Sunday, November 17, 2013

Flashback, November 1958: Power On-Set Death Turns Film Upside Down

A recent trip to the doctor’s office had left aging matinee idol Tyrone Power fearful of both his employability and his mortality. His silence about his condition smothered concerns about the first but could not avoid the second, as a fatal heart attack on November 15, 1958, during difficult location shooting in Spain for a Biblical epic became one of the most dramatic examples of how insurance affects financial—and, yes, even artistic—decisions related to filmmaking.

I have wanted to write this post for awhile, for several reasons:

1) Power has, increasingly over the years, impressed me as an example of someone who first found work in Hollywood largely because of his looks, but who broadened his range and was doing some of his best work before he died;

2    2) The actor was, like myself, of Irish descent, and appeared in several films with Irish characters;

      3) Through a relative who was involved in this line of work early in his career, I have become fascinated by how insurance plays an enormous role in the entertainment industry that most of the public know little if anything about. 

Only three months before his death, the 44-year-old Power appeared in a short film sponsored by the American Heart Association in which he warned about the dangers of overwork. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to follow his own advice. The longtime idol of Twentieth Century Fox had just partnered producer Ted Richmond to form Copa Productions, intending to make a half-dozen pictures outside the U.S. so he could set up a tax-free trust fund for the first child he was to have with his new, third wife. 

But the anxieties involved with entering a new marriage and planning for another family (he already had two daughters from marriage to ex-wife Linda Christian) were multiplied exponentially by shooting the blockbuster Solomon and Sheba on location in Madrid. During one sequence, for instance, a battle between the Israelis and the Egyptians, 12 horses were killed and many extras were transported to the hospital with assorted injuries. 

Power kept up an appearance of cheerfulness before the crew, but events began to take a toll on him. Chain smoking became his major means of calming his nerves. It was a major mistake. He couldn’t help himself, even though it was self-destructive. 

He already had family history telling against him (his father, Tyrone Power Sr., had also died of a heart attack—right in the arms of his 17-year-old son, in fact—during the making of a film), and a routine checkup eight months before had given him a bad fright: he had been asked to stay around longer than expected because of something found on the cardiogram, until he had been assured that it was the fault of the machine rather than himself. Rather than seeking a second opinion, Power told Christian, he preferred not to know the truth.

There was a good reason why: a grim diagnosis would have meant that Power would have been uninsurable. That would have at best greatly diminished his range of good roles and at worst could have rendered him unemployable. This was why it was such a big deal in 1964 when John Wayne, ignoring admonitions from his agent and closest advisers, announced that he had “licked the Big C” following cancer treatment.

By the mid-1950s, Power’s strikingly handsome face showed increasing signs of aging. While he turned in marvelous performances in a couple of high-profile movies (Witness for the Prosecution and The Sun Also Rises), he looked too old for his roles. 

By early November 1958, his film colleagues began to notice disquieting signs of his mortality as well. While in a steam room at the end of a day’s shooting, he clutched his chest, before joking that it must have been the result of Spanish food. (Like much of the crew, he did experience dysentery during filming.) He looked puffy around the eyes from the long shooting and had fallen on ice on the Spanish studio set.

This was the background for the awful scene that occurred on the morning of the 15th. Accounts vary on the exact sequence of events, but in the midst of a sword fight with co-star George Sanders, Power stopped the action and said he wasn’t feeling well. Within an hour, he was dead.

With shooting completed on three-quarters of Solomon and Sheba, Hollywood executives decided to finish the film with Oscar winner Yul Brynner in Power’s role. (Long-range shots where Power’s likeness could not easily be seen were salvageable.) Production had to be suspended to allow for the recasting.

The projected $4 million budget had ballooned to $6 billion by the time the film (with Gina Lollobrigida as the female lead) was released in 1959, but considering what could have happened—i.e., cost-overruns on the scale of Cleopatra three years later—that wasn’t bad. When worldwide grosses were considered, nobody really lost out on the movie.

