Boyer was best known for a series of romantic roles in the 1930s and 40s — films that proved you didn't have to be classically handsome to be a Hollywood leading man.
Charles Boyer's Appearance Needed a Lot of Hollywood Help
Filmmakers worked hard to shore up Boyer's physical limitations. Just 5-foot-9, the star wore lifts to bring him close to six feet. Studio dressers labored to disguise a distinct paunch. And Boyer, who lost his hair in his 20s, wore a toupee — but only on screen; he refused to wear it in public.
The studio-honed image of the Great Lover was aided by Boyer's magnificently deep, resonant French-accented voice. With impeccable manners written into most of his roles, Boyer was the personification of European sophistication, charm and culture.
Boyer Studied Philosophy in College
Charles Boyer was a shy country boy from the south of France. As a hospital orderly during World War I, he reportedly staged comic sketches to cheer up wounded soldiers.
To appease his mother, the bookish Boyer majored in philosophy at the Sorbonne. He later studied acting at the Paris Conservatory before pursuing a stage career in the early 1920s. The young actor made a number of French films during those years, before MGM signed him to a contract at decade's end.
Boyer's American film career didn't gain traction until 1932. That year, playing a chauffeur in the Jean Harlow vehicle Red-Headed Woman got him noticed, thanks in part to his voice, which played well in the new sound era.
After the success of a couple more European films — director Fritz Lang's Liliom in 1934 and Mayerling two years later — Boyer became the object of Hollywood desires.
Boyer's Classic Romances Co-Starred Hedy Lamarr, Marlene Dietrich, Others
His image as a Continental lover was cemented in such glossy American productions as Algiers ( a remake of the French hit, Pepe Le Moko), History is Made at Night, The Garden of Allah and Love Affair, opposite Hedy Lamarr, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich and Irene Dunne, respectively.
Other leading ladies included Bette Davis, Margaret Sullavan and Olivia De Havilland.
Offscreen, the former philosophy student was a bookworm who enjoyed Los Angeles but shunned the Hollywood night life. A romantic in real life, Boyer was decidedly a one-woman man. He met British actress Pat Paterson at a party in 1934. Within two weeks, they were engaged and they wed three months later. By all accounts, theirs was a devoted, lifelong union.
An international star of both American and European films, Boyer became a naturalized American citizen in 1942.
Honorary Oscar in 1943
The following year, he received an honorary Oscar for "progressive cultural achievement" for helping establish the French Research Foundation in Los Angeles.
But Boyer never won a competitive Oscar, despite four nominations — for Conquest (1937), Algiers (1938), Gaslight (1944) and Fanny (1961).
Instead, Algiers brought him a kind of unwanted immortality. As Pepe Le Moko, the thief who steals Hedy Lamarr's heart, Boyer never actually says, "Come with me to the Casbah." But thanks to generations of impressionists, he was (mis)identified with the line in the same way Cary Grant was unfairly tattoed with "Judy, Judy, Judy," which he never said in a movie, either.
Charles Boyer Inspired Iconic Cartoon Character Pepe Le Pew
Probably Boyer's best-known role was in Gaslight, in which he was cast against type as a scheming husband trying to drive insane his new wife, played by Ingrid Bergman.
In 1945 came a different kind of immortality. Legendary Warner Bros. animator Chuck Jones modeled his passionate cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew after the French star. The name was an obvious play on Pepe Le Moko, and completing the homage was voice specialist Mel Blanc, whose imitation of Boyer was spot on.
After the war, Boyer's international career continued with film work in Europe (including The Earrings of Madame De…) and stage roles in London and New York. He won a 1951 Special Tony Award for Don Juan in Hell, directed by and co-starring Charles Laughton.
Boyer Partnered With Other Stars in Television Production Company
Boyer also became a powerful television presence in the United States. He partnered with movie greats David Niven, Dick Powell and Ida Lupino in Four Star Productions, appearing in the company's Four Star Theatre series in the early 50s. A decade later, he appeared regularly on Four Star's short-lived anthology series The Rogues.
On film, the aging actor moved into character parts in the 1950s and 60s, with diverse supporting roles in Around the World in 80 Days, Barefoot in the Park, Is Paris Burning?, Casino Royale, a remake of the Frank Capra classic Lost Horizon and The Madwoman of Chaillot.
Suicide Plagues Boyer Family
Boyer endured the loss of his only child, son Michael Charles Boyer, in 1965. Michael Boyer shot himself to death at 21 playing Russian Roulette, reportedly after his girlfriend broke up with him.
In August, 1978, Boyer was retired and living in Paradise Valley, Arizona when his wife of 44 years, Pat, died of cancer. Two days later, a deeply grieving Charles Boyer decided he could not live without her and took an overdose of the powerful barbiturate Seconal. He was two days shy of his 79th birthday.
Charles Boyer is buried beside his wife and son, and near many entertainment luminaries, at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California, not far from the studios where he made many of his films.