Ray Milland was one of Hollywood’s top leading men and an Academy Award winning actor. He is also remembered for his sometimes campy late career television and film roles.
Milland was primarily known for his formal, aristocratic manner of speaking. He had a very smooth and dignified voice. He could portray sinister characters and kind-hearted men, and not change the inflection in his voice.
As an actor, he had 178 credits in a career stretching from 1928 to 1985. Born in Wales, he became interested in sports, and became a member of the Household Cavalry (Guard for the Royal Family). However, to make a living, he decided to try his hand at acting, after a producer hired him for a small part. Milland was handsome and athletic, two qualities always of interest to producers. A number of small parts eventually landed him in America and to Paramount, where he would stay for the next 20 years and achieve great success.
From the mid 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, his Paramount period, he appeared in Hollywood’s biggest films, usually paired with the top female stars. During his time he was one of the studio’s highest paid stars.
His film resume included:
The Gilded Lilly, Next Time We Love, The Big Broadcast of 1937, The Jungle Princess, Easy Living, Tropic Holiday, Men With Wings, Beau Geste, Everything Happens at Night, The Doctor Takes a Wife, I Want Wings, Sullivan’s Travels, Reap the Wind, The Major and the Minor, Lady in the Dark, Kitty, The Lost Weekend, California, Golden Earrings, The Big Clock, A Woman of Distinction, Rhubarb, Something to Live For, Jamaican Rum, Dial M for Murder, A Man Alone, Three Brave Men, The River’s Edge.
The Lost Weekend (1946) was Milland’s high water mark. Playing a hopeless alcoholic was not a glamorous role, although the film was a huge commercial success at the box office. A gritty, unapologetic look at the dishonesty and destruction of alcoholism, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four, including Milland for Best Actor.
Skipping forward, by the 1960’s, he started appearing in low-budget films, and starting directing television programs and films. As an actor, his feature film leading man days were long in the distance and he turned to television for roles that were worthy of his talent. That’s funny, considering the reputation of television, but series and television films were a step above some of his 1960’s film (The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Premature Burial). He did direct himself in several low-budget films including Panic in Year Zero.
The 1970’s seemed to revive Milland’s career in a number of high-profile projects. He is probably best remembered as playing Ryan O’Neal’s father in Love Story (1970), a huge, surprise hit. He also appeared later in the sequel.
Milland also began to appear without his toupee and settled into character roles.
He also appeared in two episodes of Columbo, one as a villain, and the other as the husband of a murder victim.
“Death Lends a Hand” is one of the best Columbo episodes and co-starred Robert Culp as the villain. Milland was Arthur Kinnicutt, the owner of a media empire who’s wife was murdered by the man (Culp) he hired to investigate her. Milland gave the part a quiet dignity, and the final scene in the episode is one of the best in any Columbo episode – both clever and funny.
Milland would also appear in the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), Seventh Avenue (1977) and Testimony of Two Men (1977). He also accepted guest roles in such series as Ellery Queen, Battlestar Galactica, Fantasy Island, Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels and Hart to Hart. He had star value and it paid well. At this point it was work and these series enjoyed cashing in on stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
In addition to guesting on Columbo, Cool Mission and a Bob Hope Special, in 1972, Milland also appeared in the films, Frogs and The Thing With Two Heads. Interesting choices for an Academy Award winning actor.
Frogs, produced by American International Pictures (Edgar Allen Poe film, Beach films and motorcycle films), was nature versus man, with nature winning in this film. “Today the pond, tomorrow the world!” Milland plays the domineering patriarch of a family on a remote island that is taken over by various animals that turn the tables on the human inhabitants. A young Sam Elliott co-stars in the film.
If you thought Frog was silly, The Thing With Two Heads, was over the top. Milland plays a rich, dying, racist onto the body of a black deathrow inmate. Not exactly Shakespeare. The tagline: “They transplanted a white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body!” Also produced by AIP, this film was definitely played for camp. Former football player Rosie Grier plays the other head. This film has a kooky charm to it; knowing we are watching something totally unbelievable and for the laughs.
Ray Milland turns up on Turner Classic Movies and various other channels, usually in films from his early years, and networks like MeTV on television series from the 1960’s and 1970’s. For a big star from the Golden Age, he didn’t take his career too seriously as he aged, and that’s where you will find some of his more interesting work.