The Actor with the 3-D Name
Interview by Michael Barnum
Video WatcHDog No. 143 Sept. 2008
Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most beautiful and famous women in films - and international headlines - at that time. What was your impression of her while working on CLEOPATRA?
I've got to tell you a funny story concerning Madame Taylor. The first morning on the set, when we were getting ready to rehearse the scene. I was supposed to accost her at the bottom of the stairs, knock the sword from her hands, grab her and pick her up, then bang on the door to Caesar's study with my free hand. When the doors open, I carry her in kicking and squealing and drop her at Caesar's feet. Well, knowing that she suffered from a back condition. I suggested we rehearse it with me wearing the actual breastplate to be worn in the scene, to be certain it wouldn't hurt her back. This was agreed. We did the lift, which worked fine, and when I put her down, one of the gold wings on one of the breastplate's three eagles caught her $600.00 gold lame slacks, ripping the backside out of them.
She screamed and cussed like a New York trucker. I was mortified but, trooper that she was, seeing the look on my poor face, she said, "Aw, c'mon, honey, shit happens," and yelled for a wardrobe lady to get her a change of clothes. We spent two days on this complicated bit of swordplay, etc. and all one sees in the final Zanuck cut, from Caesar's point of view, is what sounds like screaming and commotion outside the door. Then the door opens, I walk in with the screaming, kicking Cleo in my right arm. Caesar smiles and says "Marcellus, put her down." I do so, turn and walk out, and that was that.
All in all, she was a kick to work with. She had a great sense of humor and knew how to use the four-letter vernaculars like a seasoned pro. It was also interesting to watch the intriguing interplay between Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton. I thoroughly liked them all. Rex Harrison was a gentle, kind, though highly volatile man to work with. If things went to his liking, he was an absolute prince, but if he did not agree with something, there could be polemics that would light up the set for hours.
Burton was quiet, serious and professional. I got to know Hume Cronym quite well, and a finer, more intelligent actor there never was. The director Joe Mankiewicz was calm, cool and collected for the most part but, on occasion, he, Rex and Madame would have some wonderful go-arounds. Cast and crew would just sit back and watch, feeling like we had been allowed to sit in on a bit of cinematographic history. All in all, a delightful experience.