22 March 2013

Edmund Purdom

Darkly handsome Edmund Purdom (1924 – 2009) was a British character actor, who wore togas and sandals for a great deal of his career. In Hollywood he replaced Marlon Brando in The Egyptian (1954) and Mario Lanza in The Student Prince (1954) and in Italy he starred in countless peplums and other genre films.

Edmund Purdom
Italian postcard by Bromofoto, Milano, no. 941. Photo: MGM. Publicity still for The Student Prince (1954, Richard Thorpe).

Striking Dark Good Looks
Edmund Anthony Cutlar Purdom was born in Welwyn Garden City, England in 1924. His father was artist and London drama critic Charles Benjamin Purdom. Edmund was educated by Jesuits at St Ignatius College and by Benedictines at Downside School. He began his acting career in 1945 by joining the Northampton Repertory Company, appearing in productions which included William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Molière's The Imaginary Invalid. Followed by two years of military service where he joined the Army Pool of Artists. He made his screen Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (1951, Leonard Brett). He then joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. In 1951-1952, Purdom was part of the company that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh took to Broadway for alternating performances of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra. He tested at Twentieth Century-Fox for the leading male role in My Cousin Rachel (1952), but Richard Burton got the part. The studio cast him instead as ship's officer Lightoller in Titanic (1953, Jean Negulesco). His performance caught the attention of MGM, and he got a small role in the classic Julius Caesar (1953, Joseph L. Mankiewicz) starring Marlon Brando. Purdome played Strato, the young servant of Brutus (James Mason), who holds the sword out for his master to run on to at the climax. Then he was cast in the title role in opposite Jean Simmons in the epic The Egyptian (1954, Michael Curtiz), 20th Century-Fox's most lavish production of 1954. He played a brilliant physician in the service of the Pharaoh in 18th-dynasty Egypt. Ronald Bergan in The Guardian: “Purdom's reputation as a surrogate is underlined by the fact that he got his first chance of stardom when he replaced Marlon Brando in The Egyptian (1954) after Brando wisely cried off, preferring to play Napoleon in Desirée instead. (...) Purdom's striking dark good looks and dimpled cheeks made up for his rather wooden personality and inability to pronounce his 'r's, but not even Brando could have known how to react to dialogue such as: ‘You have bold eyes for the son of a cheesemaker.’”

Edmund Purdom, Edmund Gwenn, The Student Prince
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, no. D 598. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Publicity still for The Student Prince (1954, Richard Thorpe).

Edmund Purdom
Italian postcard by B.F.F. Edit., no. 3227. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Publicity still for The Student Prince (1954, Richard Thorpe).

A Huge Build-up
Edmund Purdom then played the leading role opposite Ann Blyth in the MGM musical The Student Prince (1954), a part originally intended for Mario Lanza. According to Wikipedia, Lanza’s disagreement with director Curtis Bernhardt over the way a certain song was to be sung had led to his dismissal by MGM. (Ronald Bergan adds: “Mario Lanza's drugs-alcohol-weight problems got the better of him”). The film was subsequently directed by Richard Thorpe and Purdom lip-synched to Lanza's singing voice. MGM gave the young unknown a huge build-up. In the same year, he appeared in another MGM musical, Athena (1954, Richard Thorpe), opposite Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds. In The Independent, Tom Vallance cites Debbie Reynolds saying: “The only relief on the set was the action going on off camera. Linda Christian, who was Mrs Tyrone Power at the time, was also in the picture. She was a temptress, and right before our eyes we saw the tempted, who was Edmund Purdom. They would go to his little trailer, close the door and be gone for quite a while.” Christian later divorced Power and married Purdom. He then played the title role opposite superstar Lana Turner in the biblical epic The Prodigal (1955, Richard Thorpe), MGM's most lavish production of 1955. It was a huge flop. He partnered with Ann Blyth again in the swashbuckling CinemaScope adventure film The King's Thief (1955, Robert Z. Leonard). Purdom's MGM contract was terminated. On television he starred as Marco del Monte in the swashbuckler series Sword of Freedom (1957-1958, Peter Cotes, Anthony Squire). In 1959 he filmed the crime drama Malaga/Moment of Danger (1960, Laslo Benedek) in Europe. The American premiere of the film, co-starring Trevor Howard and Dorothy Dandridge was delayed for nearly two years. After that, he did not work in Hollywood anymore except for some cameos, such as in the MGM production The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964, Anthony Asquith) in which peer Rex Harrison buys his wife (Jeanne Moreau) the titular limousine, unaware that she will be using the back seat to make love to Purdom.

