Turhan Bey: Actor who worked with Hepburn and Montez

 

Turhan Bey was a screen heart-throb of the 1940s, whose slick black hair and exotically handsome features (often with a pencil moustache, which gave an added touch of suavity), made him a popular romantic lead.

Initially cast as mysterious or villainous supporting characters, his most prestigious role was that of Katharine Hepburn's husband in MGM's epic version of Pearl Buck's novel, Dragon Seed (1944). He will be most fondly remembered, though, for the dashing roles in played in the series of lavish, highly coloured Eastern adventures starring Maria Montez, which enchanted audiences during the austere days of the Second World War.

Born in Vienna in 1920, he was the son of a Turkish diplomat father and Czech Jewish mother. In 1938, when Austria was absorbed by Nazi Germany, his mother and grandmother (his parents had divorced) took him to America, where they initially settled in New Hampshire. In 1940 the three went to California, where Bey studied at Ben Bard's dramatic school. "Bard came up with my stage name," he recalled. "He knew that 'Bey' was a term of respect in Turkey so said, 'Why don't we just make it Turhan Bey?'"

Bard had a little theatre on Wilshire Boulevard where Bey was spotted by a talent scout and given a one-scene role in an Errol Flynn film, Footsteps in the Dark (1941). It was the first of several small parts, including the role of Raymond Chandler's character, Jules Amthor, in a screen version of Farewell, My Lovely refashioned as The Falcon Takes Over (1942).

He was in the lively thriller set in Turkey, Background to Danger (1942), playing the nefarious cohort of villain Peter Lorre. In the serial Junior G-Men of the Air (1942) he was the henchman of enemy agent Lionel Atwill, "Serials were great fun, but I enjoyed all my roles – European noblemen, Orientals, characters out of the Arabian nights – because I loved acting."

Bey also featured in two notable horror films, The Mummy's Hand (1942), in which he was the Egyptian high priest who journeys to America to ensure the mummy takes revenge on those who violated its tomb, and The Mad Ghoul (1943), in which he courted a young singer who is also wooed by a pianist turned zombie. One of the cast, Rose Hobart, was reported to have had a brief romance with Bey, She was one of many actresses linked with him, but he was devoted to his mother, who allegedly persuaded him to abandon plans to propose to Lana Turner.

His first film in the Maria Montez cycle was Arabian Nights (1943), as the Captain of the Guard who sells Scheherazade (Montez) into slavery. The first Universal film to be made in three-strip Technicolor, it looked sumptuous. Bey was in three more – White Savage (1943), Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1943) and Sudan (1945). "They were pure escapism, and there is nothing wrong with that," he said. "There was a war on, and films like this were great for morale."

In 1944 MGM borrowed Bey from Universal to play a Chinese political insurgent in Dragon Seed, which starred Katharine Hepburn as his wife: "Katharine was the most intelligent person I have ever known. One day she gave me a valuable tip. She told me quietly, 'Turhan, you are a very good actor but sometimes you don't listen. You have to listen to what your acting partner is saying.'"

At Universal, Bey was given romantic leading roles in three films featuring the studio's singing star, Susanna Foster – The Climax (1944), Bowery to Broadway (1944) and 'Frisco Sal (1945), but fantasies were losing favour, and Universal sold his contract to Eagle-Lion, where he was in an amusing screwball comedy, Out of the Blue (1946). After playing Aesop in A Night in Paradise (1946), he was drafted into the army for 18 months, after which he found it hard to re-establish his career. In 1953, after finishing Prisoners of the Casbah, he returned to Vienna and his first love, photography, but 40 years later he returned to Hollywood, with a role in Murder, She Wrote, plus a performance as an emperor in the TV series Babylon 5, for which he received an Emmy nomination.

When one of his finest films, The Climax, in which he rescues Susanna Foster from the designs of Boris Karloff, was first restored for video, Bey commented, "That was a large production for Universal. They had all these sets left over from The Phantom of the Opera. The colours are so rich and beautiful – the close-ups of Karloff are like Rembrandts. Being in a film like this is a form of immortality. There I am for all time, a young man of 22, and I am perfectly preserved."

Turhan Gilbert Salahettin Schultavey (Turhan Bey), actor and photographer: born Vienna 30 March 1920; died Vienna 30 September 2012.

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