No movie has ever generated as many headlines as 1963’s “Cleopatra’’ — because of the scandalous affair between stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Taylor’s brush with death and a runaway budget that nearly put Twentieth Century Fox out of business.
With a gorgeously restored version of the historical epic returning to theaters Wednesday for a six-day run, ahead of its Blu-ray debut May 28, here are 15 things you probably didn’t know about one of the most notorious movie epics of all time:
1. “Cleopatra’’ was originally envisioned as a modest $2 million production — about $15 million today — to be shot in Hollywood and starring Joanne Woodward or Joan Collins.
3. After Alfred Hitchcock turned it down, director Rouben Mamoulian began shooting in England in September 1960, with Peter Finch and Stephen Boyd as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony — delayed by cold and rainy weather.
4. Taylor was unable to go before the cameras at all during the 10 weeks “Cleopatra’’ shot in England. She developed pneumonia, which worsened to the point where a tracheotomy had to be performed to save her life in March 1961.
5. Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar for “Butterfield 8’’ a month later. Most film historians believe she won because of her brush with death, not her performance.
6. After the studio refused its insurance company’s suggestion that Taylor be replaced by Marilyn Monroe, the film was shut down. Mamoulian resigned, and Fox paid off Finch and Boyd, who had other commitments.
7. Production resumed in Rome, in September 1961, under writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Because he had completed only half the script, actors needed for a few days were carried on the payroll for months.
8. Rex Harrison stepped in as Caesar and Fox signed Richard Burton, then appearing on Broadway in “Camelot,’’ as their Antony — paying an additional $250,000 to the musical’s producers to buy out Burton’s contract.
9. According to producer Wanger’s forthcoming tell-all book, “My Life With Cleopatra,’’ paparazzi bribed the staff of the Italian villa where Taylor stayed with husband Eddie Fisher and three of her children during the shoot. They camped out in the trees outside.
10. Fox president Sypros Skouras, embroiled in a power struggle with angry shareholders, instructed bookkeepers to minimize the film’s soaring costs — which skyrocketed to more than $70,000 per day.
11. Taylor — who touched off a Hollywood scandal when she fell in love with husband Fisher, then wed to Debbie Reynolds — made the headlines again when she was photographed canoodling with co-star Burton, who was also married.
12. Burton and Taylor’s affair was officially condemned by the Vatican. Fisher returned to the United States, where he was reported (erroneously) to have suffered a nervous breakdown. Costs continued to mount, and Wanger was forced out as producer.
13. Skouras lost control of Fox to founder Darryl F. Zanuck, who fired Mankiewicz as soon as filming wrapped, but brought him back when Zanuck couldn’t figure out how to edit the miles of footage.
14. The director proposed releasing “Cleopatra’’ as a two-part, six-hour film. But Zanuck worried that audiences were mostly interested in seeing Taylor with her lover Burton, who has only seven minutes in the first part of the movie. It debuted at four hours, plus an intermission, and was then cut by about 45 minutes for its general release.
15. “Cleopatra’’ was a box-office hit, but not big enough to cover a final budget cost of $60 million — about $440 million today. It finally made a profit in 1965, when ABC bought the rights for two TV showings for a then-record $5 million.
So, who of you have watched all 4 hours of fabulosity?