Anthony Steel (actor)

Anthony Maitland Steel (21 May 1920 – 21 March 2001)[1] was an English actor and singer best known for his appearances in British war films of the 1950s such as The Wooden Horse (1950), and his marriage to Anita Ekberg. He was described as "a glorious throwback to the Golden Age of Empire... the perfect imperial actor, born out of his time, blue-eyed, square-jawed, clean-cut."[2] As another writer put it, "whenever a chunky dependable hero was required to portray grace under pressure in wartime or the concerns of a game warden in a remote corner of the empire, Steel was sure to be called upon."[3]

Anthony Steel
Anthony Maitland Steel

(1920-05-21)21 May 1920
Died21 March 2001(2001-03-21) (aged 80)
Northwood, Middlesex, England, UK
OccupationActor, singer
Years active1948–1998
Juanita Forbes
(m. 1949; div. 1954)

Anita Ekberg
(m. 1956; div. 1959)

Johanna Melcher
(m. 1964)
Partner(s)Ann Hanson


Early life

Anthony Steel was born in Chelsea, the son of an Indian army officer, Edward (1897-1965), who later became an actor himself.[4] Steel spent most of his early childhood in India (in Lahore) and was educated at Alexander House Prep School, Broadstairs, Kent until he was fourteen. He continued his studies at home with a tutor before attending Trinity College, Cambridge. [5]

War service

Steel had only completed a year at Cambridge when the Second World War broke out. He enlisted in the Grenadier Guards aged 18 and was evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940. He received a commission and served in the Middle East where he was badly injured on patrol. He trained as a parachutist, and made nine operational jumps.[6] He finished the war with the rank of major.[7]


On demobilisation Steel decided to become an actor. For a time he worked with a pick and shovel at Clapham Junction for £6 a week.[7] He began to get some parts on stage, including appearing opposite Margaret Lockwood in Roses for Her Pillow, a stage version of the film Once Upon a Dream which was being given a special performance by Rank contract artists. He was dating a niece of J. Arthur Rank who introduced Steel to her uncle at a party. Rank subsequently signed the actor to a long-term contract with his company.[8][9]

Early Rank years

Steel was trained at Rank's "charm school" and given a slow buildup with small parts in several films, starting with Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948).[10] He also appeared in A Piece of Cake (1948), Portrait from Life (1948), Once Upon a Dream (1949), Marry Me! (1949), Quartet (1948), The Blue Lamp (1949), Trottie True (1949), Poet's Pub (1949), Don't Ever Leave Me (1949), Helter Skelter (1949), Christopher Columbus (1949), and The Chiltern Hundreds (1949). He also acted on stage in repertory at Aldershot and Worthington.[11]

He tested unsuccessfully for a part in Walt Disney's Treasure Island (1950).[12]


Steel's roles up until then had been essentially bit parts. His first big break was being cast as one of three British POWs who escape from a camp in The Wooden Horse (1950). This film, based on a true story, was the third most popular film at the British box office in 1950 and established Steel as a leading man.[13] Director Jack Lee said that the actor "was fine to work with, just a physical type, a young chap who could do certain things, though he didn't have much acting to do in this."[8] He was paid £15 a week. "[Co star] Leo Genn was getting thousands," Steel recalled. "It made me pretty mad."[7]

Steel was cast as the romantic male lead in The Mudlark (1950), a Hollywood film starring Irene Dunne being shot in London. He had a small part in the comedy Laughter in Paradise (1951) then supported another Hollywood name, Bette Davis in the thriller, Another Man's Poison (1951).

Steel's next big break was being cast as a game park warden inspired by Mervyn Cowie in Where No Vultures Fly (1951), shot mostly on location in Kenya. This was the most popular British movie of the year and the Royal Command Performance Film for 1951, confirming Steel's status as a genuine box office draw.[14] In 1952 British exhibitors voted him the fourth most popular British star[15] and he was seen as the successor to Stewart Granger.[16]

He co-starred with Jack Warner in a thriller directed by Lewis Gilbert, Emergency Call (1952). Rank tried Steel in a comedy, Something Money Can't Buy (1952), with Patricia Roc but the public response was not enthusiastic. They put him back in uniform in The Planter's Wife (1952), set during the Malayan Emergency. It was the sixth most popular film of 1952 in Britain, although Steel's part was a relatively minor one in support of Jack Hawkins and Claudette Colbert.

He again supported two stars in a military story when he appeared in Malta Story (1953), with Hawkins and Alec Guinness. It was the fourth most popular film of the year in Britain in 1953. Hollywood called in the form of Warner Bros, who cast him in support of Errol Flynn in the British-shot swashbuckler The Master of Ballantrae (1953); it was a minor success.

Also moderately popular was Albert R.N. (1952), reuniting Steel with Jack Warner and Lewis Gilbert in another World War Two POW film. He starred in a sequel to Where No Vultures Fly, West of Zanzibar (1954). It was not as successful as the first movie although Steel had an unexpected hit record when he recorded a version of the title track.

