4, 1931.

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He was the youngest of nine siblings born to Irish/Canadian parents, James Alexander Millar and his wife Martha Boyd.

At a very early age, William, or Billy as he was known, moved with the family to live in Glengormley. Whilst living there, in 1935 he attended the local Public Elementary School, but left the school at the age of 14 to study shorthand typing and bookkeeping at Hughes Commercial in Belfast.

As he grew up, Billy became the ‘heart throb’ of many of the local Glengormley women with his film star looks, and by late 1948 his wanderlust had led him to Canada and the United States where he performed on radio with a touring theatre company.

He returned home, as he did many times in the ensuing years, and graduated from the local Carnmoney Drama Group to the Ulster Players at the Group Theatre where writer and actor, the late, great Joseph Tomelty gave him the role of the gravel-voiced policeman in the popular radio series, The McCooeys.

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Billy travelled to London in 1951 as an understudy with the Ulster Players for a performance as part of the Festival of Britain. Whilst in London he met Sir Michael Redgrave who arranged a contract with London Films, later to become part of 20th Century Fox in Hollywood. So, the young man from Whitehouse and Glengormley, who had big dreams of becoming a star, made his first movie in Hollywood in 1954 – Lilacs in the Spring, with Zsa Zsa Gabor and Anna Neagle.

With his name changed to Stephen Boyd, his real break came in the role of a Nazi spy in the 1956 production of the Man Who Never Was.

He became noted for his looks and his acting, and the following year, he was auditioning along with such famous names as Victor Mature, Stewart Grainger and Kirk Douglas for the part of Messala in William Wyler’s 1959 MGM epic, Ben-Hur, set in ancient Rome. The part of Messala catapulted Stephen to international stardom, and he won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. He was being hailed as ‘The New Gable’.

For almost three decades and some 60 movies, Stephen Boyd played opposite some of the greatest leading ladies, Sophia Loren, Doris Day, Bridget Bardot, Camilla Sparv, to name but a few.

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Despite the glamour of Hollywood, Boyd never forgot his roots and returned to Glengormley to his parents’ house as often as he could; many times resting there after filming in Europe. He purchased a new bungalow for his parents in Bangor and James and Martha named it ‘Messala’, after their son’s most famous role.

Boyd married twice in California. In 1975 he married his long-time girlfriend and secretary, Elizabeth Mills, but just two years later on June 2, 1977 aged just 46, whilst playing golf in the San Fernando Valley, he collapsed and died of a heart attack.

He is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery, Los Angeles alongside other Hollywood greats such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Boyd is also remembered on his parents’ grave in the Clandeboye Cemetery, Bangor.

Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said: “Stephen Boyd was born in Whitehouse across the lough from Holywood, Co Down, but he set his sights on Hollywood, California, from where he achieved world-wide fame, starring in many movies.

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“The Ulster History Circle is delighted to commemorate this celebrated actor with a blue plaque close to his birthplace, and the circle would particularly like to thank Abbey Historical Society for their financial support towards the plaque.”