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As was true of Indian actor Sabu and Dominican leading lady Maria Montez, the ethnic otherness of Turhan Bey allowed moviegoers in the Golden Age of Hollywood to project upon his inscrutable features their most resplendent fantasies and darkest fears. With his true lineage a Turkish-Czechoslovakian split, Bey was often cast as Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, Mexican, Egyptian, Indian and Slavic characters, with their occupations never ranging far beyond the circle of career criminals, Nazi henchmen and bogus psychics. Never an A-list actor, Bey was paired occasionally with leading ladies of higher star wattage, such as Katherine Hepburn in "Dragon Seed" (1944) and Merle Oberon in "Night in Paradise" (1946). The height of his popularity came with appearances in a run of Universal Studio's Arabian Nights-style films, including "White Savage" (1942) and "Arthur Lubin's "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1944). His highly-publicized affair with Lana Turner at the peak of their respective sex symbol powers also kept him a Photoplay regular. A regime change at Universal after World War II sent Bey packing to the independent studio Eagle-Lion, for whom he appeared in a handful of films before fleeing for his...
As was true of Indian actor Sabu and Dominican leading lady Maria Montez, the ethnic otherness of Turhan Bey allowed moviegoers in the Golden Age of Hollywood to project upon his inscrutable features their most resplendent fantasies and darkest fears. With his true lineage a Turkish-Czechoslovakian split, Bey was often cast as Chinese, Japanese, Arabian, Mexican, Egyptian, Indian and Slavic characters, with their occupations never ranging far beyond the circle of career criminals, Nazi henchmen and bogus psychics. Never an A-list actor, Bey was paired occasionally with leading ladies of higher star wattage, such as Katherine Hepburn in "Dragon Seed" (1944) and Merle Oberon in "Night in Paradise" (1946). The height of his popularity came with appearances in a run of Universal Studio's Arabian Nights-style films, including "White Savage" (1942) and "Arthur Lubin's "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1944). His highly-publicized affair with Lana Turner at the peak of their respective sex symbol powers also kept him a Photoplay regular. A regime change at Universal after World War II sent Bey packing to the independent studio Eagle-Lion, for whom he appeared in a handful of films before fleeing for his Austrian homeland. A late-life comeback proved the septuagenarian had lost none of his native charm, as a guest star on such popular TV series as "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996) and "Babylon Five" (The WB, 1994-1998), and capped an eclectic career as one of Hollywood's most unforgettable men of mystery.
Turhan Gilbert Selahattin Sahultavy was born in Vienna, Austria on March 30, 1922. His Turkish father was a Muslim diplomat who had lost an arm in World War I; Bey's mother had owned a glass manufacturing business in her native Czechoslovakia. When German chancellor Adolf Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Bey's family fled to Paris and from there to the East Coast of the United States. Upon his arrival in America, a teenaged Bey lived in New Hampshire for a time with his divorced mother and grandmother. The family would relocate yet again to Los Angeles, where a letter of introduction from a friend in Paris brought Bey to the attention of film director Arthur Lubin. Perfecting his English in drama classes run by Hollywood character actor Ben Bard, Bey was cast as a villain in a play that grabbed the attention of talent scouts from Warner Brothers, who offered him a role in a feature film.
Rechristened Turhan Bey by the studio, the elegantly-mannered first-timer donned a turban for Lloyd Bacon's "Footsteps in the Dark" (1941). The comic whodunit was adapted from a 1937 British stage hit (itself an adaptation of a German language play) to serve as a vehicle for Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall, co-stars of Michael Curtiz's "The Sea Hawk" (1940). Buried deep in the credit roll, Bey had little to do in the decorous role of Ahmed but collected $500 a week for his troubles. Though his motion picture debut did little for his burgeoning career, Bey's die was cast in Hollywood. Naturally dark-complected, the actor was plugged into a Whitman's Sampler of exotic roles: Mexicans, Asians, Arabs and East Indians. In Warners' boarding house murder mystery "Shadows on the Stairs" (1942), based on the 1929 Broadway play by Frank Vosper, he was Ram Singh, a suspicious Indian national proved innocent of murder but guilty of plotting the overthrow of the British government.
Through the intervention of Arthur Lubin, Bey was offered a contract with the borderline Poverty Row studio, Universal. In John Rawlins' "Raiders of the Desert" (1941), he was slotted into the role of the charming but duplicitous Hassen Mohammed, an urbane Arabian whose Western fashion sense conceals his true identity as a Muslim spy. Cast as a Chinese national in Noel M. Smith's "Burma Convoy" (1941), Bey draws the suspicion of leads Charles Bickford and Evelyn Ankers, but proves a hero when he identifies himself as a government agent working for a common cause. In "The Gay Falcon" (1941), the first in a long-running mystery series starring George Sanders (and later Sanders' brother Tom Conway) as debonair sleuth Gay Lawrence, a.k.a. the Falcon, Bey filled the wing-tips of a Mexican jewel thief. On loan-out to RKO, he added a layer of menace to his normally passive-aggressive character traits as the thuggish Manuel Retana, who perishes on the business end of a hypodermic hot shot. Bey would pop up as a phony psychic in "The Falcon Takes Over" (1942), in which his shady character also fails to survive to the final curtain.
