May 25, 2011
Issue: 12.05
this is column number 75
e-mail me e-mail Brian
Hi Gang, and greetings from Hollywood!

Shalom, gang!

Here’s the second part of the series I’m calling “The Cleopatra Conspiracy”.

When I was ‘discovered’, I was a six year old kid in school. One of my school chums was the son of a talent scout for 20th Century Fox, who happened to see me and thought I was ‘adorable’ and would be perfect for the role of the prepubescent Caesarian in the film “Cleopatra.” I did a screen test and studio bigwigs agreed. I was signed and in a few months I was on a plane to Italy’s famed Cincenetta Studios. I had no idea really what was going on, but it sounded like fun.

By the time I arrived, I thought I’d walked onto some huge construction site, which wasn’t too far from the truth. This is before CGI was ever dreamed of, and sets were built to full scale, and augmented by special effect photography using paintings and miniatures. When the car arrived at Anzio beach, where the harbor city of Alexandria and Rome were being constructed, I entered a world that would change me forever.

Joe Mankeiwitz did everything not only big; but sturdy. The new exterior sets were built of reinforced concrete, enough to build three sports stadiums. Cleopatra’s golden barge, built to the specifications from Shaw, was enormous and sat on its sled ready for launching. Meanwhile, back at Cincenetta, sets were built that probably surpassed their real-life counterparts. Almost all the costumes from the original effort had been scrapped, except for a few of ElizabethTaylor’s gowns and some of the extras’ wardrobe. Idols and statues were overlaid in real blue-gold leaf, and props were made replicating in exquisite detail real items in the Cairo museum.

But Mankeiwitz too had cut his teeth in the old studio system, and keeping track of where the money was going was, to say the least, a challenge. Without the studio, in the old “assembly line” sense of the word, behind him he found it difficult to maintain order and control.

I was only supposed to be there for three weeks as I recall. But when we started to shoot the scene where Cleopatra rides into the Roman forum with me on a stool by her side, on a gigantic black sphinx, after only ten minutes, the director of photography stopped everything and insisted the lighting was all wrong, the shadows were all wrong and the whole of the scene had to be put off for six months until the sun was in a different place. In the old days, I’d have been sent home. Instead I was kept on, at 500 dollars a week with nothing to do. So, I just wandered around watching other scenes being shot and learning the business.

The script, meanwhile, was being written slowly, mostly by Mankeiwitz, and they began filming other scenes. While most films are shot one location at a time, Cleopatra had to be shot in sequence. Thousands of extras, their costumes and props, had to be transported back and forth to the various locales. Some say the film was costing up to 50 thousand dollars a day. But at least the cameras were rolling and Spyros P. Skouras had something to show the board; who liked what they saw.

While the original concept was based on the silent movie with Theda Barra, Mankeiwitz was inspired to his vision by George Bernard Shaw and so, he wanted to make two movies; “Caesar and Cleopatra” followed by “Antony and Cleopatra”. Therefore he was essentially shooting what would eventually be a six hour plus film.

Meanwhile, as is the case in any film with so many major stars, egos ran rampant. When Mankeiwitz tried to cut costs by cutting back on the transportation expenses, Rex Harrison threatened to walk off unless his car and chauffeur were returned to him immediately. Richard Burton’s scenes had to be completed before one in the afternoon when lunch was called. For Burton, ‘lunch’ meant a pitcher of martinis. Contrary to popular belief, Elizabeth Taylor was one of the few who remained professional throughout the whole misshegas.

The worst culprit so far as costs were concerned was the fact that Fox was on its last legs and pouring so much money into the production they had all but closed the Hollywood studio completely. It was rumored that executives at the studio were charging their hookers to the film, since there were no other movies to write the expense off to. Walter Wanger was oblivious to the costs, determined to make this the most spectacular film ever made. Skouras flew between Rome and New York weekly with the ‘rushes’ (film footage shot the day before) just to pacify the Fox Board of Directors that they were not only making the film at breakneck speed, but that it was sure-fire winner. In truth, there was nobody to account for the actual costs of the film, and so the final cost of, some say, forty million is probably exaggerated. Years later, Mankeiwitz told me it was probably closer to 30 million that actually went directly into the production.

Most of the time I was there, I spent just hanging around learning the ‘ropes’ except for the times Hume Cronin took some of us kids to his beach place for a couple of days, or when we’d go to Taylor’s villa to a birthday party for one of her kids. I had free access to any part of the production, and loved meandering around the incredible sets. I used to have a picture of me sitting on Rex Harrison's his lap. He is snoozing in a gilded throne, waiting for something to happen.

When we finally got around to shooting the entrance into Rome, the Italian actor’s union threw a wrench into the works, telling Mankeiwitz that he’d have to re-shoot part of the scene using an Italian actor in my role. Fortunately they hadn’t shot very much of the scene, and it wasn’t a big problem replacing me. They found a boy who could have passed for my twin, so much so that when I watch the film, I can’t be sure which of us is in which part of which scene.

But the worst was yet to come.
Till next month, Gang!

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