10 May 2013

Stanley Baker

Welsh actor and film producer Stanley Baker (1928 – 1976) started as a tough and gritty villain in the British cinema of the 1950’s. Later he became a star as a rugged working class anti-hero in many international productions. Several of his films dealt with African themes, most notably Zulu (1964).

Stanley Baker
Belgian collector's card by Merbotek, Bruxelles. Photo: Arthur Rank.

Wild Kid Only Interested In Football And Boxing
William Stanley ‘Stan’ Baker was born in the heart of mining community Ferndale, Wales, in 1928 as the youngest of three children. His father was a coal miner who lost a leg in a mine accident. Thereafter he was unemployed until the Second World War took men away into the services and he got work as a truck driver. Baker moved to London with his parents in the mid-1930’s. He grew up a self-proclaimed ‘wild kid only interested in football and boxing’, but his potential was recognised by a local teacher, Glynne Morse, who encouraged Baker to act. When he was 14, he was seen in a school play by a casting director from Ealing Studios. The casting director recommended the boy for a role in the war film Undercover (1943, Sergei Nolbandov), about the Yugoslav guerrillas in German-occupied Serbia. Baker was paid £20 a week and caught the acting bug, deciding to become a professional actor. Six months later he appeared on the West End alongside a young Richard Burton in Emlyn Williams’ play The Druid's Rest (1943). Baker worked for a time as an apprentice electrician. Then through Morse's influence he managed to secure a position with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1944. Three years later, he was called up to do his National Service. He served in the Royal Army Service Corps until 1948, achieving the rank of sergeant. After demobilisation he moved to London determined to resume his acting career. David Wishart at IMDb: “His was good-looking, but his features were angular, taut, austere and unwelcoming. His screen persona was taciturn, even surly, and the young actor displayed a predilection for introspection and blunt speaking, and was almost wilfully unromantic.” At Richard Burton's recommendation, he was cast in a small role in a play on the West End, Adventure Story by Terence Rattigan. He began appearing in films and on television, as well performing on stage for the Middlesex Repertory Company. His breakthrough came in Christopher Fry's anti-war play A Sleep of Prisoners (1950) alongside Denholm Elliott. The production later toured the United States. Baker impressed in the cinema as Hornblower’s bosun in the Hollywood-financed Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951, Raoul Walsh) featuring Gregory Peck. While appearing in A Sleep of Prisoners in New York, Baker read the novel The Cruel Sea. Attracted to the idea of playing the unpleasant and somewhat cowardly Bennett, he lobbied successfully for the role in the film version, The Cruel Sea (1953, Charles Frend) with Jack Hawkins. This WWII drama was the most successful film at the British box office in 1953 and was also a surprising hit in the USA. This success really established Baker in films, and led to a Hollywood offer when George Sanders fell ill and was unable to play Sir Mordred in the cinemascope epic Knights of the Round Table (1953, Richard Thorpe) starring Robert Taylor. Baker proved a unique screen presence - tough, gritty, combustible - and possessing an aura of dark, even menacing power. Baker's performance was received favourably and he soon developed a niche playing villains in films such as Hell Below Zero (1954, Mark Robson) starring Alan Ladd. His career received another boost when Laurence Olivier selected Baker to play Henry Tudor in Richard III (1955). He went on to play two important roles in other Hollywood costume epics: Achilles in Helen of Troy (1956, Robert Wise) featuring Rossana Podestà, and Attalus in Alexander the Great (1956, Robert Rossen) starring Richard Burton as Alexander.

Richard Burton
Richard Burton. German postcard by WS-Druck, Wanne-Eickel, no. 226. Offered by Macaroni Honig, Gent (Belgium). Photo: Centfox.

A Tough Anti-Hero
Stanley Baker finally broke away from supporting parts when cast as the lead in Hell Drivers (1957, Cy Endfield). Mark Deming at AllMovie: "In this efficient British crime drama, Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) is an ex-con looking for honest work. He thinks he's found it when he takes a job as a truck driver, but he soon discovers that the trucking firm he's signed on with is not playing by the rules." The blacklisted American screenwriter-director Cy Endfield had first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956) and went on to make six films in total with the actor. The success of Hell Drivers established Baker as a star and saw exhibitors vote him the 7th most popular British actor that year. He followed this up with a series of popular films that featured him as a tough anti-hero, usually an authority figure of some kind. These films include Violent Playground (1958, Basil Dearden) with Peter Cushing, Sea Fury (1958, Cy Endfield), Yesterday's Enemy (1959, Val Guest) and the murder mystery Blind Date (1959, Joseph Losey) with Hardy Krüger. The latter was the first of what would be four collaborations with director Joseph Losey of which his favourite was the prison drama The Criminal (1960) in which he played an unscrupulous mobster. The fourth was Eva (1962) with Jeanne Moreau. In 1959 his contract with Rank ended, and he started freelancing. In 1961 Baker was offered the role of superspy James Bond for the forthcoming film Dr. No (1961, Terence Young), but he turned it down because he was unwilling to commit to a three-picture contract. He may have regretted this decision because some years later he asked producer Albert R. Broccoli about playing a villain in one of the films. However, he was cast as Butcher Brown, a war-weary commando in the blockbuster war epic The Guns of Navarone (1961, J. Lee Thompson) with Gregory Peck and David Niven. Baker wanted to move into production, and to this end formed his own company, Diamond Films. While making Sodom and Gomorrah (1963, Robert Aldrich) he struck up a relationship with producer Joseph E. Levine which enabled him to raise the money for the historical war film Zulu (1964, Cy Endfield), depicting the Battle of Rorke's Drift between the British Army and the Zulus in January 1879. Zulu was a massive success at the box office and helped make a star of Michael Caine. Baker played the lead part of Lieutenant John Chard VC in what remains his best-remembered-role. Baker later owned Chard's Victoria Cross and Zulu War Medal from 1972 until his death in 1976. Chard died at age 49 in 1897, only a year older than Baker at his death; both died of cancer. Baker then made two more films in Africa, Dingaka (1965, Jamie Uys) and Sands of the Kalahari (1965, Cy Endfield), also producing the latter. Neither was as successful as Zulu.

