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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick