Stanley Baker

Stanley Baker is one of the most under-appreciated actors on film.   He specialised in tough guy roles in war movies and gritty thrillers, mainly in the UK in the 1950’s and 60’s.   He is interesting in that he produced many of his films.   From Wales, he was born in the Rhonda in 1928, he was a contemporary of Richard Burton but I think he was a far better actor and brought great shades of nuance to his many characters.

  He was a terrific actor and one of my favourites.   Thankfully many of his films are on DVD and I have included here the covers of the more interesting ones.   He is best known for “Zulu” but I especially like “Hell’s Drivers” from 1957 and “Hell Is A City” from 1960.   Sadly he died at the early age of 48 in 1976 in Malaga, Spain.   Robert Shail has written a very good biography which is available.

“Quinlan’s Movie Stars”

Forecful Welsh-born actor whose career progressed predictably from villains you love to hate to tough and sometimes crooked central characters.   His hard incompromising crime films of the early 1960s pioneered the way for a new realism, especially in terms of dialogue.   His star faded in the 1970s.

TCM overview:

Commanding Welsh leading man who began his career as a teen in 1943 and bristled through a series of British actioners and crime thrillers of uneven merit as tough villains and criminals throughout the 1950s. “The Cruel Sea” (1953) established Baker as a screen presence and won him a long-term Rank contract. In the late 1950s and early 60s he broke out of his typecasting in several exceptional films by both Cy Endfield and Joseph Losey (“Blind Date” 1959, “Accident” 1967) and co-produced several of his own films. He was knighted in 1976, just before his death

IMDB entry:

Stanley Baker was unusual star material to emerge during the Fifties – when impossibly handsome and engagingly romantic leading men were almost de rigueur. Baker was forged from a rougher mould. 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. For the times a potential leading actor cast heavily against the grain. Baker immediately proved a unique screen presence – tough, gritty, combustible – and possessing an aura of dark, even menacing power.

Stanley Baker came from rugged Welsh mining stock – and as a lad was unruly, quick to flare, and first to fight. But like his compatriot and friend Richard Burton, the young Baker was rescued from a gruelling life of coal mining by a local teacher, Glyn Morse, who recognized in the proud and self-willed lad a potent combination of a fine speaking voice, a smouldering intensity, and a strong spirit. And like Burton, Stanley Baker was specially and specifically tutored for theatrical success. In fact, early on, Burton and Baker appeared together on stage as juveniles in The Druid’s Rest, in Cardiff, in Wales. But later, by way of Birmingham Repertory Theatre and then the London stage, Stanley Baker charted his inevitable course toward the Cinema.

Film welcomed the adult Baker as the embodiment of evil. Memorable early roles cast the actor in feisty unsympathetic parts – from the testy bosun in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951) to his modern-day counterpart in The Cruel Sea (1953), to the arch villains inHell Below Zero (1954) and Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) to the dastardly Mordred inKnights of the Round Table (1953) and the wily Achilles in Helen of Troy (1956). For a time there was a distillation of Baker’s screen persona in a series of roles as stern and uncompromising policemen – in Violent Playground (1958), Chance Meeting (1959), andHell Is a City (1960). But despite never having been cast as a romantic leading man, and being almost wholly associated with villainous roles, Stanley Baker nevertheless became a star by dint of his potent personality.

Although now enthroned by enthusiastic audiences Stanley Baker was obviously aware he need not desert unsympathetic parts – and his relish in playing the scheming Astaroth inSodom and Gomorrah (1962) and the unscrupulous mobster Johnny Bannion in Concrete Jungle (1960) was readily evident. But soon there were more principled, if still surly characters, in The Guns of Navarone (1961), The Games (1970), Eva (1962), and Accident(1967), the latter two films reuniting Baker with the American ex-patriot director of The Criminal, Joseph Losey. Stanley Baker also established a fruitful working relationship with the Canadian director Cy Endfield, following their early collaboration on Hell Drivers(1957). When Baker inaugurated his own film production company – it was Endfield he commissioned to write and direct both Zulu (1964) and Sands of the Kalahari (1965), with Baker allotting himself the downbeat roles of the martinet officer John Chard in Zulu and the reluctant hero Mike Bain in The Sands Of The Kalahari.

Baker must have felt more assured in disenchanted roles – as further films from Baker’s own stable still promoted the actor in either criminal or villainous mode – as gangster Paul Clifton in Robbery (1967) and the corrupt thief-taker Jonathan Wild in Where’s Jack?(1969). The success of Baker’s own productions was timely and did much to enhance the prestige of what was then considered an ailing British film industry. Stanley Baker also took the opportunity to move into the realm of television, appearing in, among other productions, the dramas BBC Play of the Month: The Changeling (1974) and BBC Play of the Month: Robinson Crusoe (1974), and also in the series How Green Was My Valley(1975).