The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) was another war film from Gilbert, co-starring Dirk Bogarde and Michael Redgrave. Out of the Clouds (1955) was an ensemble movie set at London airport, not as well received as Steel's war movies.

In 1954 Steel and Dirk Bogarde were the highest paid actors with the Rank Organisation[8] with a reported salary of £15,000 a film.[7] Still, he was not happy with his roles. "In America, they build their male stars by starring them opposite exciting women," he said. "What do they give me? Elephants, crocodiles and giraffes." However, in Passage Home he was cast opposite Diane Cilento. "At last I can prove that I have blood in my veins and can make love to a woman," said Steel. "You know how the public identify themselves with the stars. Well, they think that an actor who gets the girl all the time — especially if she is very glamorous — must really have something."[7]

He was given the starring part in Storm Over the Nile (1956), an almost shot-for-shot remake of The Four Feathers (1939) but a solid hit in Britain. The Black Tent (1956) was another war movie, set in Northern Africa during World War Two. Checkpoint (1956) was a change of pace, a racing-car thriller partly shot in Italy for director Ralph Thomas.

Move to Hollywood

In 1956 Steel married Swedish actress Anita Ekberg and together they moved to Hollywood, with mixed results. He broke his contract with the Rank Organisation – for whom he was meant to star in The Secret Place (1957)[17] – received bad publicity for fighting with Ekberg and attacking paparazzi, and was arrested twice for drunk driving.[18][19][20] During his time in Hollywood he appeared in one film, the little-seen Valerie (1957). It was announced he would be in a film to be made in Spain, Tetuan, but this did not come to fruition.[21]

Career decline

Steel returned to Britain but was unable to regain his earlier popularity. He had the lead in a courtroom drama, A Question of Adultery (1958), and supported Stewart Granger in a Hollywood-financed adventure tale shot partly in India, Harry Black (1958).

He appeared in a film directed by Michael Powell, Honeymoon (1959), but it was one of Powell's least known works. John Davis, head of the Rank Organisation was known to be furious about Steel having left the company earlier after the support they had given him, and this was thought to have harmed his chances at reviving his career. Steel was also hurt that the sort of war films in which he had made his name were going out of fashion.[8][22]

In 1960 Steel went missing for a week from a luxury hotel in Germany, leading to a two-nation search.[23] He later turned up in Rome, claiming he had just gone there to discuss another film.[24]

In 1960 Steel moved to Rome and lived there for the next decade. He starred off appearing - like many fading stars - in a peplum, Revenge of the Barbarians (1960) - and a swashbuckler, Tiger of the Seven Seas (1962). His roles grew smaller and less prestigious, such as appearing as Sir Stephen in the Just Jaeckin film adaptation of Story of O (1975).

Return to Britain

By the 1970s he had returned to Britain where he appeared in TV shows such as Bergerac, The Professionals, Robin of Sherwood and Crossroads. He made stage tours in the 1980s and his last role was in Cinderella, a pantomime at Birmingham's Alex Theatre in 1989. He lived for a number of years in a tiny flat in Northolt, west London. His then agent, David Daly, said that:

He was a very private man. He just decided that he would withdraw. He found a place to live and simply went into hiding. In some ways, it was not unlike him; if he decided that things weren't right, he would withdraw into himself and not contact anybody.[14]

In 1995 John Mills tried to rehouse him through the Actors Benevolent Fund but Steel refused. Steel told a journalist in 1997:

This is a very difficult time for me. You can see that by where I'm living. I know a lot of people are trying to find out where I am, but to be honest that's how I want it. I want to be left alone. I don't want to see any of my old friends from my old life. I've been quite ill lately and it's too much for me to go back to it all now.Of course I have regrets, but there is nothing anyone can do to change the past. I just want to get on with it.[25]

Daly arranged for him to stay at Denville Hall, a London retirement home for actors. Not long before he died he had a guest role in the TV series The Broker's Man.[14]


In 1954, Steel teamed up with the British vocal ensemble The Radio Revellers to record "West of Zanzibar". Released on the Polygon Records label, it peaked at No. 11 in the UK Singles Chart.[1]

Personal life

Steel was married three times:

  • Juanita Forbes (1949–1954)
  • Anita Ekberg (1956–1959)
  • Johanna Melcher (1964-his death)

Steel had an affair with actress Patricia Roc in 1952 while they were co-starring in Something Money Can't Buy, resulting in a son, Michael. Both Steel and Roc were married at the time, he to Juanita Forbes and she to André Thomas, but the latter was unable to have children, so Thomas agreed to bring up Michael as his own.[26]

Steel, then 35, was engaged to his secretary, Anne Hanson, age 20, in 1954.[27] They had one daughter, Penelope Steel.

His engagement and subsequent marriage to Ekberg was widely publicised at the time.[28][29] Ekberg later claimed he hit her:

When he wasn't drunk he was charming and cultured, intelligent, a sense of humour. Too bad he got on that road. He would start arguments with anybody after one drink too much and then he would get violent."[30]


Anthony Steel died from lung cancer in Northolt, Middlesex in 2001, aged 80.