Stanley Baker
British postcard by Celebrity Publishers, London, in the Celebrity Autograph Series, no. 267. Photo: Rank Organisation. Publicity still for Hell Drivers (1957, Cy Endfield).

A Brilliantly Offhand Portrait
Stanley Baker formed another production company, Oakhurst Productions, in association with Michael Deeley. They produced such films as Robbery (1967, Peter Yates) inspired by the Great Train Robbery, the classic The Italian Job (1968, Peter Collinson) and Where's Jack? (1969, James Clavell). Baker starred in some of these and continued to act for other producers, giving one of his best performances in Joseph Losey's Accident (1967) opposite Dirk Bogarde. John Baxter at Film Reference: “he offered a brilliantly offhand portrait of an academic-turned-media-hero, narcissistic, petulant, languid, effortlessly agile in argument but helpless in anything requiring a trace of humanity.” In the 1970’s Baker expanded his business interests. He was one of the founder members of Harlech Television and continued to be a director of it up until his death. With Michael Deeley and Barry Spikings, he formed Great Western Enterprises, which were involved in a number of projects in the entertainment field, notably music concerts, and bought a large building on the River Thames. They were also part of a consortium that bought British Lion Films and Shepperton Studios, selling their building in order to finance it. Baker was the victim of bad timing. The British film industry went into serious decline at the end of the 1960’s, and a number of Oakhurst films were unsuccessful at the box office. His expansion into music festivals was ultimately disastrous, with the Great Western Bardney Pop Festival in Lincoln ending up losing ₤200,000. The British stock market crashed at the end of 1973, throwing the over-leveraged British Lion into turmoil. According to Wikipedia, Baker was forced to keep acting to pay the bills, accepting roles in poor films which affected his star status. However, at least interesting is the giallo Una lucertola con la pelle di donna/A Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971, Lucio Fulci) with Florinda Bolkan and Jean Sorel. At AllMovie, Donald Guarisco reviews: “The storyline enthusiastic piles soap-opera melodramatics, crazy plot twists, red herrings, bad-trip dream sequences and a healthy lashing of skin and blood. Fulci's direction lives up to the story's fever-pitch thriller theatrics with a barrage of baroque visual trickery, using everything from split-screens to colorful optical effects to keep the viewer off-kilter.” Towards the end of his life Baker pulled back on his business activities and worked mostly as an actor, taking roles in television including the BBC plays The Changeling (1974, Anthony Page) with Helen Mirren, Robinson Crusoe (1974, James MacTaggart), and the series How Green Was My Valley (1975, Ronald Wilson). His final film was Zorro (1975, Duccio Tessari) starring Alain Delon as Diego de la Vega/Zorro and Baker as his opponent Colonel Huerta. On 27 May 1976 it was announced that Baker was to be awarded a knighthood but he did not live to be invested in person at Buckingham Palace. So he cannot be referred to as 'Sir'. A heavy cigarette and cigar smoker, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 1976 and underwent surgery in the following month. However, the cancer had spread to his bones and he died that same year from pneumonia in Málaga, Spain, aged 48. In a floral tribute sent to his funeral, Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi who had worked with him at Zulu (1964) described him as ‘the most decent white man I have ever met’. Since 1950 Stanley Baker was married to actress Ellen Martin. She had been introduced to him by Richard Burton. Their partnership lasted until his death and produced four children, Martin and Sally (twins), Glyn and Adam.

Theatrical trailer Hell Drivers (1957). Source: TaylorHamKid (YouTube).

Trailer Zulu (1964). Source: 05HK09 (YouTube).

Trailer Accident (1967). Source: Cheltenhamff (YouTube).

Sources: John Baxter (Film Reference), David Wishart (IMDb), Brian McFarlane (Encyclopedia of British Film), Donald Guarisco (AllMovie), Mark Deming (AllMovie), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), BBC Wales, The Sir Stanley Baker Tribute Site, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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