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16 Epic Facts About 'Spartacus'

While 1960's Spartacus was the subject of plenty of behind-the-scenes drama, including a script by then-blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, it should not be forgotten that the movie featured an embarrassment of riches on the screen, including legendary actors like Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, and Kirk Douglas as the title character, an illiterate slave who leads a revolt against the Roman Empire in 73 B.C. Here are some facts about director Stanley Kubrick's historical epic.

1. YUL BRYNNER TRIED TO MAKE HIS OWN SPARTACUS MOVIE FIRST.

A Spartacus film starring Brynner and Anthony Quinn was on the slate for United Artists, with the titles Spartacus and The Gladiators already trademarked. UA even paid for a full-page ad to be published in Variety in February 1958 for The Gladiators. However, Douglas and his film company owned the movie rights to Howard Fast's novel, Spartacus, and when Universal Pictures backed Douglas—along with Ustinov, Olivier, and Laughton all preferring Trumbo's script over the script for Brynner's project—Douglas had won. Brynner's film was never made.

2. HOWARD FAST WAS THE FIRST ONE TO TRY WRITING THE SCRIPT.

Universal gave Douglas four weeks to come up with a script if he wanted their backing. Unfortunately, Douglas considered Fast's attempt at adapting his own book to be a "disaster." Douglas turned to Trumbo to save the project, with Trumbo writing it under the alias "Sam Jackson"—he had won a writing Oscar years earlier for The Brave One (1956) under the pseudonym "Robert Rich."

Fast would later, according to him, be begged by Douglas to go out to Hollywood during filming to work with Kubrick to help. "They had started shooting the movie from Dalton Trumbo's script and they had about an hour and forty minutes of disconnected and chaotic film," Fast said in an interview. "While they had all this film, they had no 'movie' and no story — just pieces of film really." By Fast's estimation, he wrote 27 scenes to connect the footage that had already been shot into a cohesive picture.

3. STANLEY KUBRICK WAS NOT THE FIRST DIRECTOR.

David Lean (1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai) turned down an offer to direct, and Laurence Olivier was asked but declined because he thought both acting and directing would be too much. Douglas believed that the original director, Anthony Mann, was scared of the large scope of the movie, and he also didn't like how close he was to the British actors, so he fired him after two weeks of filming. Douglas turned to Kubrick, his director on Paths of Glory (1957), who agreed for a salary of $150,000.

4. JEAN SIMMONS WAS NOT THE ORIGINAL VARINIA.

Douglas wanted actress Jeanne Moreau (1959's Les Liaisons dangereuses) for the part, but she didn't want to leave her boyfriend in France. German actress Sabina Bethmann was then cast as Varinia, but once things got rolling with Kubrick, it was decided she wasn't right for the role, so she was paid $3,000 to go home. Then Douglas called Jean Simmons at her ranch in Arizona. "Kirk told me to get my ass on out to Los Angeles," Simmons said. "I did. Pronto." For what it's worth, Fast believed Ingrid Bergman should have gotten the gig all along.

5. PETER USTINOV WASN'T FORMALLY INTRODUCED TO DOUGLAS.

Ustinov (Batiatus) first met Douglas shooting the scene when his slave trader character discovers Spartacus chained to a rock. Because Douglas was so ragged looking, he didn't recognize the man.

6. CHARLES LAUGHTON AND LAURENCE OLIVIER DID NOT GET ALONG.

According to Ustinov, he had to act as a buffer between the thespians Laughton (Gracchus) and Olivier (Crassus). "For some reason—like animals—they just didn’t like each other," Ustinov remembered. "When you get two dogs that growl at each other, you don’t really ask why, you just accept it. But Olivier knew that Laughton was going to appear at Stratford in England as King Lear and tried to make up for this atmosphere by giving Laughton a little diagram with crosses on it and saying [mimicking Olivier], 'Dear boy, I’ve marked here the areas on the stage from where you can’t be heard.' And Laughton was delighted. [mimicking Laughton] 'Thank you so much, Larry. I shan’t forget that. Oh, you are kind.' And as soon as Olivier was out of earshot Laughton turned to me and said, 'I’m sure those are the very areas from which you can be heard.'"

7. OLIVIER WORE A FAKE NOSE.

It was fairly similar to his actual snout. Ustinov said on the DVD commentary he thought that the fake nose helped Olivier "feel safe."

8. KUBRICK TOLD THE HIRED CINEMATOGRAPHER TO TAKE A SEAT.

Because Kubrick was a cinematographer himself and very exacting in what he wanted, he eventually told Russell Metty, the man hired by Anthony Mann, to do nothing and let Kubrick do all the work for him. Metty would win his first and only Oscar for Best Cinematography for "his" work on Spartacus.

9. MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY FOOTBALL ATTENDEES PROVIDED THE SHOUTING.

The 76,000 football fans at the October 17, 1959 showdown between Notre Dame and Michigan State were asked to scream "Hail, Crassus," "On to Rome," "Spartacus, Spartacus," and of course "I am Spartacus!" They were also tasked to make "shouts and noises of an army in combat," and told by actor John Gavin (Julius Caesar) to make sure not to scream any modern sayings like "yippee" or "yay" or "Charge!" Douglas later wrote in his autobiography, “It’s only natural for Spartacus to go to the Spartans for help.” Michigan State won that day 19-0.

10. THERE WERE INJURIES ON SET, AND EVEN A DEATH.

Douglas stopped production for 10 days when he came down with the flu. Tony Curtis (Antoninus) had to be "worked around" for five weeks after he split his Achilles tendon playing tennis with Douglas at Douglas's home. Art director Eric Orbom had a fatal heart attack during production; he would later win a posthumous Oscar for Best Art Direction in the movie.

11. KIRK DOUGLAS WAS LEFT HANGING ONE DAY.

"I remember a long, long day of filming and it took forever to get Kirk Douglas up on his cross," Jean Simmons once recalled. "When he was safely installed, the assistant director called lunch and left him up there. You have to have a sense of humour in this industry."

12. THERE WAS SOME CENSORSHIP.

The "snails and oysters" scene, where Olivier's character attempted to seduce Tony Curtis's character in a Roman bathhouse, only made it to two test screenings before the New York Legion of Decency demanded it be excised from the movie because it was considered obscene. Censors suggested changing snails and oysters to "artichokes and truffles," but Douglas and Kubrick opted to take the whole four-minute scene out instead. Curtis remembered that the studio wasn't a fan of the scene to begin with, to the objections of himself and Olivier. When it was only shot once, Curtis said, "We knew there was trouble right there." He added, "Stanley [Kubrick] and I were perhaps a little more progressive in our thinking than Kirk [Douglas] and all those other guys who were making the movie. Sure, let’s talk about everything but let’s not talk about homosexuality. That’s a no-no. Especially at Universal Pictures."

13. ANTHONY HOPKINS WAS BROUGHT IN TO VOICE THE DECEASED OLIVIER IN A CONTROVERSIAL SCENE.

A 1991 restoration pieced together long-lost footage discovered in studio vaults and saved by collectors to restore its original cut of 197 minutes, including the parts censored out. The sound of the "oysters and snails" scene had to be re-dubbed, so Curtis re-recorded his part, and from the suggestion of Olivier's widow, Anthony Hopkins voiced Crassus, in his best Olivier impersonation. Kubrick faxed instructions on how to play the scene.

14. IT TOOK 167 DAYS TO FILM AND ABOUT 10,500 PEOPLE TO MAKE.

Twelve million dollars was spent on Spartacus, a record for the most expensive movie made (primarily) in Hollywood at the time. Its budget ended up exceeding the total worth of Universal, which was sold to MCA for $11,250,000 during filming. Universal employees spent an estimated 250,000 man-hours working on everything. Italian museums and costume houses supplied 5000 uniforms and seven tons of armor, and 8800 Spanish army troops were captured on film for the battle scenes (the final battle was shot in Madrid). Overall about 50,000 extras were involved. All 187 stuntmen were "trained in the gladiatorial rituals of combat to the death."

15. DOUGLAS AND JFK HELPED END THE BLACKLIST.

Kubrick suggested using his own name as the writer of the film, even though Dalton Trumbo wrote the majority of the screenplay. This offended Douglas, who opted to just use Trumbo's real name as the credited screenwriter, despite the predictable opposition from the American Legion because of Trumbo's refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The American Legion protested, but after President John F. Kennedy saw it and said he enjoyed the feature, blacklisting was all but over. Douglas said in 2010 that as far as he was concerned, "the most important by-product of Spartacus is that we broke the blacklist."

16. STANLEY KUBRICK LATER DISOWNED IT.

He demanded that three of his movies, including Spartacus, not be included in the home video Stanley Kubrick Collection in 1999. It wasn't a surprise. In 1968 he said, "Then I did Spartacus, which was the only film that I did not have control over, and which I feel was not enhanced by that fact. It all really just came down to the fact that there are thousands of decisions that have to be made, and that if you don't make them yourself, and if you're not on the same wavelength as the people who are making them, it becomes a very painful experience, which it was." He added that the movie "had everything but a good story."

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

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Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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