Michael Rennie

Michael Rennie

Michael Rennie as "Klaatu" in
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951).
Born Eric Alexander Rennie
25 August 1909(1909-08-25)
Bradford, Yorkshire, England
Died 10 June 1971(1971-06-10) (aged 61)
Harrogate, Yorkshire, England
Resting place Harlow Hill Cemetery
Harrogate, Yorkshire, England
Years active 1936–71
Spouse Maggie McGrath (1947–60) (divorced) 1 child
Joan England (1938–45) (divorced)
Partner Renee Taylor (nee Gilbert) (1941–60)

Michael Rennie (25 August 1909 – 10 June 1971) was an English film, television, and stage actor, perhaps best known for his starring role as the space visitor Klaatu in the 1951 classic science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still. However, he appeared in over 50 other films since 1936, many with Jean Simmons and other well-known actors. During World War II, Rennie served in the Royal Air Force. From 1959 onward, Rennie also appeared in some popular U.S. TV shows, between making films.


Early years

Eric Alexander Rennie was born in Idle, a village near the West Riding of Yorkshire city of Bradford (subsequently a Bradford suburb) and educated at The Leys School, Cambridge. He attempted a number of professions, including periods as car salesman and manager of his uncle's rope factory, before deciding (at the time of his 26th birthday, in 1935) on a career as an actor. Retaining his surname but adopting the professional name Michael Rennie, the tall (6′4″) show business hopeful, with chiseled cheekbones and features, first appeared onscreen in an uncredited bit part in Alfred Hitchcock's Secret Agent, which had its London premiere in May 1936.

During the late 1930s, Rennie served his apprenticeship as an actor, gaining experience in acting technique while touring the provinces in British repertory. There is evidence that, at the age of 28, he was noticed by one of the British film studios, which decided to appraise his potential as a film personality by arranging a screen test. The 1937 screen test[1], which exists in the British Film Institute archives under the title "Marguerite Allan and Michael Rennie Screen Test," did not lead to a film career for either performer. In Secret Agent, he was primarily a stand-in for leading man Robert Young, and his own on-camera bit was so small that it cannot be discerned in the preserved final version of the film. He also played other bit parts, and later, minor unbilled roles in ten additional films produced between 1936 and 1940, the last of which, "Pimpernel" Smith, had a belated release in July 1941, while Rennie was already in uniform, serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II.

The Second World War years

Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, Rennie began to receive offers for larger film roles, starting with his first (small) billed performance in the wartime morale booster The Big Blockade, seen in March 1940. Michael Redgrave, by then a full-fledged star, had one of the leading roles in the film. Six films later, however, Michael Rennie also had his first film lead. The suspense drama Tower of Terror, released in late December 1941 was styled in the manner of a horror film and starred Wilfrid Lawson as a mad Dutch lighthouse keeper in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, while second-billed Rennie and third-billed Movita had the romantic leads.

Michael Rennie enlisted in the RAF Volunteer Reserve on 27 May 1941 (Serial No 1391153). He was discharged for commission on 4 August 1942 and, the following day, was commissioned "for the emergency" as a Pilot Officer (No 127347) on probation in the General Duties Branch of the RAFVR. On 5 February 1943, he was promoted to Flying Officer on probation. He resigned his commission on 1 May 1944 (not invalided out, as studio publicity stated). Rennie carried out his basic training near Torquay, in Devon, after which he was posted to the United States, where he served in Macon, Georgia, purportedly as a flying instructor—although no record of his holding such rank could be confirmed in the RAF's archives. A story Rennie told to an interviewer, which was subsequently recounted in a number of his film-magazine biographies, concerned his period with the U.S. military. While stationed in Macon, he was asked by some of the American flyers what he did for a living. On hearing his response that in civilian life he was an actor and had appeared in a few films, they laughed disbelievingly. That evening, with free time on their hands, the group decided to go into town to see a movie. The film they picked, Ships with Wings (released in the UK in January and in the U.S. in May 1942), featured the tenth-billed Rennie in a few brief but prominent scenes as an RAF Flight Lieutenant. The Americans were astonished to discover that their British flying instructor was really as he described himself.

British film star (1945–1950)

With the war's end in May 1945, Michael Rennie began to be seen as a potential star as a result of playing second leads in two vehicles for Britain's most popular leading actress of the era, Margaret Lockwood: the musical I'll Be Your Sweetheart and, most prominently, the sensual costume adventure The Wicked Lady. The latter turned out to be the year's biggest box office hit, subsequently being listed ninth on a list of top ten highest-grossing British films. He also had a single prominent scene as a commander of Roman centurions in the film described at the time as the most expensive (and financially ruinous) British film enterprise ever made, Gabriel Pascal's production of George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Vivien Leigh and Claude Rains.

