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Making ‘Apes’ was a tough call in ’67

SHARE Making ‘Apes’ was a tough call in ’67

LOS ANGELES — Sure, going ape sounds sane now.

Greenlighting an updated version of "Planet of the Ages" is an easy call for a studio chief today, based on the success of its ancestor.

In 1967, though, a movie mogul could fear it would make a monkey out of him.

Richard D. Zanuck, the then youthful head of production at 20th Century Fox, received a request from publicist Arthur P. Jacobs for an appointment. Zanuck agreed, figuring Jacobs wanted to discuss one of his many big-name clients.

Zanuck discovered Jacobs harbored larger ambitions than running the most prestigious publicity firm in Hollywood at that time.

"To my surprise, Arthur said he had been trying to produce a picture at Warner Bros., and the studio had put it in 'turnaround' (rejected it)," the 66-year-old Zanuck recalled recently in a telephone interview from a French Riviera vacation.

"So I asked Arthur what the bottom line of the picture was. He said, 'It's a world in which the apes are the rulers, and the humans are not.' It sounded preposterous to me, but I said I would read it. Rod Serling had written the script, and I felt that anything he wrote would be interesting."

Even with a Serling script based on the Pierre Boulle novel and Blake Edwards slated to be the director, Warner Bros. had balked at the $10 million budget — peanuts today but considered a huge investment in the 1960s when the average film cost $2.5 million.

Zanuck read the script over the weekend and on Monday told Jacobs: "I think there is something incredibly fascinating with this material. But I don't know how we're going to pull it off. The audience might just laugh at it; after the first 30 seconds we could be dead in the water. I want to make a test. I want to see if we can do the makeup properly or if it is going to look ridiculous and laughable."

The ape makeup was devised by John Chambers, who won an honorary Academy Award specifically for his efforts on the film (there was no Oscar category for makeup in those days). Edward G. Robinson was persuaded to put on the costume for the test. Zanuck showed the test to the Fox board and was given a thumbs-up.

Charlton Heston took the role of the astronaut who lands on the ape-ruled planet, and Franklin J. Schaffner, who went on to win an Oscar for directing 1970's "Patton," took Edwards' place.

The aging Robinson found it too difficult to breathe in the makeup, and his place was taken by Shakespearian actor Maurice Evans. The rest of the cast included Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, James Whitmore, James Daly and Linda Harrison.

The formerly blacklisted Michael Wilson — who posthumously got credit for the "Lawrence of Arabia" screenplay and an Oscar for writing "The Bridge on the River Kwai" — was credited as co-writer with Serling.

"Planet of the Apes" provided a huge, much-needed hit for 20th Century Fox, still reeling from the nearly bankrupting $40 million it spent on "Cleopatra" five years before.

It attracted filmgoers not accustomed to science fiction films, and the reviews were generally glowing. Variety called it "an amazing film. . . . The suspense and suspension of disbelief engendered is one of the film's biggest assets."

Four sequels in four years followed, and then live-action and animated TV series.

And now, "Planet of the Apes" redux.

Fox's new $100 million version reflects the quirky vision of director Tim Burton and stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth and Helena Bonham Carter.

The producer? Zanuck.

"I feel like I've been in my own time warp, my own science fiction world," Zanuck said. "Having 34 years ago initiated this, I find myself producing a picture that is not a remake but a whole new picture using the same concept."

Having played a human in two earlier "Apes" films, Heston this time wore the monkey suit, and came to realize what his fellow actors endured.

"It took about 2 1/2 hours to put on, and a little more than that to take off," he said. "You have to be careful when it's on, because if something goes wrong, it can't be repaired."

Heston whimsically described his unbilled role in the new "Planet of the Apes": "I am of course an alpha ape. What do I play in 'Cats and Dogs'? The alpha dog, of course. Those are the parts I play: kings, cardinals and so forth."

He also offered this bit of trivia from the initial "Planet of the Apes": "When it came to lunch, each species sat together. The humans sat at one table, the apes at a separate table, and the gorillas at yet another table. You might call it species segregation."

Part of the film was shot in the midsummer Arizona desert. Heston recalled in his 1995 autobiography "In the Arena":

"It was a rough summer for me. Barefoot and naked in most of the scenes, I was ridden down by gorillas, whipped, chained, gagged, stoned (even rubber rocks hurt), fire-hosed and finally trapped in a net and jerked upside down." (A stunt man doubled in the latter scene.)

Hunter, who appeared as an ape in the first three films, remembered in a 1995 interview: "It was pretty claustrophobic, and painful to a certain extent. The only thing of me that came through were my eyeballs."

Many critics and historians have hailed "Planet of the Apes" as a rare achievement — even influential on the genre.

But science-fiction author-screenwriter Harlan Ellison (73 sci-fi books, episodes of TV's "Star Trek" and the "Twilight Zone") said the sequels just amounted to Hollywood commerce.

"The other four were just moneymaking ventures," he said.

Sci-fi guru Ray Bradbury ("The Martian Chronicles," "Fahrenheit 451") downplayed any influence "Planet of the Apes" may have had on the sci-fi genre, noting several other films he felt made larger contributions.

"I think films like '2001' really began to open things out," Bradbury told The Associated Press. " 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' I think is the most important film in the field, because it had a metaphor at its heart, which is religion. 'Star Wars' really opened it all out. It was 'The Wizard of Oz' of outer space."

In contrast, