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16 October 2012

Michael Rennie

English film, television, and stage actor Michael Rennie (1909 - 1971) was best known for his starring role as the space visitor Klaatu in the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Michael Rennie
German postcard by ISV, no. A 8. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Handsome But Hollow
Eric Alexander Rennie was born in Idle, now a Bradford suburb, in 1909 as the son of James Rennie, who operated a century-old wool mill, and Edith Dobby Rennie. His great-great grandfather, named John Rennie, designed and built the New London Bridge. Eric was educated at The Leys, a private school in the city of Cambridge. He worked as car salesman and manager of his uncle's rope factory, before he turned to acting. In 1935 he adopted the professional name Michael Rennie. “Handsome but hollow”, according to Hal Erickson at AllMovie, Rennie gained experience in acting technique while touring the provinces in British repertory. At the age of 28, he was noticed by Gaumont British, which arranged a screen test. He first appeared onscreen as the stand-in for Robert Young in Secret Agent (1936, Alfred Hitchcock). Between 1936 and 1940 he appeared in minor unbilled roles in ten additional films. Shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, the 1.93 m tall Rennie began to receive offers for larger film roles, His first (small) billed performance was in the wartime morale booster The Big Blockade (1940, Charles Frend) starring Michael Redgrave. Six films later, however, Michael Rennie also had his first film lead. The suspense drama Tower of Terror (1941, Lawrence Huntington), released shortly after Pearl Harbor, was styled in the manner of a horror film and co-starred Wilfrid Lawson as a mad Dutch lighthouse keeper in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Second-billed Rennie and third-billed Movita had the romantic leads. His career was interrupted by war service. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1941, and would become a flight instructor for over two years. With the Second World War's end in May 1945, Rennie began to be seen as a potential star as a result of his roles in two vehicles for Britain's most popular star of the era, Margaret Lockwood: the musical I'll Be Your Sweetheart (1945, Val Guest) and, most prominently, the sensual costume adventure The Wicked Lady (1945, Leslie Arliss). The latter turned out to be the year's biggest box office hit, subsequently being listed ninth on a list of top ten highest-grossing British films. He also had a single prominent scene as a commander of Roman centurions in Caesar and Cleopatra (1946, Gabriel Pascal), starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains. Second leads and then leads in seven other British films produced between 1946 and 1949 followed.

Michael Rennie
British postcard. Photo: Gainsborough.

Humanity's Place in the Universe
Michael Rennie, along with Jean Simmons and James Mason, was one of a number of British actors offered Hollywood contracts in 1949–50 by 20th Century-Fox's studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck. The first film under his new contract was the British-filmed Medieval period adventure The Black Rose (1950, Henry Hathaway), starring Tyrone Power. Rennie's second Fox film, the Film-Noir The 13th Letter (1951, Otto Preminger) was a remake of the French film Le Corbeau/The Raven (1943, Henri-Georges Clouzot). His next film gave him first billing and assured him screen immortality. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, Robert Wise) was the first post war ‘A’ science-fiction film. According to Wikipedia it is “A serious, high-minded exploration of humanity's place in the universe and our responsibility to maintain peaceful coexistence, it has remained the gold standard for the genre of the era.” Convinced that it had a potential leading man under contract, the studio decided to produce a version of Les Miserables (1952, Lewis Milestone) as a vehicle for him. Rennie's performance was respectfully, but not enthusiastically, received by the critics. Ultimately, Les Misérables turned in an extremely modest profit and put an end to any further attempts to promote the 43-year-old Rennie as a future star. He was, however, launched on a thriving career as a top supporting actor. He co-starred with Jean Simmons  in the 20th Century-Fox epic The Robe (1953, Henry Koster) and also appeared in its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954, Delmer Daves). Rennie was billed fourth and third, respectively, playing the Apostle Peter, who provides affirmation in the new faith, as Jean and Richard Burton become martyrs for Christianity. The final film that cast Rennie with Simmons was Desiree (1954, Henry Koster) with Marlon Brando as Napoleon. As French marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who becomes King Charles XIV John of Sweden, Rennie marries Jean's Désirée, but her true love always remains with Napoleon. Then Rennie's career began to decline, film opportunities were less appealing and gradually he slipped away from cinema screens. Among his film roles were The Rains of Ranchipur (1955, Jean Negulesco) with Lana Turner, and The Lost World (1960, Irwin Allen), the adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tale of a jungle expedition that finds prehistoric monsters in South America. In 1959, Rennie became a familiar face on television, taking the role of soldier of fortune Harry Lime in 76 episodes of The Third Man (1959-1965), a British-American syndicated TV series very loosely based on the character previously played by Orson Welles.

Michael Rennie
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. W. 604. Photo: Premier Stafford Prod.

The Villainous Sandman
During the 1960’s, Michael Rennie continued his television career, with guest appearances on such series as The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961), Route 66 (1961), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1962), Perry Mason (1963), Bonanza (1965), Lost in Space (1966), Batman (1966) as the villainous Sandman, I Spy (1967), The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1967) and The F.B.I. (1967-1969). He made his only Broadway appearance in Mary, Mary (1961) playing Dirk Winsten, a jaded movie star. It ran for a very successful 1,572 performances, but Rennie stayed with the play less than five months. When Warner Brothers cast the film version in 1963, Rennie, along with leading man Barry Nelson and supporting actor Hiram Sherman were the only Broadway cast members to transfer to the big screen. Debbie Reynolds was given the title role and veteran Mervyn LeRoy directed the production. While the film disappeared from cinemas by the end of 1963, the Broadway version continued for another full year. Rennie moved from Los Angeles to Geneva, Switzerland in 1968. His final seven feature films were filmed in Britain, Italy, Spain, and, in the case of The Surabaya Conspiracy (1969, Wray Davis), The Philippines. His final film was the Spanish-West-German-Italian Sci-Fi horror film Los monstruos del terror/Assignment Terror (1970, Tulio Demicheli) of which a Noel at IMDb comments: “Edward D Wood Jr ... move over”. In 1971 Rennie journeyed to his mother's home in Harrogate, Yorkshire at a time of family grief following the death of his brother. It was there that he suddenly died of an emphysema-induced heart attack, two months before his 62nd birthday. Michael Rennie was married twice: first to Joan England (1938–1945), then to actress Maggie McGrath (1947–1960); their son, David Rennie, is an English circuit judge in Lewes, Sussex, England. Both marriages ended in a divorce. He had a second son, John Marshall Rennie, with longtime companion Renee Gilbert Taylor. Professionally, his son went by the name John M. Taylor. In 1958, director Otto Preminger named Rennie as a third party to his countersuit of adultery against his wife during divorce proceedings.


Trailer of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951).

Sources: Lyn Hammond (IMDb), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Wikipedia, BritMovie.co.uk and IMDb.

1 comment:

Bunched Undies said...

A wonderful post. Indeed, one could not turn on a TV in the 1960s without seeing Rennie.