By Fred Muenz
Born on August 28, 1899, in the small French village of Figeac, Charles Boyer was the only child of merchant Louis Boyer, and his wife, Louise. Young Charles was just 10 years-old when his father died, and he found solace in the local theater. As a result, he soon developed a passion for acting and, during World War I, gained his first stage experience by performing sketches in a hospital for wounded soldiers. When a French film company arrived in Figeac, he got his first role as a bit player in a crowd scene. Deciding that he wanted to be a professional actor, he asked the film’s leading actor to talk his mother into allowing him to study acting at the Sorbonne. Despite her reservations, she relented and allowed him to go. Before long, he became a well- known figure in the Paris theatrical community. In 1920, he was recommended to a director as a replacement for a leading actor who had taken ill. He got the part after demonstrating to the director that he could commit large passages of dialogue to memory. After completing his studies at the Sorbonne, he quickly became a popular figure on the Paris stage.
In 1929, he received an offer of a Hollywood contract from MGM. What made the offer extraordinary, beside the large salary, was the fact that while he was fluent in several languages, English wasn’t one of them. Once settled in California, MGM cast him in a series of foreign-language versions of films being made expressly for the European market. He eventually became proficient enough at English to begin playing seductive continental types opposite the likes of Jean Harlow, Loretta Young and fellow expat, Claudette Colbert. Women in movie audiences fell for his deep accented voice and dark eyes, and he was soon a matinee idol. In reality, he led a quiet, refined life with his wife, former British actress, Pat Paterson. His performance in CONQUEST (1937), opposite Greta Garbo, earned him his first Oscar nomination. His second Oscar nomination came the following year with his most memorable role, that of the thief Pepe le Moko, in ALGIERS (1938). Despite the legend, Boyer never uttered the line “let me take you to the Casbah” to co-star Hedy Lamarr. The line would stick to him, however, due to generations of impressionists and animator Chuck Jones, who created the character of Pepe Le Pew, the romantic skunk of Looney Tunes cartoons. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, the now 40 year-old Boyer joined the French Army. His stint in the military was short-lived, however, when the studio intervened, and he was discharged. He continued to find great success in films of the early 1940’s, with his third Oscar nomination for GASLIGHT (1944), co-starring Ingrid Bergman. By now, however, he was beginning to show his age. His hair was beginning to thin and he was developing a paunch. Although his height was listed as 5’9”, his leading ladies were now sometimes taller than him. He realized that his days as a leading man were numbered and he began seeking supporting roles and Broadway opportunities. His fourth Oscar nomination came for his supporting role in FANNY (1961).
In 1964, he was devastated when his only son shot and killed himself after an argument with his girlfriend. Finally, on August 26, 1978, two days before his 79th birthday, and just two days after his beloved wife of 44 years died of cancer, Charles Boyer committed suicide by taking an overdose of Seconal.
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