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My Stanley turned down James Bond role, says widow.

Byline: By Dave Berry

One of the greatest Welsh screen actors, Zulu star Stanley Baker, was offered the role of James Bond before Sean Connery - and turned it down.

He didn't want to be tied to a three-film, five-year deal offered by producer Cubby Broccoli, Baker's widow Lady Ellen revealed yesterday.

Not only that - he signed to play the lead in the gritty British hit feature, This Sporting Life (1963), but the role was cruelly snatched away from him.

Filming on The Guns of Navarone overran and kept Baker on set and he was forced to drop out.

The role of the volatile rugby league anti-hero, opposite Llanelli's Rachel Roberts, was played by Richard Harris and propelled him to stardom and an Oscar nomination.

Yet despite these disappointments, Baker was to triumph in 1964 - with Zulu, the feature epic of the heavily outnumbered South Wales Borderers' heroic 1879 battle against the Zulu warriors in Natal.

Two major screenings of the film, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, will be held in Wales next weekend - on Saturday, April 17, in Bangor, and on Sunday, April 18, in Aberystwyth.

The film was a labour of love for Baker, who co-produced and starred with the relatively unknown Michael Caine - and the film became the third most successful UK film of its year.

It had earned its costs many times over by 1976, the year Baker died of cancer aged 48.

For most of the Zulus, taking part in the movie was a revelation. They had never seen a film before, Lady Ellen Baker revealed.

The film crew hastily arranged for them to see silent film comedies and Tom Mix silent westerns projected onto whitewashed rocks on location. This helped them to rehearse battle scenes.

In his final year, Baker, from Ferndale, Rhondda, proved his personal courage.

During his last illness he played the lead in BBC TV's multi- part version of How Green Was My Valley, opposite Sian Phillips. Baker's 'Zulu' battles against the elements and Hollywood: Two 40th anniversary screenings in Wales next week celebrate the nation's enduring love affair with Zulu, the film which continues to captivate audiences with its story of the legendary battle between 105 courageous South Wales Borderers and more than 4,000 Zulus in 1879. Eleven VCs were awarded after the siege by Chief Cetewayo's warriors. Zulu was a pivotal film in the career of Stanley Baker, one of Wales' greatest actors. Dave Berry of The National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, interviewed the actor's widow, Lady Ellen, who was on the Zulu set and recalls the worries Baker suffered during the film's production

WELSH screen star Stanley Baker might have tempted providence once too often when he rejected Cubby Broccoli's offer of the James Bond role, then spurned the chance to play the lead in the American cult detective thriller series Dragnet after completing a pilot.

It was a stroke of bad luck, also, in retrospect, that after signing to play the lead in This Sporting Life (1963) he was forced to drop out when The Guns of Navarone (1961) went over schedule.

Richard Harris took the role which gained him an Oscar nomination and propelled him to stardom and a place in the short-lived British film renaissance of the late 1950s and early '60s.

Yet Baker was destined to achieve abiding fame and affection in Wales and beyond for a project much dearer to his heart - Zulu, the dramatic epic of the South Wales Borderers' heroism in holding an army stores and field hospital in the fierce African battle at Rorke's Drift.

The film, made in 1964, has been a cult classic for 40 years and has played on British TV alone nearly 40 times.

It reached number four at the British box office and had grossed $12m worldwide, dwarfing its $3.5m budget, by 1976, the year of Baker's death from cancer, aged 48.

Baker from Ferndale, Rhondda, risked everything to make Zulu and seemed on the brink of disaster when the first 10 days filming was wiped out by heavy rain. When snow began to fall, Baker might have felt fated.

The skies cleared and Zulu soon became probably the most popular British film ever with Welsh audiences, who will have another chance to laud its merits when the movie has special screenings in the main arts building, University of Wales, Bangor, at 4pm on Saturday, April 17, and in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre cinema at 7pm on Sunday, April 18.

The Welsh actor perhaps gained more critical kudos for his work with Joseph Losey, the American director in exile in Britain, particularly on The Criminal (1962) and Accident (1967).

Yet Baker's tenacity in bringing Zulu to the screen garnered perhaps even more respect, certainly from film audiences.

He produced the movie with director Cy Endfield, introducing to many cinema goers the young Michael Caine, who played Lieutenant Bromhead, the upper-middle-class officer who has an initially abrasive relationship with Baker's character, Lieutenant John Chard.

Their verbal skirmishes impart a pleasing tension to the movie's early scenes.

The Welsh actor's widow Lady Ellen Baker spoke of the Bond and Dragnet offers this week, when interviewed about Zulu.

'He didn't fancy committing himself to five years on either project.

'Stanley was offered a three-film, five-year deal by Cubby Broccoli to do Bond - Stanley didn't want to be tied down. He never regretted it. He thought Sean Connery the perfect choice.'

Zulu also involved Baker making sacrifices and refusing roles during the long preparation. It proved more than worth it.

Lady Ellen recalled her spell on location for the film and her vivid memories of a young, nervous Michael Caine.

'He spent his entire time on the film worrying about the sack,' said Lady Baker.

'The distributors didn't like his performance - all the way through there were telegrams arriving from the East Coast and West Coast, co-producer Joseph Levine and distributors Paramount - asking that he be dismissed.'

'Terence Stamp did a very good screen test for the Bromhead role and Michael didn't, but Stanley and Cy Endfield wanted to introduce a relatively new actor to the screen.

'They knew even from the test that Michael was right.'

'It was funny, though. Michael kept coming up to Stanley on the film expressing his fears. Finally Stanley told him, 'Michael, who's producing this? Stop worrying'.'

Lady Baker says Zulu, now on DVD, is her own favourite of her late husband's films - with all the wealth of emotional associations it holds for her and knowing the headaches he suffered in mounting the project.