Still, few if any of the principals involved had anything good to say about the film afterward. A production already filled with numerous logistical challenges now confronted another difficulty: frequent tense face-offs between Brynner and director King Vidor, who disapproved of the different interpretation of the role by Power’s good friend. Brynner projected total, unwavering decisiveness, as if he were reprising his triumph in The King and I, whereas Power had sought to underscore the ancient Israeli king’s anguished conflict between piety and passion. 

The experience was unpleasant enough that Vidor didn’t even discuss the film in his memoir about his career. He had already made his feeling known, however, that with Power in the lead, they would have had "a simply marvelous picture," but the result with Brynner turned out to be "an unimportant, nothing sort of film."

The death of Power is one of the most dramatic examples of how an unexpected event can alter the course of a film. To avoid this kind of nightmare, film production companies need to obtain completion bonds required by financing institutions. Cast insurance is needed, particularly for a star regarded as integral to launching the movie. 

An actor's serious medical condition or death can delay a film, as in the case of Solomon and Sheba, or even shut it down for good, as happened with Alexander Korda's 1937 production of I, Claudius when reports of Merle Oberon's injury in a car accident were received. (Some have believed that the accident was faked, in an attempt to pull the plug on director Josef von Sternberg, who had allowed the film to become behind schedule and, hence, way over budget.) 

Sometimes, an actor’s substance abuse is so pronounced that directors become hard-pressed to employ him or her. Such was the case when Woody Allen wanted Robert Downey Jr. for Melinda and Melinda and, more recently, with Lindsay Lohan, whose producer on Liz and Dick sought not only special provisions related to her drug use but also to cover the risk of incarceration, as she was on probation at the time and risked jail time with another infraction.

In other cases, a medical condition that does not relate to substance abuse has played a role in how a film is shot. A knee injury to Nicole Kidman while shooting Moulin Rouge!, for instance, resulted in a $3 million insurance loss on that film—then, when she was forced to withdraw from Panic Room, Fireman’s Fund had to absorb $7 million for the actress replacing her, Jodie Foster.  As Edward Jay Epstein has noted, the insurance company then balked on her participation in Cold Mountain, until these conditions were met: a) Kidman had to place $1 million from her salary in an escrow fund to be paid out in case she failed to adhere to the production schedule; b) the co-producer, Lakeshore Entertainment, had to toss in another $500,000 in the account; c) Kidman had to use a stunt double whenever it was deemed a particular scene posed a risk to her knee.

The participation of Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  went a long way towards redeeming Stanley Kramer’s simplistic 1967 message movie, as he brought the cumulative goodwill bred by eight prior onscreen pairings with offscreen partner Katharine Hepburn. But he almost never appeared in the film because of several insurance companies’ concern that the 67-year-old actor, after years of epic drinking, would not survive the film’s shooting. 

Kramer and Hepburn could only win approval by agreeing to put their entire salaries in escrow in the event that Tracy had to be replaced. Filming was scheduled around the actor; he was done by noon each day to allow him enough time to rest. Even so, he barely made it, dying only two weeks after filming was concluded.

Other productions were not as fortunate as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?  The biggest bath taken by insurers in the last few decades was John Candy’s death while filming tĥe comedy Wagons West. The $15 million resulting payout became a stiff lesson for Firemen’s Fund, which thereafter sought to more closely monitor stars’ cardiovascular health. (Like Power, Candy had reached his mid-40s and chain-smoked; unlike Power, he was well over 300 pounds.)

More problematic, because the situation was more ambiguous, was Brainstorm, the movie that Natalie Wood was making at the time of her drowning death in November 1981. Despite the fact that almost all of her scenes were finished at the time of her death, director Douglas Trumbull found that he was now facing “the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.” Though he was eventually able to tweak her scenes enough to get the film released two years later, he felt he had become caught between the insurance company and MGM, then staring into the face of bankruptcy and hoping to use any insurance proceeds to stay alive.

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