Michael Rennie (25 August 1909 – 10 June 1971) was an English-born film, television, and stage actor, perhaps best known for his starring role as the space visitor Klaatu in the classic science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). However, he also acted in more than 50 other films beginning in 1936. During the Second World War, Rennie served in the Royal Air Force. From 1959 onwards, Rennie also appeared in some American television series, in between acting in movies.
Eric Alexander Rennie was born in Idle near Bradford, West Riding of Yorkshire. He received his education at the Leys School, Cambridge. Rennie tried out a number of occupations, including periods as car salesman and as the 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 6' 4" tall show business hopeful, with chiseled facial features, first appeared onscreen in an uncredited bit part in the 1936 premiere of Sir Alfred Hitchcock's filmSecret Agent.
During the late 1930s, Rennie served his apprenticeship as an actor, gaining experience in 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, 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 on-camera sequence was so small that it cannot be discerned in the preserved final version of the film. He also played other bit parts, and 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, when Rennie was already in uniform, serving in the Royal Air Force.
Second World War
Shortly after the outbreak of war on 3 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 fully-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 it starred Wilfrid Lawson as a crazed Dutch lighthouse keeper in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, while the 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 officially discharged on 4 August 1942, and then on the following day, he was commissioned "for the emergency" as pilot officer number 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 discharged on disability, as the studio publicity stated).
Rennie had carried out his basic training near Torquay in Devon, after which he was sent to the United States for fighter pilot training under the Arnold Plan. In this programme, pilots for the RAF were trained by United States Army Air Forces instructors. One of his fellow students was RAF Sgt Jack Morton, who told a humorous anecdote while he and Rennie were in the same class:
"At the end of our primary course we were posted to a Basic Flying School at Cochran Field, Macon, Georgia. The class which completed the course at Cochran Field was now split up, half were posted to Napier Field, Dothan, Alabama, to train on single engine planes, and the remainder were posted to twin-engine schools. Like Cochran, Napier Field was a large permanent Air Corps Base and most of us were quite content to stay on the camp when we had time off. One of the cadets on our course had told us that he was a film actor, but no one took him seriously. We had to admit that he was right however when a film came to the camp cinema called "Ships with Wings" starring Michael Rennie."
British film star (1945–1950)
With the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, 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 fully-fledged love story. In the 47-minute episode "Sanatorium", the longest of the Somerset Maugham tales constituting the omnibus film Trio (1950), the 40-year-old Rennie and the 20-years-younger Jean Simmons play 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 can only expect a few more months of life. Simmons' character also faces a premature death within a couple of years.
Simmons would, in fact, turn out to be Rennie's most frequent co-star. Although they shared no scenes in their minor roles in Caesar and Cleopatra (1945), it was the first of their films together. They also appeared in two 20th Century-Fox epics. In 1953's The Robe and its 1954 sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Rennie played the Apostle Peter, while Simmons portrayed a Christian martyr. In the sequel, they were only briefly seen in a flashback. Their final shared film 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). Rennie's character, French Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, marries Désirée after Napoleon abandons her for Joséphine.
Rennie, along with 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, 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 received top billing in his next film, after Claude Rains turned down the role. 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. The story was dramatised in 1954 for Lux Radio Theatre, with Rennie and Billy Gray recreating their roles. Seven years later, on 3 March 1962, when The Day the Earth Stood Still had its television premiere on NBC's NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, 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 of 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 14 August 1952, was directed by All Quiet on the Western Front's Lewis Milestone. 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 inAlta California. The film was September 1955's Seven Cities of Gold, with Richard Egan and Anthony Quinn.
In 1953, he 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. His next film was the last under his five-year contract with 20th Century-Fox. The Rains of Ranchipur, released on 14 December 1955, assigned him fifth billing after the lead romantic teaming of Lana Turner and Richard Burton. As Turner's character's cuckolded husband, Lord Esketh, Rennie maintained his typical dignity and stiff upper lip.