'He showed the strain of that 10 days non-filming so much in early shots, that the crew did pick up close-ups of him later on, when he was more relaxed, to replace the earlier footage.

'We'd tried everything during that initial inactivity, even a Zulu witchdoctor who performed incantations, rattled bones and set out chalk marks - but nothing worked.

'It was a time of appalling tension, anyway, just after the Sharpeville riots, a time of much activity by the Secret Police.'

Lady Baker went on location for the film and she helped run a temporary school at the local hotel for her own children and the offspring of Cy Endfield and associate producer Bob Porter.

She was saddened by the ban on black natives seeing the film in African cinemas - 'but Stanley took the film to the Zulus and it was screened in all sorts of places in local communities.

'The Zulus couldn't be paid, so Stanley bought them cattle and gave them money to help set up a school, which they did later in the film location's former offices.'

Her most vivid memory of the shoot in the Natal National Park, is watching the Zulus' reaction to movies off set.

'They'd never seen movies before. Someone had the idea of showing silent films of Harold Lloyd and Chaplin and comedies with Laurel and Hardy and we had these screenings at night, with the film projected on whitewashed rocks.

'We showed Tom Mix westerns where he battled the Indians and they began to understand - then they all started overacting, playing to the camera.

'I used to go with my children at night to watch their screenings - their favourite was Chaplin.'

Lady Ellen recalls with pride helping win Baker his first major role in The Cruel Sea (1953) when she cut short a trip to America to implore her agent to have him cast in the role of Bennett after reading the novel.

'It was perfect for Stanley ... the lone villain in the film, the only coward.'

Later the actor's career fluctuated wildly in the 1950s, when he worked for Broccoli and Alexander Korda, but also made a succession of poor films for Rank, finally forcing him to buy out his contract.

He found key roles eluded him at the studio with Dirk Bogarde (top dog there then), Kenneth More and Peter Finch snapping up the studio's plum roles, and urbane Michael Craig also a strong contender.

'When Alexander Korda died the actors' contracts went to Rank, and Stanley took them the Hell Drivers package. Then he found Dirk Bogarde was reading for his role.

'He stormed into the London offices and told them what they could do with the project, but they were soon telephoning our home pleading with Stanley to go back. He played the part.'

Baker, who filmed his role of the Welsh miner and patriarch in BBC's 1976 TV version of How Green Was My Valley while in his final illness, was to enjoy crucial creative relationships with director Cy Endfield - on several films including Hell Drivers - and with Joe Losey.

The two Americans, both exiles forced out of their country by Senator Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunts, admired Baker's skills.

'The Americans in London at the time - they also included exiled Carl Foreman writer of High Noon and The Guns of Navarone - thought Stanley was a real man and so different than the average British actor.'

Losey, with leftist sympathies, admired Baker's politics in the days when the Welshman stood on platforms with Harold Wilson and helped with party political broadcasts.

He cast Baker memorably as a class-conscious cop in Blind Date (1959) and would have directed This Sporting Life (1963), rather than Lindsay Anderson, had Baker not dropped out, Lady Baker claims.

'Giving up that role was the biggest regret of Stanley's screen life.'

The only film Baker made with Losey which didn't work was Eve (1962) in which Baker was memorable as the Welshman who stole his brother's identity to be feted in Venice.

The movie was butchered by the producers, the Hakim Brothers, and disowned by Baker and fellow cast members, and a reasonably complete and authentic version didn't surface in Britain until recent years.

In Losey's Accident, he had the perfect script from Harold Pinter. 'It was a gift for an actor,' says Lady Ellen.

Baker was cast, spectacularly against type, as a guilt-ridden Oxford don and the film centred on a jealous rivalry between Stanley and Dirk Bogarde who were obsessed with the same girl (Jacqueline Sassard).

There was tension between Bogart and Baker after the Hell Drivers incident and while working together on Campbell's Kingdom (1957), but by 1967 the differences between them had been settled - but the former friction may have helped them on the Accident set, Lady Ellen concedes.

'Stanley could never understand why Bogarde always talked of how exhausting his role was, when Stanley found his own part a doddle.'

But then a man who could bring the Zulu project to the screen wasn't that easily intimidated...

Dave Berry is author of Wales and the Cinema, The First 100 Years (University of Wales Press, 1994). Special events: The National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales will be marking the 40th anniversary of Zuluwith two special events - in Bangor (April 17) and Aberystwyth (April 18).

The event in Bangor, which is part of the Cyfrwng Conference, begins at 4pm on Saturday in the university's main arts building.

It includes a panel discussion on the film in the company of film historian and archive research officer, Dave Berry; Dr Robert Shail of Lampeter University (author of an article on Zulu in the accompanying Cyfrwng journal); Zulu historian Ian Knight and Lady Ellen Baker.

Steve Freer of BBC Wales - the producer of a recent documentary television programme on Sir Stanley Baker - will chair the debate.

The event is part of the Cyfrwng Conference, which aims to provide a new platform for academic discussion and debate on media in Wales.

Other sessions at this year's Cyfrwng Conference include An Audience with Ken Russell - with John Hefin; The Digital Revolution with Michael Rosenblum and Bollywood and Wales which is sponsored by the Wales Screen Commission.

The conference is open to everyone.

For further information on the Cyfrwng Conference 2004, sessions and prices, contact Dr Gwenno Ffrancon on 01248 383215, or e-mail ymholiadau@cyfrwng.com

A Zulu Celebration and Screening is also being held in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre cinema on Sunday, April 18, at 7pm.

The event includes a wine reception and discussion on the film, chaired by the university's Jamie Medhurst, with Lady Ellen Baker and Ian Knight.

For tickets contact the box office on 01970 623232 (pounds 4 in advance, pounds 4.50 on the door).
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 10, 2004
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