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.

Max Von Sydow dies at 90

Max Von Sydow in Never Say Never Again

Max Von Sydow, who played the good (Jesus Christ), the bad (Ernst Stavro Blofeld) and everything in-between, dies Sunday at 90, according to the BBC.

Obituaries noted Von Sydow’s 11 films with director Ingmar Bergman. One was The Seventh Seal where Von Sydow’s character plays chess with death.

He came to Hollywood. He played Christ in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, a big financial flop for United Artists. The supporting cast included actors such as David McCallum (as Judas), Donald Pleasance (as Satan, not long before playing Blofeld in You Only Live Twice), Telly Savalas (another future Blofeld), David Hedison and Martin Landau

Von Sydow often was called upon to play villains. Examples: Three Days of the Condor (1975), Flash Gordon (1980) and Never Say Never Again (1983) where he got his turn as Blofeld. The latter was not part of the Eon Productions series of James Bond films. It featured Sean Connery’s return to the role of Bond after 12 years.

The actor was the subject of tributes on social media.

“Max Von Sydow, such an iconic presence in cinema for seven decades, it seemed like he’d always be with us,” director Edgar Wright wrote on Twitter. “He changed the face of international film with Bergman, played Christ, fought the devil, pressed the HOT HAIL button & was Oscar nominated for a silent performance. A god.”

Actress Mia Farrow tweeted a photo of Von Sydow with cinematographer Sven Nykvist.

“Two great artists. Two true gentlemen,” she wrote. “I picture Max in heaven wearing his white linen suit, w Sven, Ingmar Bergman, Bibi Andersson, laughing & loving each other.”

Von Sydow’s IMDB.COM ENTRY lists 163 acting credits going back to 1949.

The official 007 Blofeld survey and the options not listed

Max Von Sydow

Max Von Sydow

When you have a long break between films, you need to engage the fans somehow.

So the official James Bond account on Twitter asked, “Who is your favourite Blofeld?”

However, given the weird history about Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s film rights, this question is more complicated, with some options understandably not listed.

The four choices are the Blofeld actors whose face could be seen onscreen in movies made by Eon Productions: Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice), Telly Savalas (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Charles Gray (misspelled Grey, at least when the tweet first went up, in Diamonds Are Forever) and Christoph Waltz (SPECTRE).

Not making the cut are the combination of Anthony Dawson (body) and Eric Pohlman (voice), used in From Russia With Love and Thunderball. On screen, we never see Blofeld’s face. The dialogue only refers to “Number One,” although the From Russia With Love end titles list “Ernst Blofeld” followed by a question mark in the cast of characters.

This version of Blofeld also dresses different than the others, wearing a suit and not the Nehru jacket-style top of the other four.

Also not listed is the stuntman (body) and Robert Rietty (voice) in the pre-titles sequence of For Your Eyes Only. Last year, the official 007 website carried a press release promoting a re-release of Bond movies featuring SPECTRE. The list included For Eyes Only. The villain in the pre-titles sequence was the only trace of SPECTRE in the movie.

At the time Eyes came out, the rights to Blofeld were in dispute and officially the character in the pre-titles sequence wasn’t Blofeld. In 2013, a settlement was reached with the estate of Kevin McClory, finally bringing Blofeld back into the Eon fold.

Finally, and most significantly, there’s Max Von Sydow, who played Blofeld in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, the McClory-Jack Schwartzman remake of Thunderball. It, of course, is not part of the Eon series and there’s no way the 007 Twitter account would include Von Sydow.

Still, Von Sydow is a great actor and his casting was a major plus for the movie. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get that much screen time. Von Sydow’s Blofeld does have a cat (like Eon’s Blofelds) but wears a suit.

The tweet about Blofeld is embedded below. Click on it to see the complete image.

UPDATE (10:10 p.m. New York time): Over on the official James Bond Facebook page, that version of the post does include the Dawson-Pohlman duo.

It should be noted that you can’t actually cast a ballot either on Twitter or Facebook.

Some 007-Star Wars connections over the years

Poster for the original Star Wars in 1977

Poster for the original Star Wars in 1977

Something trending on social media on Friday was whether James Bond actor Daniel Craig appears as a storm trooper in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as reported in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY. Some fans say it sounds as if Craig did the role, but at least one entertainment journalist who occasionally reads the blog says it’s not.

Regardless, there are a number of ties between the Star Wars and 007 film series. That’s not a surprise because Star Wars movies are produced at London’s Pinewood Studios, the home base for most 007 films.

What follows are some of the major connections, though it’s not intended as a comprehensive list. To streamline things, this post shortens the Star Wars titles to take out the various chapter numbers.

John Stears: The special effects guru for the early 007 films traded Walther PPKs for light sabers when he was part of the special effects crew for the original 1977 Star Wars film.

Stears shared an Oscar (with John Dykstra, Richard Edlund, Grant McCune and Robert Blalack) for special effects for his work on that movie. It was Stears’ second Oscar. He won the special effects Oscar for 1965’s Thunderball.

Irvin Kershner: The American-born director helmed the second Star Wars epic, The Empire Strikes Back, considered by some fans and critics as the best Star Wars film. In that 1980 film, things got complicated when it was revealed Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father.

The director’s next project was 1983’s Never Say Never Again, a Bond film not part of the series produced by Eon Productions. Its main asset was Sean Connery’s final movie as 007. The director had a relationship with the actor, having directed him in 1966’s A Fine Madness.

Alan Hume: Hume photographed three 007 films in the 1980s — For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View to a Kill. Between assignments for Bond, he was director of photography of Return of the Jedi. In the summer of 1983, his Bond and Star Wars work could be viewed essentially as the same time when Return and Octopussy were in theaters.

Anthony Waye: He was an assistant director on Star Wars. In the 1980s, he started out doing similar duties on Bond and worked his way up to associate producer (on GoldenEye), line producer (on Tomorrow Never Dies and The World Is Not Enough) and executive producer (Die Another Day, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace).

Julian Glover: The actor was a minor villain in The Empire Strike Backs and the lead villain in For Your Eyes Only.

Alf Joint, Paul Weston (and who knows how many other stunt performers): Joint’s most famous 007 stunt work was in the pre-credits sequence of Goldfinger, but he also did Star Wars movies. Weston did as well and with Bond worked his way up to stunt supervisor in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill.

Christopher Lee: The British actor and relative of Ian Fleming was the title character in 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun. In 2002 (in Attack of the Clones) and 2005 (Revenge of the Sith), he appears as a villain (though very briefly in the latter film).

Max Von Sydow: The actor played Blofeld in Never Say Never Again and has a small role in The Force Awakens.

Chris Corbould: Part of the special effects crews of numerous Bond films going back to the 1980s, including this year’s SPECTRE. He’s also credited with special effects for The Force Awakens.