Charles Boyer

Charles Boyer

Born in the Midi-Pyrenees town of Figeac, France, Charles Boyer was the only child of merchant Louis Boyer and his wife, Louise, an amateur singer. Boyer's father died when he was 10 years old, leading him to find solace in both theater and films. He soon developed a passion for acting, and gained his first experience performing sketches at a hospital for soldiers wounded during World War I. The arrival of a French film company in Figeac gave Boyer his first screen role as a bit player in a crowd scene, and he enlisted the film's lead to convince his mother to allow him to study acting at the Sorbonne. Despite her reservations, she granted his wish, and Boyer soon forged relationships with the Parisian theater community while pursuing his education. In 1920, he was recommended to a theater director by friends as a replacement for an ailing leading man; Boyer's uncanny ability to commit large passages of dialogue to memory scored him the job, and after completing his studies, began his career as a star of the Paris stage. He soon segued to feature films, where he established himself as a romantic leading man.Though fluent in several languages, Boyer spoke no English, which made MGM's offer of a Hollywood contract in 1929 something of an anomaly. The extraordinary salary offered by the studio helped convince him to come to America, where he was cast in foreign-language versions of MGM features for the European market while learning English. He eventually became proficient enough to play seductive continentals in "Red-Headed Woman" (1932) opposite Jean Harlow, and "Caravan" (1934) with Loretta Young. Fellow French expatriate Claudette Colbert provided his big break in Hollywood by requesting him as her leading man in "Private Worlds" (1935). Female moviegoers fell for his deep, accented voice and dark eyes, both of which helped mint him as the latest matinee idol, giving Errol Flynn and Clark Gable a run for their money. His screen persona stood in direct contrast to his life off-camera, which was spent in pursuit of literature and a quiet life with his wife, actress Pat Paterson.On the big screen, Boyer romanced many of the screen's most celebrated leading ladies throughout the 1930s, including Marlene Dietrich in his first Technicolor film, "The Garden of Allah" (1936) and Greta Garbo in "Conquest" (1937), which earned him his first Oscar nomination. His most enduring film role came the following year as the roguish thief Pepe le Moko in "Algiers" (1938), which brought a second Oscar nod. For decades, he was credited with uttering the line "Come with me to the Casbah" to his equally exotic co-star Hedy Lamarr, though no such dialogue appeared in the film. Nevertheless, dozens of comics used the line in their overripe impersonations of the actor, as did Pepe Le Pew, the amorous skunk in Warner Bros.' "Looney Tunes" cartoons, whose entire personality was borrowed from Boyer.With the outbreak of World War II, the 40-year-old Boyer joined the French Army in hopes of aiding his countrymen of ridding their land of the Nazi menace. His stint in the military was short-lived, allegedly due to studio intervention, but he remained involved with the Free French Resistance throughout the European element of the war. Upon his return stateside, he enjoyed an exceptionally successful run of features in the early 1940s, playing the object of unrequited love for Bette Davis in "All This, And Heaven Too" (1940), as well as Olivia de Havilland and Paulette Goddard in "Hold Back the Dawn" (1941). By this time, however, his onscreen charisma required considerable help by the makeup and wardrobe department: Boyer had begun to lose his hair, and developed a considerable paunch that, along with his short stature, frequently surprised his leading ladies expecting to ignite onscreen sparks with the ultimate continental lover.In 1943, he received an Honorary Oscar Certificate for establishing the French Research Foundation, which he had founded in the late '30s as a research center for Hollywood productions to present truer representations of French culture on screen. The following year, he enjoyed one of his best roles as a scheming husband who conspired to drive his wife (Ingrid Bergman) mad in order to collect her riches in "Gaslight" (1944), which brought him a third Oscar nomination. Privately, Boyer believed that his days as a leading man were numbered, and after the failure of Lewis Milestone's epic "Arch of Triumph" (1948), also with Bergman, he shifted his focus to supporting roles and theater while developing a second career in production.Boyer won a special Tony Award in 1952 for a dramatic reading of George Bernard Shaw's "Don Juan in Hell," which featured director Charles Laughton, Agnes Moorhead and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. That same year, he partnered with Dick Powell, David Niven and Ida Lupino to form Four Star Television, a production company that would oversee such popular programs as "Wanted Dead or Alive" (CBS, 1958-1961), "The Rifleman" (ABC, 1958-1963), "Honey West" (ABC, 1965-66) and "The Big Valley" (ABC, 1965-69). The four owners initially appeared together as part of the rotating cast of an anthology series called "Four Star Playhouse" (CBS, 1952-1956), and Boyer and Niven later co-starred with Gig Young as benevolent con men in "The Rogues" (NBC, 1964-65). The success of these and other shows helped to make Boyer a wealthy man in his final years, though the period was sorely tempered by the death of his only son, Michael, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1964. Boyer continued to make appearances in features and on stage throughout the 1960s and 1970s, frequently as aging, philosophical roués in "Fanny" (1961), which earned him a fourth Oscar nomination, "How to Steal a Million" (1966) with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'Toole, and "Barefoot in the Park" (1967) as Jane Fonda's charming but still amorous landlord. His appearances slowed considerably in the 1970s, though he was one of the few performers to emerge from the debacle that was the 1973 remake of "Lost Horizon," for which he played the High Lama, with his dignity intact. The following year, he won a special tribute from the jury of the 1974 Cannes Film Festival for his turn as a friendly aristocrat opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo's embezzler in Alain Resnais' "Stavisky" (1974). It would be his final appearance in a French film. Boyer's last screen project was "A Matter of Time" (1976), an offbeat musical fantasy by Vincente Minnelli that reunited him with Ingrid Bergman. His wife, Pat, was diagnosed with cancer the following year, and Boyer devoted himself to her care. She succumbed to the illness on Aug. 23, 1978, and after putting his affairs in order, Boyer committed suicide two days later by an overdose of barbiturates.By Paul Gaita