William Stanley Baker was born in Ferndale, Rhondda Valley, Glamorgan, Wales, the youngest of three children. His father was a coal miner who lost a leg in a pit accident but continued working as a lift operator at the mine until his death. Baker grew up a self-proclaimed “wild kid” interested in only “football and boxing” although his artistic ability was spotted at an early age by a local teacher, Glynne Morse, who encouraged Baker to act. When he was 14 he was performing in a school play when seen by a casting director from Ealing Studios, who recommended him for a role in Undercover (1943), a war film about the Yugoslav guerrillas in Serbia. He was paid £20 a week, caught the acting bug, and pursued a professional acting career. Six months later Baker appeared with Emlyn Williams in a play in the West End called The Druid’s Rest, appearing alongside a young Richard Burton. Baker worked for a time as an apprentice electrician, then through Morse’s influence he managed to secure a position with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1944. His national service in 1946 interrupted his three years there. He served in the Royal Army Service Corps until 1948, achieving the rank of sergeant. Following his demob he returned to London determined to resume his acting career. He was recommended by Richard Burton for casting in a small role in Terence Rattigan’s West End play, Adventure Story. He began appearing in films and on television, as well as performing on stage for the Middlesex Repertory Company. He impressed when cast as the bosun’s mate in the Hollywood-financed Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951).
Baker was in New York appearing in a play by Christopher Fry, A Sleep of Prisoners, when he read the novel The Cruel Sea. Attracted to the idea of playing the unpleasant and somewhat cowardly Bennett, he lobbied successfully for the role in the 1953 film version. The success of this really established Baker in films, and led to a Hollywood offer when George Sanders fell ill and was unable to play Sir Mordred in the expensive epic Knights of the Round Table (1953). His performance was received favourably and he soon found roles in Hell Below Zero and The Good Die Young (both 1954). His career received another boost when Laurence Olivier selected Baker to play Henry Tudor in Richard III (1955). He played important roles in two Hollywood costume epics: Achilles in Helen of Troy (1956) and Attalus in Alexander the Great (1956); he also portrayed Rochester in a TV adaptation of Jane Eyre (1956). Baker finally broke away from supporting parts when cast as the lead in Hell Drivers (1957). This was directed by Cy Endfield, who had first worked with Baker on Child in the House (1956) and went on to make six films in total with the actor. He followed this up with a series of popular films that featured him as a tough anti-hero, usually an authority figure of some kind, such as Violent Playground (1958), Sea Fury (1958), Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) and Blind Date (1959). The latter was the first of what would be four collaborations with director Joseph Losey (of which his favourite was The Criminal (1960); he also made two films each with Val Guest, Ralph Thomas and Robert Aldrich. After making The Angry Hills (1959) with Robert Aldrich, Baker stated that the director offered to engage him in a 28-part series about an Englishman in New York but turned it down to stay in Britain. He played the relatively small role of “Butcher Brown”, a war-weary commando, in the blockbuster war epic The Guns of Navarone (1961). In 1961 Baker turned down the superspy role James Bond for the forthcoming film Dr. No because he was unwilling to commit to a three-picture contract. Some years later he asked producer Albert R. Broccoli about playing a villain in one of the 007 series’ films.
Baker wanted to move into production, and to this end formed his own company, Diamond Films. While making Sodom and Gomorrah (1963) he struck up a relationship with Joseph E. Levine which enabled him to raise the money for Zulu (1964), directed by Endfield. This was a massive success at the box office and helped make a star of Michael Caine. Baker played the lead part of Lieutenant John Chard VC in what remains his best-remembered-role. Baker later owned Chard’s Victoria Cross and Zulu War Medal from 1972 until his death in 1976. (Chard died at age 49 in 1897, only a year older than Baker at his death; both died of cancer). Baker then made two more films in Africa, Dingaka (1965) and Sands of the Kalahari (1965), also producing the latter. Neither was as successful as Zulu. He formed a production company, Oakhurst Productions, in association with Michael Deeley, which produced such films as Robbery (1967), The Italian Job (1968) and Where’s Jack? (1969). Baker starred in some of these and continued to act for other producers, giving a particularly fine performance in Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967). He was a close friend and drinking companion of another Welsh actor, Richard Burton. In 1950 Baker married the actress Ellen Martin, who had been introduced to him by Burton. Their partnership lasted until his death and produced four children, Martin and Sally (twins), Glyn and Adam. Baker was a dedicated socialist off-screen, and a friend of the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. He was a staunch opponent of Welsh nationalism and recorded television broadcasts in support of the Welsh Labour Party. In a 1969 interview he said, “I’m a Welshman and proud of it. But I’m no nationalist. I think the Welsh nationalists are foolish and misguided people.” Baker was heavily criticised for earning vast sums of money despite holding left-wing socialist views, sending all his children to expensive private schools in England, and owning a large holiday home in Spain. He considered becoming a tax exile in the 1960s but ultimately decided he would miss Britain too much. Many of his friends believed Baker had damaged his acting career through his attempts to transform himself into a businessman. Baker was a heavy cigarette and cigar smoker and was diagnosed with lung cancer on 13 February 1976. He underwent surgery later that month. However, the cancer had spread to his bones and he died that same year from pneumonia in Málaga, Spain, aged 48
- February, 28, 1928
- United Kingdom
- Ferndale, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Wales
- June, 28, 1976
- Málaga, Andalusia
Cause of Death
- Putney Vale Cemetery and Crematorium
- Wimbledon, London, England
- United Kingdom