Back at Universal, Bey played henchman roles in the Ray Taylor-Lewis D. Collins serial "Junior G-Men of the Air" (1942) and in Christy Cabanne's "Drums of the Congo" (1942), and was an Axis thug in "Unseen Enemy" (1942), directed by John Rawlins. He was given a meatier role in Harold Young's "The Mummy's Tomb" (1942), the second sequel to Karl Freund's "The Mummy" (1932), which had starred Boris Karloff as an undead ancient Egyptian running up a death toll in modern Cairo. Set 30 years after the events of "The Mummy" and its first sequel, "The Mummy's Tomb" featured a sixth-billed Bey as a villainous High Priest of Karnak charged with bringing the linen-wrapped by Lon Chaney, Jr. to America to fulfill the Pharaoh's curse. The script by Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher was surprisingly grim for its time, killing off the returning protagonists of the light-hearted "The Mummy's Hand" (1940) before its fiery fade-out. However dastardly, Bey's character revealed a decidedly romantic nature, which hinted at the actor's future assignments.
After playing a minor but flashy part in John Rawlins' Technicolor "Arabian Nights" (1942), in support of stars Sabu, Jon Hall and Maria Montez, Bey found himself in greater demand for roles that laced his natural exoticism with athleticism and sex appeal. He reteamed with Sabu, Hall and Montez for "White Savage" (1943), playing the doomed brother of Montez's South Seas princess for his old mentor Arthur Lubin, and was American agent George Raft's trusty Turkish sidekick in "Background to Danger" (1943) at Warner Brothers. In Universal's "The Mad Ghoul" (1943) and "The Climax" (1944), Bey enjoyed higher billing in dapper leading man mode, even trying his hand at comic relief in the latter. On loan-out to MGM, he made his only A-list feature opposite Katherine Hepburn in "Dragon Seed" (1944), based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck. During shooting, Bey was linked romantically with Lana Turner, which made the actor a recurring name in the gossip columns, where he was dubbed The Turkish Delight.
In Lubin's "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" (1944), Bey was the loyal slave of Maria Montez's Arabian princess and the climactic savior of Jon Hall's Ali Baba; in John Rawlins' "Sudan" (1945), he was a dashing rebel leader who falls for Montez's spirited Egyptian princess. In George Waggner's San Francisco-set western "Frisco Sal" (1945), a top-billed Bey enjoyed a proper leading man role as Dude Forante, a stylish Barbary Coast saloon owner who comes to the rescue of imperiled New Englander Suzanna Foster. Bey was top-billed again as the legendary slave-turned-storyteller Aesop in Lubin's Technicolor fable "Night in Paradise" (1946), for whom he was paired with Merle Oberon. Although his casting in a dual role might have seemed at the outset the crowning achievement of his rise to leading man status, Bey spent much of the film in unflattering Jack P. Pierce makeup. The film's disastrous reception at the box office tarnished Bey's celebrity luster. In 1948, the Warner Brothers Loony Tunes animated short "A-Lad-In His Lamp" landed a jab at the actor, with a genie-propelled Bugs Bunny flying above a Bagdad marked by bodies of water labeled Veronica Lake and Turhan Bay.
After he returned from military service, Bey found Universal in the hands of new investors who had little use for the contract player's personal style. Refusing assignments that he felt were not right for him, Bey was put on suspension by the new owners, who ultimately sold his contract to the independent studio Eagle-Lion. Although the move to Eagle-Lion was a step down in prestige by industry standards, Bey enjoyed one of the best roles of his career as "The Amazing Mr. X" (1948), a charismatic but bogus spiritualist who becomes embroiled in a murder-for-profit scheme. Bey pulled the strings in Alfred Zeisler's Poverty Row production "Parole, Inc." (1948), as a crime boss securing early releases for convicts in his employ, but his character is denied a proper comeuppance in the film's conclusion. When he was reteamed with his "The Mad Ghoul" co-star Evelyn Ankers, Bey received preferential treatment on the film's theatrical poster. In Albert Rogell's "Song of India" (1949) at Columbia, he played the turbaned antagonist of jungle lovers Sabu and Gail Russell and met his death between the claws of a rogue tiger.
Bey's final Hollywood film was the economy costumer "Prisoners of the Casbah" (1953), which he made at Columbia after a three-year hiatus in Europe handling family matters. The Sam Katzman production put Bey in a romantic clinch with rising star Gloria Grahame, cast as a tempestuous Algerian princess. After completion of the film, Bey made the decision to forsake Hollywood for his Austrian homeland. In Vienna, he produced the English language thriller "Stolen Identity" (1953) but thereafter forsook moving pictures for a secondary love of still photography. A periodic visitor to Hollywood during his 40-year absence, Bey made a professional comeback in his seventies, lending gravitas to episodes of such TV series as "SeaQuest DSV" (NBC, 1993-96), "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996) and "Babylon 5" (The WB, 1994-98). His last file role was in the youth-oriented "Skateboard Kid II" (1995), as an angel who gives the film's preteen hero a flying skateboard - a nod to the magic carpet fantasies that once made Turhan Bey internationally famous. Having outlived virtually all his Golden Age movie star peers, Bey died on Sept. 30, 2012 in the Austrian capital of Luxembourg after a long struggle with Parkinson's disease. He was 90 years old.
By Richard Harland Smith
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