Mel Ferrer was an American actor, director and producer remembered as the first husband of Audrey Hepburn. He co-starred with her in the 1956 film version of ‘War and Peace’. Mel is often described as progressive minded. In order to support himself he started working as a repertoire at the Cape Cod Playhouse, Massachusetts. He also became editor of a small newspaper in Vermont and even went on to write a book for children titled ‘Tito’s Hat’, published in 1940. After this, he moved on to New York City to pursue his career as an actor. He showed his acting skills in New York by performing in two plays – a revival of ‘King Lady’ and a thriller ‘Cue for Passion’ directed by Otto Preminger both in the same year. Then he suffered from Polio and after getting cured he worked in radio for some time and later became a producer and director for NBC television network. Ferrer was also successful in television with recurring performances in CBS drama ‘Falcon Crest’. He also directed Hepburn in the film ‘Green Mansions’ and produced one of her best film ‘Wait Untill Dark’.
Childhood & Early Life
Melchor Gaston Ferrer was born on 25th August, 1917 in the Elberon community, which is a part of Long Branch in Monmouth County, New Jersey, USA to Cuban father and American mother. His father, late Dr. Jose Maria Ferrer, was a pneumonia specialist and was the chief of staff of St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City.
His mother, Mary Matilda Irene, was the daughter of a coffee broker and she was against all kinds of Prohibition and was named in 1934 in the New York City’s state chairman of the Citizen’s Committee for Sane Liquor Laws.
He went to Bovee School in New York and Canterbury Prep School in Connecticut. Later, he went to Princeton University but left it after his sophomore years to give more time to his acting.
Mel had three siblings. His brother, Dr. Jose M. Ferrer, was a surgeon and his elder sister, Dr. M. Irene Ferrer, was a cardiologist and an educator and his other sister, Teresa (Terry) Ferrer, was a religion editor of the New York Herald Tribune and an education editor of Newsweek.
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Ferrer started working in summer stock when he was in his teens and went on to win the ‘Theatre Intime’ award for the play titled ‘Awhile to Work’. He then appeared on Broadway stage in 1938 as a chorus dancer in two musicals Cole Porter’s ‘You Never Know’ and the historical pageant ‘Everywhere I Roam’ and made his debut there as an actor two years later.
While suffering from polio, he started to work as a disc jockey in Arkansas and Texas. Later he moved to Mexico to work on a novel and he started to produce and direct for NBC.
Eventually, he returned to Broadway where he directed the 1946 stage production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and then got involved in motion pictures and directed more than 10 feature films and acted in more than eighty. He was later hired by Columbia Pictures as a dialogue coach and then got a chance to direct a melodramatic movie ‘The Girl of the Limberlost’ in 1945. He played a leading role in ‘Strange Fruit’.
He directed a highly successful revival play of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. The critics praised Mel’s direction, and colorful production with vivid swordplay and the gorgeous staging of the movie final scene. As a producer he was very successful with the film titled ‘Wait Until Dark’ in 1967 starring Audrey Hepburn.
After spending time in Mexico he decided to form the La Jolla Playhouse with Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire and Joseph Cotten and they would bring theatre on a summer season basis. Then he directed the Howard Hughes fiasco ‘Vendetta’ before making his most successful movie ‘The Secret Fury’ in 1950.
Ferrer made his debut on screen as an actor in ‘Lost Boundaries’ in 1949. He played an artist in Nichola’s Ray’s ‘Born to Be Bad’ who was observing the behaviour of Joan Fontaine’s vamp. He very well enacted the complexity of a not so confident matador in the film ‘The Brave Bulls’ of 1951.
As a film actor he shall be best remembered for ‘Rancho Notorious’ where he played the outlaw sweetheart of actress Marlene Dietrich and next as the injured puppeteer in the musical ‘Lili’ in 1953 starring Leslie Caron. Later he played King Arthur in 1953 in ‘Knights of the Round Table’. His finest performance was as the villainous Marquis de Maynes in the French Revolution film ‘Scaramouche’ of 1952. He even acted opposite his wife Audrey Hepburn as Prince Andrei in ‘War and Peace’ of 1956.
Mel was highly praised for his intense performance in ‘Marquis de Maynes’ which had both a villainous side and also a convincing lover to Marie Antoinette.
Ferrer’s acting as the bitter, crippled puppeteer of Charles Walter’s ‘Lilly’ of 1953 who is able to woo a homeless child only through the voice and persona of a wooden doll was highly appreciated by critics and audiences.
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Mel was introduced to Audrey Hepburn in London at a party thrown by Gregory Peck, while Mel was making ‘Knights of the Round Table’ movie. She showed keen interest to work in one of his plays.
Movies with Audrey Hepburn
After their marriage, the couple was seen together in many films. In1956 Ferrer played the role of Prince Andrew in Raoul Walsh’s movie ‘War and Peace’ opposite Hepburn and Henry Fonda. He then directed Audrey in blockbuster movie like ‘Green Mansions’ (1959) which was based on W.H. Hudson’s novel set in the Amazonian jungle and telling the story of ‘Rima the Bird Girl’ and her sanctuary.
Ferrer again returned to acting in 1964 where he played a cameo role in the film ‘Paris When It Sizzles’ starring Audrey Hepburn. In 1967, he produced a movie version of the stage hit ‘Wait Until Dark’ again starring Hepburn who plays the role of a blind girl who defeats a gang of smugglers. This movie turned out as Hepburn’s major final success.
Ferrer turned to television by initially directing the television series ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’ from 1963 to 1966 starring Inger Stevens.
Mel acted as a blackmailing reporter in the Columbo episode ‘Requiem for a fallen star’ starring Anne Baxter and in 1979 he was very appreciated for his acting in an episode of ‘Return of the Saint’
Personal Life & Legacy
Mel went into wedlock 5 times. His first and third wife was Frances Gunby Pilchard who was an actress and sculptor. With her, he had two children, Pepa Philippa Ferer, and Mark Young Ferrer.
His second wife was Barbara C. Tripp and they had two children; Mella Ferrer and Christopher Ferrer.
Next, he married Audrey Hepburn (1954-1968) and they have a son named Sean Hepburn Ferrer.
Before his fifth marriage to Elizabeth, he had a brief relationship with a 29 year old interior designer, Tessa Kennedy
Finally he married Elizabeth Soukhotine, with whom he stayed from 1971 till his death in 2008.
For his contributions to the film industry he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6268 Hollywood Boulevard.
Ferrer died of heart attack at on 2nd June, 2008 at the age of 90 in a recuperating home in Santa Barbara.