Mel Ferrer: Dashing actor-director disgruntled to become known as 'Mr Hepburn'

Tall and dashing, the actor-director Mel Ferrer was once described as having "the elegantly removed air of a Renaissance nobleman". The air of detachment may have contributed to his failure to become a major star, though in the Fifties he played several leading roles with flair and charisma.

He will be remembered particularly for his moody puppeteer in the charmingly whimsical Lili, and his cool, deadly aristocrat in the superb swashbuckler Scaramouche. For several years he was the husband of Audrey Hepburn, and was often perceived as the Svengali to her Trilby, receiving most of the blame for persuading her to star in a film version of Green Mansions that proved the biggest flop of her career, though he was also the producer of one of her later hits, Wait Until Dark.

Ferrer's aristocratic air came naturally to him – born Melchor Gaston Ferrer in 1917, he was the son of a Cuban-born surgeon and a Manhattan socialite, and his sister was the prominent cardiologist and educator M. Irene Ferrer. He was educated at private schools before attending Princeton, where he won the Playwright's Award before dropping out to become an actor.

To support himself while working in summer repertory at the Cape Cod Playhouse in Massachusetts, he became the editor of a small newspaper in Vermont, and he wrote a children's book, Tito's Hat, which was published in 1940. He first appeared on Broadway in 1938 (billed as Melchor Ferrer) as a chorus dancer in two unsuccessful musicals, Cole Porter's You Never Know and the historical pageant Everywhere I Roam. He played his first acting roles in New York in two plays of 1940 – a revival of Kind Lady and a short-lived thriller directed by Otto Preminger, Cue for Passion. A bout of polio kept him out of action for a year, after which he worked in radio, graduating to producing and directing for NBC.

He was then hired by Columbia Pictures as a dialogue coach, before getting the chance to direct a melodramatic B movie, The Girl of the Limberlost (1945). Returning to Broadway, he had a leading role in Strange Fruit (1945), a turgid tale of miscegenation and murder in the deep South. The play was directed by José Ferrer (not a relation), and the following year their roles were reversed when Mel directed a renowned and highly successful revival of Cyrano de Bergerac starring José.

One of Broadway's legendary productions, it won acclaim for José Ferrer, who won the first Tony Award for a dramatic actor. The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson described the show as "rattling good theatre in the cloak-and-doggerel vein", and Mel Ferrer was praised for a coaxing a brilliant set of performances from the cast, a colourful production with vivid swordplay, and in particular his beautiful staging of the moving final scene.

After spending time in Mexico, where he was assistant to John Ford on The Fugitive (1947), he realised an ambition when, with Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Joseph Cotten, he founded the La Jolla Playhouse to bring theatre to California on a summer-season basis.

He then worked as one of several directors on the Howard Hughes fiasco Vendetta (finally released in 1950), before making The Secret Fury (1950), a swift-moving and exciting thriller and his only successful film as a director.

Ferrer made his début as a screen actor in Lost Boundaries (1949); he was a dispassionate artist coolly observing the strategies of Joan Fontaine's vamp in Nicholas Ray's Born to Be Bad (1950), and he persuasively captured the complexity of a matador plagued with self-doubt in Robert Rossen's fine drama The Brave Bulls (1951). In Fritz Lang's offbeat Rancho Notorious (1952), he was the outlaw sweetheart of Marlene Dietrich, after which he played in his finest film, George Sidney's dazzling version of the Sabatini adventure classic of the French Revolution, Scaramouche (1952).

His ruthless Marquis de Maynes was both a hissable villain and a convincing lover of Marie Antoinette, his coldly aristocratic mien perfect for the role. His swordplay dexterity matched that of Stewart Granger for their final, seven-minute duel in a theatre, battling through the auditorium, the foyer, the staircase, the balcony, boxes and stage in a breathtaking sequence. Granger later recalled Ferrer as "a charming person", but added, "I avoided fencing with Mel as much as possible as he never could concentrate if there was a pretty girl around."

Ferrer next played in another of the roles for which he will be remembered, the bitter, crippled puppeteer of Charles Walters' Lili (1953) who is able to woo the waif he loves (Leslie Caron) only through the voice and persona of a wooden doll.

Ferrer was in London making Knights of the Round Table (1954) when he was introduced to Audrey Hepburn at a party given by Gregory Peck. Ferrer recalled, "She knew all about the La Jolla Playhouse, and said she'd seen Lili three times. Finally, she said she'd like to do a play with me." According to friends at the party, it was love at first sight.

In 1954 they opened on Broadway in Jean Giraudoux's Ondine, in which Hepburn played a water-sprite who falls in love with a German knight (Ferrer), and some of the public's hostility to Ferrer began during the run when, despite Hepburn's stardom and the audience's desire to cheer her, he initially insisted on sharing her curtain calls. The actor Robert Flemyng, a friend of the pair, commented, "Mel's success in Lili did not bear the fruits that he might have hoped for and, in the course of time, he was not pleased to be Mr Hepburn."

Ferrer and Hepburn were married in September 1954, and in 1956 Ferrer played Prince Andrey in Raoul Walsh's War and Peace, which starred Hepburn with Henry Fonda. Though his main interest was directing ("I've acted just to get to directing"), Ferrer played in such films as The Sun Also Rises (1957) and The World The Flesh and The Devil (1959) before directing Hepburn in Green Mansions (1959), based on W.H. Hudson's fey novel set in the Amazonian jungle and telling of "Rima the Bird Girl" and her sanctuary.

A pet project of Ferrer's, it proved a box-office disaster, and he returned to acting. He had a cameo role in Paris When It Sizzles (1964), which starred Hepburn, and was also featured in The Fall of the Roman Empire and Sex and the Single Girl (both 1964). In 1967 he produced a screen version of the stage hit Wait Until Dark, starring Hepburn as a blind girl who defeats a gang of smugglers – it was to be Hepburn's final major screen success. The following year the pair were divorced, with Hepburn gaining custody of their son, Sean.

Ferrer appeared in many low-budget European films as well as occasional TV shows in the US, including Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote and a recurring role in the soap series Falcon Crest.

Tom Vallance

Melchor Gaston Ferrer, actor and director: born Elberon, New Jersey 25 August 1917; married 1937, 1944 Frances Pilchard (died 1985; one son, one daughter; marriages dissolved), 1940 Barbara C. Tripp (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1954 Audrey Hepburn (died 1993; one son; marriage dissolved 1968), 1971 Elizabeth Soukhotine; died Santa Barbara, California 2 June 2008.

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