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By Scott D. O'Reilly

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Ray Milland Print by Volpe honoring 1945 Best Actor OscarIt is a rare actor who seems tailored to play both leading men and villains.nbsp; But then there was nothing run-of- the-mill about a Welshman named Ray Milland, born Reginald Alfred Truscott Jones in 1907.  Milland seemed to touch every base in his half-century Hollywood career, succeeding in light comedies, musicals, adventure yarns, searing dramas, thrillers, love stories, campy horror classics, and television.  And whether he was heading an A-list cast, or adding panache and a box office name to a B film, Milland always managed to create an indelible impression, becoming one of the most distinctive and recognizable screen presences of the 20th century.

Milland grew up in Heath, a mill town in Wales.  In his autobiography "Wild-eyed in Babylon" Milland recalls arguing with his agent over changing his name before entering the British film industry.  "I really don't care what you call me.  But I must keep the initial "R" because my mother had it engraved on my suitcases.  But if you don't come back with something soon, I'm packing these suitcases and going back to the mill lands where I came from!" Thus was the beginning of a movie legend named Ray Milland.

In his early adulthood Milland served as a guard in the Royal Household Cavalry of London, acquiring excellent riding and athletic skills that he would later put to good use in many of his films.  His acting career got its start on the other side of the Atlantic, including a pre-John Ford version of "The Informer," but by 1931 he had moved to Hollywood appearing steadily as a bit player and in supporting roles in films like "Blonde Crazy" and "Charlie Chan in London."  In 1937 he scored in "The Big Broadcast of 1937" and "Jungle Princess," films that marked the beginning of his rise to stardom.

Tall, with handsome features and seductive voice Milland quickly succeeded in1940's Ray Milland MADE IN USA Arcade Card light comedies and entertaining fare such as "Three Smart Girls," "Easy Living," and "Hotel Imperial."  But by far his most memorable film for his early period is the adventure classic "Beau Geste" also starring Gary Cooper, Robert Preston, and Brian Donlevy.

The success of "Beau Geste" - probably the best foreign legion film ever -- rubbed off on all concerned, particularly the young Gary Cooper who was fast becoming an American icon.  Milland was proving himself a capable supporting lead, but he had yet to break into the front tier of leading men.  He'd get his chance in Cecil B. DeMille's "Reap The Wild Wind," receiving top billing over another American icon, John Wayne.  The seafaring costume drama is interesting for many reason, not the least of which is that it virtually the only major film in which "The Duke" plays second fiddle, loses the girl to his rival (Milland), and goes from being a hero to a villain (though he does redeem himself before the final credits roll).

By the mid forties Milland had solidified his place as a reliable performer, but he wasn't anybody's idea of a great actor.  That was all about to change.  In 1944 director Billy Wilder picked Milland to play the alcoholic writer in "The Lost Weekend."  Virtually everyone in Hollywood recommended against Milland taking the part, suggesting the role would be box office poison.  Even Milland doubted he had the right stuff for the highly demanding part.  But Wilder was insistent, telling Milland he'd win the Academy Award for best actor for sure.  Wilder was right, but even he didn't know how right he was.  Milland's performance was a knockout.  Filmed on location in New York City to add realism, Milland subsisted largely on toast and coffee to get the gaunt look the role required.  He even spent time in a recovery ward Ray Milland Publicity Photoat Bellevue researching for the part.  Both the film and Milland's preparation set a new standard in Hollywood motion pictures, and the acclaim was universal.  In addition to his Oscar for best actor Milland also garnered a Golden Globe, and his performance drew raves from virtually every critic polled.  The film ended up winning five Oscars over all, including Best Picture and Best Director for Wilder.

In the late forties and early fifties Milland consolidated his success as an actor, particularly in the highly acclaimed film noir classic "The Big Clock" with Charles Laughton, and in Alfred Hitchcock's suspense masterpiece "Dial M. for Murder" also starring Grace Kelly.

Ray Milland remained a busy and dedicated actor for the next several decades, but the quality of his material never again matched that of his peak period from the late thirties to the late fifties.  With age Milland's matinee idol looks faded giving him a more sinister appearance well suited to horror films, including Roger Corman's "Premature Burial."  Later, Milland appeared in numerous B horror film including the camp classics such as "Frogs" and "The Man with Two Heads."  But his later work also included higher-grade material including the blockbuster "Love Story" and Walt Disney's "Escape to Witch Mountain."  Milland also worked in television since its inception, appearing in his own comedy series "The Ray Milland Show (1953-55)," and later as a guest star in popular TV series like: "Colombo," "Charlie's Angels,"  "Fantasy Island," "The Love Boat," and "Hart to Hart."

Ray Milland was one of the most prolific and hard working actors of his generation.  One story illustrates the kind of involvement Milland made to his parts.  In 1941 while working on "I Wanted Wings" with William Holden, Milland went up with the flight crew filming aerial scenes.  While in mid-air Milland decided on the spur of the moment that he'd like the chance to do a parachute jump, but at the last minute the pilot decided that Milland would have to wait till next time, their fuel situation was getting to low to reach the proper altitude for a jump.  It was a good thing too.  When Milland got back on the ground he learned that the "parachute" he intended to use was really "just a prop."

Milland passed away in 1986.  He left behind his wife of 54 years Malvina Webber and two children, and dozens of classic performances.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer who has written for "The Humanist, "Think," "Philosophy Now," "The Philosophers' Magazine," and is a contributor to the book "The Great Thinkers A-Z" (Continuum, 2004). Read about classic film stars every month in The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.