Edmund Purdom
Italian postcard.

Edmund Purdom
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. I 414. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Peplums and Spaghetti Westerns
When his Hollywood career sizzled out, Edmund Purdom went to Italy to star in the crime drama Agguato a Tangeri/Trapped in Tangiers (1957, Riccardo Freda) with Geneviève Page. He decided to stay in Europe. In Italy, he made the peplums (sword and sandal epic) Erode il grande/Herod the great (1959, Viktor Tourjansky) with Sylvia Lopez, I cosacchi/The Cossacks (1960, Viktor Tourjansky, Giorgio Venturini) opposite John Drew Barrymore, and
Salambò/The Loves of Salammbo (1960, Sergio Grieco) featuring Jeanne Valérie. In France he played Rasputin in Les nuits de Raspoutine/The Night They Killed Rasputin (1960, Pierre Chenal) with Gianna Maria Canale. In Austria, he appeared in Das große Wunschkonzert/Big Request Concert (1960, Arthur Maria Rabenalt) with Carlos Thompson and Linda Christian. In Great Britain he played with Ian Hendry and Janette Scott in The Beauty Jungle (1964, Val Guest) about the dangerous world of beauty contests. Another British film was the drama The Comedy Man (1964, Alvin Rakoff) starring Kenneth More as a struggling actor. He lived in Rome for the rest of his life, and continued to work extensively in Italian B-films and on television. His later films include the spaghetti western Crisantemi per un branco di carogne/Chrysanthemums for a Bunch of Swine (1968, Sergio Pastore), the horror film Thomas e gli indemoniati/Thomas and the Bewitched (1970, Pupi Avati) and the thriller Giornata nera per l'ariete/Evil Fingers (1971, Luigi Bazzoni) starring Franco Nero. He also worked as a voice actor. He dubbed dialogue translated from Italian into English for sales of Italian films in English-speaking countries. During the 1970’s and 1980’s he appeared in interesting films like the crime drama L'onorata famiglia/The honourable family (1974, Tonino Ricci) with Raymond Pellegrin, the TV film Sophia Loren: Her Own Story (1980, Mel Stuart) in which he convincingly played actor-writer-director Vittorio de Sica, and Don Bosco (1988, Leandro Castellani) featuring Ben Gazzara. On TV he was seen in The Scarlet and the Black (1983, Jerry London) starring Gregory Peck, and the mini-series The Winds of War (1983, Dan Curtis) starring Robert Mitchum. In 1984, he directed the horror mystery Don't Open 'Til Christmas, about a psychopath who slaughters Santas. Purdom also played the leading role as a police inspector. It would be his first and last film direction. He was also very active as a sound-engineer for music, recording many classical concerts in Florence and Vienna and devised a technique transferring mono (sound) to stereo. He narrated two Christian documentaries, one on the life of Padre Pio, and 7 Signs of Christ's Return. His final film was the adventure film I cavalieri che fecero l'impresa/The Knights of the Quest (2001, Pupi Avati) starring Raul Bova. Purdom was married four times. His first three wives, all divorced, were actress and ex-ballerina Tita Phillips (1951-1956), the mother of his children; Alicia Darr (1957-1958), and Carlos Thompson and Linda Christian (1962-1963); and. In 2000 he married his fourth wife, the photographer Vivienne Purdom. Edmund Purdom died from heart failure in 2009, in Rome. He was 89. His daughter Lilan Purdom is a journalist with the French television channel TF1.

Trailer for The Student Prince (1954). Source: Warner Archive (YouTube).

Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), Tom Vallance (The Independent), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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