Knighted in 1976 it was evident that Stanley Baker may well have continued to greater heights, both as an actor and a producer, but he succumbed to lung cancer and died at the early age of forty-nine. But his legacy is unquestioned. He was a unique force on screen, championing characterizations that were not clichéd or compromised. He established his own niche as an actor content to be admired for peerlessly portraying the disreputable and the unsympathetic. In that he was a dark mirror, more accurately reflecting human frailty and the vagaries of life than many of his more romantically or heroically inclined contemporaries. There have forever been legions of seemingly interchangeable charming and virile leading men populating the movies – but Stanley Baker stood almost alone in his determination to be characterized and judged by portraying the bleaker aspects of the human condition. Consequently, more than twenty-five years after his death, his sombre, potent personality still illuminates the screen in a way few others have achieved.

– IMDb Mini Biography By: David WishartOften played tough working class characterAwarded a knighthood in Harold Wilson‘s resignation Honour’s List in June 1976. At the time his knighthood was announced, Baker thought he had beaten his lung cancer following surgery in February of that year. However, although the tumour in his lung had been removed, it had spread into his chest and attached itself to his heart. Since no further surgery was possible, he had only a maximum of nine weeks to live anyway. Three weeks after the announcement of his knighthood, Baker was hospitalized in Spain with pneumonia. As he had died without making the journey to be formally knighted at Buckingham Palace, he cannot be referred to as Sir Stanley, but Queen Elizabeth IIagreed that his widow Ellen Martin could use the title “Lady Baker”.

A dedicated socialist, he made political broadcasts for Harold Wilson‘s Labour Party in Wales and was active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).He was warned not to address a CND rally prior to the release of Zulu (1964), in case his left-wing political activism hurt the film’s performance in the United States.At the beginning of his career he was typecast as villains until Laurence Olivier invited him to play Henry Tudor in Richard III (1955).In November 2006 a Lounge dedicated to his life and work was opened by his widow, Lady Ellen Baker and his sons at Ferndale Rugby club in the village of his birth.At the beginning of his career he struggled to break into films, but a few days before his 22nd birthday he was given the role of the bosun in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.(1951).At the time of his death he had been planning to play a rapist in a film, with his Zulu(1964) co-star Michael Caine playing a detective.At his peak he earned £120,000 for each film he made, at a time when the average house cost just £3,000. He owned a large house in London and a holiday villa in Spain, while his children attended private schools in England.His wife Ellen and Richard Burton believed Baker’s performance in How Green Was My Valley (1975) was so good because he was playing his own father.In May 1972 he was one of the co-organisers of the Great Western Bardney Pop Festival in Lincoln.

He formed Diamond Films for the making of Zulu (1964). And later Oakhurst Productions.He was a close friend of Richard Burton from childhood until they fell out in 1967.With the success of Concrete Jungle (1960), Baker all but displaced his polar oppositeDirk Bogarde to become Britain’s most popular star. However, Zulu (1964) was his last huge success. His career was damaged by the commercial failure of Sands of the Kalahari(1965) and Robbery (1967), although the latter received favourable reviews.His breakthrough as an actor came in 1950 in Christopher Fry‘s anti-war play “A Sleep of Prisoners” alongside Denholm Elliott and Leonard White.

The production later toured the United States.His father lost a leg in an accident in the mine and was thereafter unemployed until the Second World War took men away into the services. His elder brother Freddie, a miner, died of pneumoconiosis early in 1976 after many years of debilitation and sickness.He was awarded the freedom of Ferndale, and in a ceremony which he attended in 1970, the local council placed a plaque on the house where he was born.

He had intended to produce Zulu Dawn (1979).He was offered the role of James Bond in Dr. No (1962), but turned it down because he was unwilling to commit to a three-picture contract. Baker may have regretted this decision, since a few years later he asked producer Albert R. Broccoli about the possibility of playing a villain in a Bond movie.Turned down many Hollywood offers during the 1950s because he wanted to keep the British film industry going. Nevertheless he was much in demand for American films. The producers of Helen of Troy (1956) were so desperate to cast him that they did not mind which part he played.

Although born in Wales, Baker spent most of his formative years in England since his parents moved to London in the mid-1930s.In a floral tribute sent to Stanley Baker’s funeral, Zulu leader Chief Mangosuthu Butheleziwho had worked with him in Zulu (1964) described him as “the most decent white man I have ever met”.Baker served in the Royal Army Service Corps from 1946-1948.Although he regretted not accepting the part of James Bond himself, Baker was a friend of and outspoken admirer of Sir Sean Connery‘s work in the role.Bore a striking resemblance to his contemporary fellow actor, Australian Rod Taylor.The part that would have been played by Baker in 1979’s “Zulu Dawn” was enacted by Burt Lancaster.

