Peter Sellers & Orson Welles in “Casino Royale” (1967)
There are times when creative tension on set can contribute to the vibrancy and vitality of the finished film…and then there’s 1967’s “Casino Royale.” The borderline unwatchable spy spoof boasts a cast and a rotating roster of directors that already reads like a suicidally imploding cocktail of ego, all shepherded by the madcap enthusiasm, blank-check attitude and borderline con-man tactics of producer Charles Feldman. Nothing went right, but one thing that went wronger than most was the relationship between the film’s star, then one of the biggest in the world, Peter Sellers — who had been paid an unheard-of $1 million — and literally expansive living legend Orson Welles. While the subsequent stories of Welles’ gargantuan impatience with lesser mortals (everybody) might make you think he was the chief instigator, it really seems to have been Sellers’ insecurity at acting opposite him, in a film whose direction he did not agree with, that coalesced into dislike. One often-quoted story is that Princess Margaret came to set, ignored Sellers and went straight over to Welles, which enraged Sellers. Another is that Sellers, who had lost a fair amount of weight, made frequent disparaging allusions to Welles’ girth, even refusing to get on an elevator with him for “safety” reasons. It led to Sellers refusing to be on set at the same time as Welles (their scenes together were shot using doubles), and no doubt contributed to his eventual decision to walk off the film altogether, leaving Feldman scrambling to pick up the pieces, and to knit the footage he had into a rewritten order (Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, David Niven and Terry Southern all took a crack at the screenplay) that could still make some sort of sense. He failed.
Bill Murray & Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” (2000)
The lovably laconic nature of Bill Murray’s star persona, and the fact that around this time he was doing relatively few big mainstream films, means that his dust-up with co-star Lucy Liu on the set of McG‘s horrible-but-not-as-bad-as-the-sequel “Charlie’s Angels” was widely reported at the time. The alleged moment where he pointed in succession to each of Liu’s co-stars and said “I get why you’re here, and you’ve got talent…but what in the hell are you doing here. You can’t act!” in particular got a lot of play, as did Liu’s response, which was reportedly physical and fist-based. Murray doesn’t deny that the altercation took place, but has minimized its significance in later years, saying that it started with a misunderstanding in which he was criticizing the quality of the script and Liu interpreted it as a crack at her abilities, and “for 15 or 20 minutes there, we went to our separate corners and threw hand-grenades and sky rockets at each other.” However, he does deny that Liu was the reason he did not show up for the sequel, saying that was because of someone else, who was”going to be involved in the second one, so I wasn’t going to show up again.” Another cast member? Perhaps, but given Murray’s antipathy toward director McG (here he is jokily saying he “deserves to die” in 2009), it’s surely more likely that that was the reason. Either way, bullet dodged.
Richard Gere & Debra Winger in “An Officer And A Gentleman” (1982)
A film so famously romantic that even its ‘Simpsons’ parody became one of the most famous and defining early ‘Simpsons’ moments, Taylor Hackford‘s “An Officer And A Gentleman” is perhaps proof positive that any kind of energy — even negative energy — can read as chemistry onscreen. Stars Debra Winger and Richard Gere did not get along at all, and most of the accounts of that period cite Winger’s “difficult” reputation as evidence that the fault was mostly with her. More recently, though, Winger, who famously retired from Hollywood at 40 rather than get involved in the industry’s famous double standards as regards older actresses, has pointed out quite reasonably that her behavior on set may have been prickly, but it’s what would probably have given a male actor a rep for perfectionism, or passion, where it got her stigmatized. However, she herself did refer to the filming of ‘Officer’ as a less-than-pleasant experience, and her dubbing her co-star “a brick wall” and her director “an animal” certainly did make an impression, not least on Gere himself, who has apparently forgiven but not necessarily forgotten. In 2002, Winger told The Guardian, “I run in to Richard Gere quite a lot and he half jokes: ‘Are you still saying terrible things about me?'”
Yul Brynner & Steve McQueen in “The Magnificent Seven” (1960)
John Sturges‘ iconic ensemble Western is such a tale of masculine bravado that it’s impossible to believe there wouldn’t have been some clashing ego problems on set. And indeed there were, courtesy mostly of Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner, caught at a particular moment in their careers when the former was very much less famous than the latter. Brynner was a massive star at the time, and as castmember Robert Vaughn remembered in his autobiography, that caused the extremely ambitious McQueen quite some envy. Everything from the size of Brynner’s horse to the design of his pearl-handled gun was contentious for McQueen, and according to one McQueen biographer, Brynner accused McQueen of overtly trying to upstage him whenever they were onscreen together in compensation. The animosity even contributed to Brynner’s refusal to draw his gun in a certain scene as he didn’t want to be outdrawn by McQueen (and according to this pretty comprehensive account on guns.com, which should know, he probably would have been as McQueen’s military service meant he had a facility with firearms that Brynner lacked). This is one occasion, however, where perhaps the rivalry did serve the movie: McQueen and Brynner do turn in probably the two best performances in this abiding classic. No word on whether, for authenticity’s sake, Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt had beef on Antoine Fuqua‘s 2016 remake.
Richard Pryor & Harvey Keitel & Yaphet Kotto in “Blue Collar” (1978)
Feuds, rows and bad blood usually develop on set by accident, but occasionally it almost seems to be by design. Coming off the success of his screenplay for “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader was anxious to parlay his momentum into his directorial debut, but in order to secure the services of the three main actors he wanted, he reportedly told each of them that they would be the star. As a result, the atmosphere was tense and competitive from the get-go, and with Richard Pryor at his most volatile, there were several incidents in which co-stars came to blows. Pryor and Harvey Keitel got into a fistfight (as do their characters) and allegedly Pryor hit Yaphet Kotto with a chair during one particular scene that he believed Kotto was trying to steal. Pryor is also said to have pulled a gun on Schrader (possibly precipitating Schrader’s nervous breakdown), declaring that from that point on, he’d do no more than three takes of any scene he shared with the others. The astonishing thing here is that Pryor is brilliant in the finished film — to this day, a relatively lesser-seen ’70s classic. And all three of them have such convincing chemistry as the auto-factory-worker friends who team up to rob their union but discover instead evidence of the union’s corruption, that it’s tempting to go back and rewatch it minutely for signs of their real feelings.