Selected filmography

Unmade films

Box office ranking

At the height of his career, British exhibitors voted Steel among the most popular local stars in the country.

  • 1952 – 4th most popular British star[15]
  • 1953 – 10th most popular British star
  • 1954 – 7th most popular British star
  • 1956 – 6th most popular British star[33]

Selected theatre credits

  • Roses for Her Pillow
  • Turn to Page Two by Michael Clayton Hutton (1950) - Embassy Theatre[34]


  1. Roberts, David (2006). British Hit Singles & Albums (19th ed.). London: Guinness World Records Limited. p. 527. ISBN 1-904994-10-5.
  2. Richards, Jeffrey (1973). Visions of Yesterday. Routledge & Kegan Paul. p. 87. ISBN 978-0-71007-576-5.
  3. "Anthony Steel". The Times. 29 March 2001.
  4. "Edward Steel". IMDb. Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  5. Nepean, E. (1950, Jan 28). Round the british studios. Picture show, 54, 11. Retrieved from
  6. "Round the Studios: Anthony Steel in Malta film". The Mail. Adelaide. 22 November 1952. p. 7 Supplement: Sunday Magazine. Retrieved 7 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  7. "Mr. Steel Has "Had" Elephants!". The Newcastle Sun (11357). New South Wales, Australia. 9 December 1954. p. 34. Retrieved 25 February 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  8. Vallance, Tom (29 March 2001). "Anthony Steel Obituary". The Independent via
  9. Schallert, Edwin (19 April 1950). "Drama: Steel, Currie Selected for Roles in 'Mudlark'". The Los Angeles Times. p. B7.
  10. Nepean, E. (1953, Mar 28). Round the british studios. Picture show, 60, 11. Retrieved from
  11. The life story of ANTHONY STEEL. (1951, Dec 29). Picture show, 57, 12. Retrieved from
  12. Kisch, Dick (7 August 1949). "Hear Him Sing". The Sunday Times (2685). Perth, Western Australia. p. 3 (Sunday Times Comics). Retrieved 25 February 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  13. "Best-seller "The Wooden Horse" comes to screen". The Australian Women's Weekly. 4 February 1950. p. 36. Retrieved 7 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  14. Barker, Dennis (26 March 2001). "Anthony Steel Obituary". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 21 February 2012.
  15. "Comedian Tops Film Poll". The Sunday Herald. Sydney. 28 December 1952. p. 4. Retrieved 24 April 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  16. Schallert, Edwin (5 July 1952). "Drama: Anthony Steel Enacts Brother in 'Ballantrae'". The Los Angeles Times. p. A7.
  17. "All the Actors in Tony Crawley's Casting Calls". Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  18. "We will hang 10,000 rebels, says red boss". The Argus. Melbourne. 18 December 1956. p. 2. Retrieved 7 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  19. "Mate of Anita Ekberg held as drunk driver". The Los Angeles Times. 6 December 1956. p. 3.
  20. "Donald Zec says his farewell to the bore with the bust". The Argus (Melbourne). Victoria, Australia. 17 November 1956. p. 17. Retrieved 25 February 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  21. Schallert, Edwin (23 August 1957). "Anthony Steel Films Announced; Two Stars Set for Science Pacts". The Los Angeles Times. p. B7.
  22. "Obituary: Anthony Steel". The Daily Telegraph. 23 March 2001. Retrieved 27 March 2017.
  23. "News In Brief". The Canberra Times. 34 (9577). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 16 April 1960. p. 3. Retrieved 25 February 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  24. "Actor seeks reconciliation with ex-wife". The Canberra Times. 34 (9578). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 18 April 1960. p. 3. Retrieved 25 February 2016 via National Library of Australia.
  25. Hewett, Rick; House, Paul (13 April 1997). "The Lost Action Hero". Sunday Mirror. p. 16.
  26. "Patricia Roc". The Times. 31 December 2003. p. 31.
  27. "Film star to marry secretary". The Newcastle Sun. NSW. 6 September 1954. p. 12. Retrieved 13 January 2015 via National Library of Australia.
  28. "Hollywood Films and their Stars". The Mirror. Perth. 21 April 1956. p. 11. Retrieved 7 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  29. "Cold shoulder for the groom!". The Argus. Melbourne. 24 May 1956. p. 2. Retrieved 7 May 2012 via National Library of Australia.
  30. Billen, Andrew (18 April 2006). "Not so dolce, but a true diva". The Times. London. p. 8 via The Times Digital Archive.
  31. Schallert, Edwin (24 September 1953). "Drama: Steel 'Vendetta' Star; Blackmer in U-I Deal; Katzman Slate Crowded". The Los Angeles Times. p. A11.
  32. Parsons, Louella (29 May 1956). "Anita Mixes Honeymoon and Business". The Washington Post and Times-Herald. p. 27.
  33. "The Most Popular Film Star In Britain." The Times, 7 December 1956, p. 3
  34. "Our London Correspondence: Mr. Douglas's Successor". The Manchester Guardian. 28 September 1950. p. 4.
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