Second leads and then leads in seven other British films produced between 1946 and 1949 followed, including what may be considered Michael Rennie's only role as one of two central characters in a full-fledged love story. In the 47-minute episode "Sanatorium", the longest among the Somerset Maugham tales constituting the film Trio (released in London on 1 August 1950), the mature-looking, lightly mustached, 40-year-old Rennie and the 20-years-younger Jean Simmons are patients in the title institution, which caters to victims of tuberculosis. They fall in love and decide to marry, despite the doctor's grim prognosis that Rennie, a former Army major, can only expect a few months of life; Simmons's character also faces a premature death within a couple of years. The final scene shows them joyfully leaving their institutional surroundings, secure in the knowledge that their brief remaining time will be spent in the happiness of their love for each other and the ability to face the inevitable on their own terms. Their indomitable spirit even gives inspiration to the other patients who cannot leave the "Sanatorium" but whose sagging spirits are momentarily lifted out of the doldrums of depression.

Jean Simmons would, in fact, turn out to be Michael Rennie's most frequent costar. Although they shared no scenes within the context of their minor roles in Caesar and Cleopatra, it was the first of their four films together. The remaining two titles were both 20th Century-Fox epics made in 1953–54 that had them primarily involved with other characters. In 1953's The Robe and its 1954 sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Rennie was billed fourth and third, respectively, playing the Apostle Peter, who provides affirmation in the new faith, as Jean and Richard Burton become martyrs for Christianity. In the sequel, they were only briefly seen in a flashback, as the focus shifted to Demetrius (Victor Mature), third-billed in The Robe; his temptation by the sexually brazen (within 1954 standards) future Empress Messalina (Susan Hayward); and the continued religious support and uplift provided by Peter to Demetrius and other faithful.

The final film that cast Michael Rennie with Jean Simmons was 1954's Desiree. He was again billed fourth, after Marlon Brando (as Napoleon), Simmons (as the title character, Désirée Clary), and Merle Oberon (as Joséphine). As French marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who becomes King Charles XIV John of Sweden, Rennie marries Jean's Désirée, but her true love always remains with Brando's Napoleon.

Hollywood stardom (1951–1952)

Michael Rennie, along with Jean Simmons and The Wicked Lady leading man James Mason, was one of a number of British actors offered Hollywood contracts in 1949–50 by 20th Century-Fox's studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck. The first film under his new contract was the British-filmed Medieval period adventure The Black Rose, starring Tyrone Power, who became one of Rennie's closest friends. Fifth-billed after the remaining first-tier stars Orson Welles, Cécile Aubry, and Jack Hawkins, Rennie was specifically cast as 13th century King Edward I of England, whose 6′2″ (1.88 m) frame gave origin to his historical nickname, "Longshanks".

Rennie's second Fox film gave him fourth billing in the top tier. The 13th Letter, directed by his future nemesis and love rival Otto Preminger, was a remake of the 1943 French film Le Corbeau (The Raven), with the setting changed to the Canadian province of Quebec. Rennie's next film dramatically moved his billing up to first and assured him screen immortality. (The role had been intended for Claude Rains, who turned it down.) The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first post war, respectably budgeted, "A" science-fiction film. It was a serious, high-minded exploration of Cold War paranoia and humanity's place in the universe. A unique aspect of the film is the participation, within its fictional structure, of four top newscasters and commentators of the period: Elmer Davis, H.V. Kaltenborn, Drew Pearson, and Gabriel Heatter. The story was dramatised in 1954 for Lux Radio Theatre, with Rennie and Billy Gray recreating their roles and Jean Peters speaking the dialogue of the Patricia Neal character. Seven years later, on March 3, 1962, when The Day the Earth Stood Still had its television premiere on NBC's NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, Michael Rennie appeared before the start of the film to give a two-minute introduction.

Buoyed by the strong critical reception and profitability of the film, Fox assigned much of the credit to the central performance by Michael Rennie. Convinced that it had a potential leading man under contract, the studio decided to produce a version of Les Miserables as a vehicle for him. The film, released on August 14, 1952, was directed by All Quiet on the Western Front's Lewis Milestone, and Rennie's performance was respectfully, but not enthusiastically, received by the critics. Ultimately, Les Misérables turned in an extremely modest profit and put an end to any further attempts to promote the 43-year-old Rennie as a future star. He was, however, launched on a thriving career as a top supporting actor, as in Sailor of the King. Based on the positive reaction to his two turns as the Apostle Peter, Fox assigned him another third-billed, top-tier role as a stalwart man of God, Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, who, between 1749 and his death in 1784, founded missions in Alta California. The film was September 1955's Seven Cities of Gold, with Richard Egan, who had been ninth-billed as a vicious fighting machine and rapist of ingenue Debra Paget in the previous year's Demetrius and the Gladiators and was now receiving star buildup and first billing; Anthony Quinn was billed second. Both actors played Spanish expedition leaders on a quest that resulted in the 1769 founding of San Diego, California.

Post-20th Century-Fox

In 1953, Michael Rennie starred in Dangerous Crossing under contract with 20th Century Fox. It was released in 1953 as a black-and-white noirish mystery film. It was directed by Joseph M. Newman, starred Rennie and Jeanne Crain, and was based on a 1943 play Cabin B-13 by John Dickson Carr. The production reused sets and props from "Titanic" of the same year, in which Rennie did the closing narration. Michael Rennie's next film was the last under his five-year contract with 20th Century-Fox. The Rains of Ranchipur, released on December 14, 1955, assigned him fifth billing after the lead romantic teaming of Lana Turner and Richard Burton and the second-tier romance featuring depressed alcoholic Fred MacMurray unwillingly pursued by Joan Caulfield. As Lana Turner's cuckolded husband, Lord Esketh, Rennie maintained his typical dignity and stiff upper lip in the face of the character's diminished self-esteem.

