A handsome and often tragic leading man in features during the 1950s, Mel Ferrer rose to fame as the dashing star of "Scaramouche" (1952), "Lili" (1953), "War and Peace" (1956) and "The Sun Also Rises" (1957). But Ferrer's true passion was behind the scenes, and he directed several features, including "Vendetta" (1950) and "Every Day is a Holiday" (1965) while scoring a professional triumph with 1967's "Wait Until Dark," which starred his wife, Audrey Hepburn. Ferrer was unable to parlay the film's success into more projects, and after a health setback following his divorce from Hepburn in 1968, settled into a steady diet of television guest appearances and turns in European features, including several crass horror and exploitation titles. One of Hollywood's most reluctant stars, Mel Ferrer's early roles, buoyed by his dignified carriage and soulful looks, kept him a filmgoer favorite long after his own career had come to an end.
Born Melchor Gastón Ferrer on Aug. 25, 1917, he was of Spanish and Irish descent. His father, Dr. José Maria Ferrer, was chief of staff of St. Vincent's Hospital in New York City, while his mother, Mary O'Donohue, was the daughter of coffee magnate and New York City Commissioner of Parks Joseph J. O'Donohue, an outspoken opponent of Prohibition. Contrary to popular belief, Ferrer was not related to actor José Ferrer; his three siblings included Dr. M. Irené Ferrer, a cardiologist who made significant contributions to the development of the electrocardiogram, and Teresa Ferrer, the religion editor of the New York Herald Tribune.
Ferrer was privately educated at the Bovée School in New York City and Canterbury Prep School in Connecticut, and spent summers in regional theater before heading to Princeton University. After winning the university's Theatre Intime Award for his play "Awhile to Work," Ferrer dropped out in his sophomore year to pursue acting as a career. He made his Broadway debut as a chorus dancer in 1938's "You Never Know," and supported himself between shows as a newspaper editor in Vermont while penning a children's novel, Tito's Hats. In 1940, he made his professional stage debut in "Kind Lady," but a bout with polio forced him to put his career on hold for a year. After his recovery, Ferrer worked as a disc jockey and relocated for a time to Mexico to work on a novel.
In 1944, he moved to Hollywood, where he worked as a dialogue coach on several B-pictures before making his debut as a director on "Girl of the Limberlost" (1945), a low-budget adaptation of the popular novel by Gene Stratton-Porter. For the next few years, Ferrer moved between acting assignments, directing for the stage and working behind the camera. In 1946, he directed José Ferrer in his triumphant Broadway run as "Cyrano de Bergerac" before returning to California to serve as John Ford's assistant on "The Fugitive" (1947). He made an unbilled appearance in that film as a priest, but would wait three more years before landing his first substantial screen role in "Lost Boundaries" (1949) as a black doctor who posed as a Caucasian. Acting soon overtook his career ambitions, and by 1951, he was a bona fide movie star in such thrilling adventure-romances as "The Brave Bulls" (1951), as a conflicted Mexican matador, and "Scaramouche" (1952), which featured an eight-minute fencing duel between Ferrer's villainous Marquis and Stewart Granger's dashing hero. In 1953, he warmed many a moviegoer's heart as the physically and emotionally crippled puppeteer whose icy veneer is melted by Leslie Caron in "Lili" (1953). The film even generated a Top 40 hit for Ferrer with "Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo," a duet with Caron that reached No. 30 on the pop charts.
However, Ferrer professed in interviews an intense dislike for acting and his preference for behind-the-scenes work, but the success of his movie career kept him in front of the camera for another decade. He continued to direct films during this period, but the work was frequently fraught with trouble. He was brought in to complete Howard Hughes expensive vanity project, "Vendetta" (1950) after the producer had fired both Max Ophuls and Stuart Heisler. His subsequent work in the decade, including the noir classics "The Rack" (1951) and "Macao" (1952), was uncredited.
In 1954, he appeared opposite a young actress named Audrey Hepburn in the Broadway production of "Ondine." The co-stars soon became a couple and were married that same year. In 1956, they co-starred in King Vidor's epic screen version of "War and Peace," with Ferrer as Prince Andrei, who loses Hepburn's Natasha to Count Pierre (Henry Fonda). Offscreen, their marriage was fraught with challenges, including the loss of two children through miscarriage, and accusations in the press that Ferrer was exerting a Svengali-like influence over Hepburn's career, as evidenced by the disastrous "Green Mansions" (1959), Ferrer's adaptation of the 1904 novel about a jungle girl (Hepburn) and her romance with a young traveler (Anthony Perkins). The couple and their friends laughed off the latter allegation, noting that Hepburn's successful career was the primary force behind the marriage.
Ferrer's tenure as a top Hollywood actor wound down in the early 1960s. He played Ernest Hemingway's expatriate writer Robert Cohn in the 1957 film version of "The Sun Also Rises," then was third-billed as Harry Belafonte's rival for Inger Stevens amidst the ruins of civilization in the science fiction classic "The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959). The following year, he filmed "Blood and Roses" (1960), an elegant and erotic vampire film for Roger Vadim, and then enjoyed his last substantive part for decades as Major General Robert Haines in the World War II epic "The Longest Day" (1962). Ferrer balanced supporting roles in American and international productions like "The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964) and "Sex and the Single Girl" (1964) while directing episodes of the ABC sitcom "The Farmer's Daughter" (1963-66), which featured his "World" co-star, Inger Stevens, in the lead. In 1965, he directed a Spanish musical comedy, "Cabriola" ("Every Day is a Holiday") before traveling to Italy to make "El Greco" (1966), a lavish biopic of the influential Greek artist on which he also served as producer. The film was a disaster upon its release, but he would rebound the following year as producer of "Wait Until Dark" (1967), Terence Young's adaptation of the popular stage play about a blind woman hunted by a trio of criminals for drugs hidden in her apartment. Ferrer cast Hepburn as the lead, which earned her an Academy Award nomination. It would be their last significant professional and personal collaboration; after years of divergent careers and schedules, Ferrer and Hepburn divorced in 1968.
Ferrer suffered a further setback in 1968 when he was stricken with a debilitating heart attack, which forced him to curtail his screen career for several years. He returned to show business in the early 1970s, producing a pair of little-seen features - the 1972 spy film "Embassy" with Richard Roundtree, and the thriller "W" (1974) with Twiggy - before settling into supporting turns on episodic television and in the occasional Hollywood feature, like the John Wayne vehicle "Brannigan" (1975) as a crooked European lawyer trailed by Wayne's American cop. The late 1970s saw Ferrer descend into low-budget exploitation on both sides of the Atlantic, including Tobe Hooper's grisly "Eaten Alive" (1977) and the appalling "Guyana: Cult of the Damned" (1980), among others. He rebounded, after a fashion, to play Jane Wyman's attorney and subsequent husband on "Falcon Crest" (CBS, 1981-1990), and even directed an episode of the series.
Ferrer continued to work in American television, throughout the 1980s, contributing small but significant turns in miniseries like the Emmy-winning "Peter the Great" (NBC, 1986) as Frederick I, King of Prussia, and "Dream West" (CBS, 1986), a biopic of adventurer John C. Fremont. He made his final screen appearance in "Catherine the Great" (A&E, 1995) before retiring to his home, a ranch in Carpinteria, CA. Failing health forced him to move to a convalescent home in Santa Barbara in 2008, where he died of heart failure on June 2 of that year.