Personal Quotes

It’s impossible to direct yourself in a movie.I’m a dedicated Socialist first of all, I suppose, because … I saw the things that happened to … my family, and to the people around me. That sort of existence must stay in your mind.I made up my mind years ago, that the best parts in films always went to the villain. I was determined to corner the bad man’s market.If it hadn’t been for one man, just one man who luckily took me up, I would have always hated school and I would probably have ended up as one of the criminals I’ve played too many times on the screen.I was a complete dud at school. I hated school. I got into awful trouble. Before I met Welsh school teacher Glyn Morris every teacher thought of me as a good-for-nothing.[on Anthony Quinn] I personally like big acting, like that of Anthony Quinn. He is the quintessence, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the actor who is able to control big emotion for the screen. A lot of lightweight performances on the screen don’t work for me because I can’t see anything behind them. With Quinn, it’s difficult not to see everything behind it.[on Elia Kazan] He chose the actors that he wanted, made the film he wanted to make, and he made it the way he wanted to make it with absolutely no contribution or interference from the major distributors at that time. That was a major step forward at that time in the film industry. He was a pioneer and he made it possible for other people.Mine is a hell of a face, but ;it keeps me in work because there aren’t many like it.[Of Sybil Williams] We came from the same village. We were close friends. When I heard that Rich [Richard Burton] and Sybil had got together, I thought, “The lucky bastard”. She was the best thing that ever happened to him.I thought, “Yes, Rich [Richard Burton] has gone a little further than usual, but he’s going to be his old self again before long. Oh, what a fool he made of us. Well, not really us. Only himself . . . I loved Rich very much, and thank God we became friends again, but I didn’t like what he did to Sybil. He lost himself when he met Elizabeth Taylor. The above IMDB entry can also be accessed online here.

Stanley Baker


Simon Heffer in The Telegraph


Stanley Baker was one of British cinema’s outstanding figures in the 1950s and 1960s, but he might never have become a star had it not been for his friend and fellow Welshman, Richard Burton. Like Burton, Baker came from a mining family, and like him his talent was spotted by a schoolmaster. Burton’s mentor found a way for him to get into Oxford; Baker’s got him on to the stage at aged 14, in 1942, where he was spotted by a casting director at Ealing Studios. After that  he made ends meet as an apprentice electrician, and then did his National Service, emerging as a sergeant in the Royal Army Service Corps. After demobilisation, he gave acting another go, thanks to Burton, who tipped him for a small part in Terence Rattigan’s play Adventure Story (1949). As Burton put it, Baker “hated to lose at anything – and rarely did”.

Baker was a natural athlete and had aspired to be a footballer or boxer: in his films he exuded a no-nonsense masculinity in which, paradoxically, he drew attention to himself precisely by not drawing attention to himself. Like most British film actors of the time, he began in forgettable roles in forgettable B-movies, but his big break came playing the bosun’s mate in the 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower, alongside a starry Hollywood cast led by Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo.

Baker went on to appear in a procession of landmark films of the 1950s, starting with The Cruel Sea – which, as I have mentioned before, I regard as the greatest of all British war films. In it, Baker played a character much against type: there was nothing genuinely manly about the bullying and manipulative first officer Bennett, who turns out to be a coward.

Probably the film for which he is best remembered – and it remains a masterpiece, though doubtless will soon be cancelled because of what bigots will consider its unacceptable depiction of colonialism – was Zulu in 1964.  . It was an exception to the gritty black-and-white films he was making in the late 1950s and early 1960s, anticipating the “kitchen sink” genre. He was excellent in Lewis Gilbert’s The Good Die Young (1954) as a boxer (the role came to him naturally) who turns to crime because of an injury. Two years later, after being cast by Laurence Olivier as Henry Tudor in Richard III, he played a crook again in Child in the House.

But Baker as the sympathetic hard-nut was at his best in Hell Drivers, an enormously entertaining if bizarre tale about a group of lorry drivers – most of whom seem to be criminals or psychopaths – employed to transport gravel around middle England for the big road building programme of the time. Those who have not seen it may deduce from that description that it is thoroughly boring, but thanks to the stunt driving, the depiction of tensions between men of various degrees of odiousness trapped in a grim way of life and, above all, Baker’s performance as a working-class hero of real moral force, Hell Drivers is rather irresistible.

Amid this run of earthy films – others worth catching are Violent Playground (1958), in which he plays a policeman tackling juvenile gangsterism, and The Criminal (1960), in which he plays an old lag – came what I think is his best film, Hell Is a City, about Manchester low-life, also released in 1960. Baker plays Inspector Martineau, who awaits the arrival in Manchester of an escaped criminal whom he suspects, rightly, of returning to the city to pick up his loot. The criminal (played by the American John Crawford) then tries to rob a bookie’s assistant on her way to the bank with a bag of money – she is a young woman, and he accidentally kills her (in a scene of explicit violence, unusual for the time). Martineau puts his marriage under serious strain in trying to catch the murderer, and in a gripping scene on precipitous rooftops, eventually does. The penultimate scene reports the man’s hanging, with Martineau not batting the proverbial eyelid.

Baker, like too many hard-bitten, heavy-smoking men of his generation, died of lung cancer, aged just 48. The British cinema rather went off in the late 1970s and 1980s: one wonders whether Baker might have redeemed it, had he lived to his full span.

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