Now a freelancer, Rennie appeared in six additional features between 1956 and 1960, three of which were produced or released by Fox. Rennie appeared as adventurer Lord John Roxton in director Irwin Allen's 1960 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, a tale of a jungle expedition that finds prehistoric monsters in South America; the film also starred Claude Rains, David Hedison, Fernando Lamas, Jill St. John and Richard Haydn. No longer bound by the no-television clause in his studio contract, he began his prolific 15-year association with the medium.

The Third Man series and television

In 1959, Rennie became a familiar face on television, taking the role of Harry Lime in The Third Man, a British-American syndicated TV series very loosely based on the character previously played by Orson Welles. During the 1960s, he continued his television career, with guest appearances on such series as The Barbara Stanwyck Show, Route 66 (a moving portrayal of a doomed pilot in the two-part episode "Fly Away Home"); Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Perry Mason (one of four actors in four consecutive episodes substituting for series star Raymond Burr, who was recovering from surgery); Wagon Train (a 90-minute colour episode as an English big game hunter who, in a display of amazing marksmanship, is able to kill an Indian chief from a great distance); The Great Adventure (in an installment of this anthology series about remarkable events in American history, he portrayed Confederate president Jefferson Davis); Lost in Space (another two-part episode—as an all-powerful alien zookeeper, "The Keeper," he worked one last time with his Third Man costar Jonathan Harris); The Time Tunnel (as Captain Smith of The Titanic, in the series' September 9, 1966 premiere episode); Batman (as the villainous Sandman, in league with Julie Newmar's Catwoman); three episodes of The Invaders (as a malign variation of the Klaatu persona, culminating in a parallel plot also involving an assembly of world leaders); an episode of I Spy ("Lana"); and two episodes of The F.B.I.


At the start of the 1960s, Michael Rennie made his only Broadway appearance in Mary, Mary playing Dirk Winsten, a jaded movie star. After two previews, the sophisticated five-character marital comedy written by Jean Kerr and directed by Joseph Anthony opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre on March 8, 1961. It ran for a very successful 1,572 performances, closing at the Morosco Theatre on December 12, 1964. Rennie stayed with the production less than five months, to be replaced by Michael Wilding in July 1961.

When Warner Brothers Pictures cast the film version in early 1963, Rennie, along with leading man Barry Nelson and supporting actor Hiram Sherman (who joined the play two years after the opening in the part first played by John Cromwell) were the only Broadway cast members to transfer to the big screen. Debbie Reynolds was given the title role (created by Barbara Bel Geddes), and Warners contractee Diane McBain, whom the studio saw as a potential star of the future, took over "the socialite part" essayed by Betsy von Furstenberg. Veteran Mervyn LeRoy produced and directed the film, which opened at Radio City Music Hall on October 25, 1963. Ironically, while the film disappeared from cinemas by the end of 1963, the Broadway version continued for another full year.

Personal life

Rennie was married twice: first to Joan England (1938–1945), then to actress Margaret (Maggie) McGrath (1947–1960); their son, David Rennie, is an English circuit judge in Lewes, Sussex, England. Both marriages ended in divorce.

He also had a son, John Marshall, by his longtime friend and mistress, Renée (née Gilbert), whose married name was Taylor. The British Film Institute's database also lists him as having a son, John M. Taylor, who is listed as "a producer." John Marshall Rennie used the pseudonym "Taylor" during his long career in the industry to avoid accusations of nepotism.[citation needed]

Michael Rennie was also briefly engaged to the ex-wife of Hollywood director Otto Preminger.

John Rennie, the designer and builder of the original Waterloo Bridge over the River Thames in London, is presumed to have been his great-great-grandfather.[citation needed]

Final years

After completing what amounted to guest roles in two 1968 films, The Power and The Devil's Brigade, as well as top guest-starring roles in two episodes of the ABC/Quinn Martin Productions series The F.B.I., Michael Rennie moved from Los Angeles to Switzerland in the latter part of that year. His final seven feature films were filmed in Britain, Italy, Spain, and, in the case of The Surabaya Conspiracy, The Philippines. Less than three years after leaving Hollywood, he journeyed to his mother's home in Harrogate, Yorkshire at a time of family grief following the death of his brother. It was there that he suddenly died of a *ruptured aneurysm of the abdominal aorta almost two months before his 62nd birthday*. After his cremation, his ashes were laid to rest in *Harlow Hill Cemetery, Harrogate*.

Partial filmography

In popular culture

The opening song of The Rocky Horror Show and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, "Science Fiction Double Feature", begins with the words "Michael Rennie was ill The Day the Earth Stood Still, but he told us where we stand..." ("and Flash Gordon was there in silver underwear, Claude Rains was The Invisible Man..." etc.)


  1. ^ Bfi.org.uk, B25.

External links

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