1965: Jesus and the spy (actors)

Blu Ray cover for The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)

The death this week of actor Max Von Sydow was a reminder for the blog of a Biblical film that highlighted actors from the 1960s spy craze.

The movie was The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), about the life of Jesus Christ, played by Von Sydow.

The movie was years in the making. The writing of the script alone took about two years. Filming occurred in 1962 and 1963.

The producer-director was George Stevens (1904-1975). Over the years he had helmed movies such as Gunga Din (1939), I Remember Mama (1948), A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953) and Giant (1956).

With the release of 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, Stevens was at the height of his powers. The film was both a popular and critical hit, winning three Oscars and nominated for five more.

For his next project, Stevens opted to tackle the story of Jesus. The film originated at 20th Century Fox (which had released The Diary of Anne Frank) but ended up at United Artists.

Major stars wanted to be part of the project. John Wayne got one line as a Roman centurion (“Truly this man was the son of God.”). Charlton Heston (as John the Baptist), Sidney Poitier, Jose Ferrer, Claude Rains, Dorothy McGuire (as the Virgin Mary), Shelly Winters and Ed Wynn were in the cast.

And then there was the future spy actor contingent.

There were three future Blofeld actors — Von Sydow (Never Say Never Again), Donald Pleasance (You Only Live Twice) and Telly Savalas (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The latter shaved his head for the role of Pontius Pilate, a look he’d keep until the end of his life.

There was one Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum as Judas), one future Felix Leiter (David Hedison) and one future Rollin Hand (Martin Landau). In a 2007 extra for a home video release of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn told McCallum that he, too, had sought the Judas role that McCallum won.

Also present: Victor Buono, who screenwriter Richard Maibaum had recommended to play Goldfinger. Buono had his share of work during the 1960s spy craze in The Silencers, The Wild Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy.

The Greatest Story Ever Told had an actual tragedy. Director of photography William C. Mellor, who had worked with Stevens on other films, died of a heart attack during production.

The movie proved to be a flop. By the time it came out in early 1965, the market for such films had seemingly run its course. The movie was earnest and sincere. So was Ben-Hur (1959), but that project had also ship battles and the famous chariot race.

Stevens would direct only one more film, 1970’s The Only Game in Town.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was nominated for five Oscars, including special visual effects. It lost out to another United Artists release.

One Response

  1. Wasn’t David McCallum’s hiring for MFU based on an agreement that he would be made available for additional work on TGSET if required?

    In reference to accepting the role of Judas, he believed it would be a pretty good way to generate more “film” which could be shopped around in terms of being considered for other roles. But the idea of doing a period piece wasn’t nearly as interesting as becoming the character of Illya Kuryakin! Good instinct!

    Nice Post, thank you for making an interesting connection between the genres!

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