By Scott D. O'Reilly
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 in 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
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
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
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
Milland passed away in 1986. He left behind his wife of 54 years Malvina
Webber and two children, and dozens of classic performances.
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). Contact:firstname.lastname@example.org. Read about classic film stars every month in
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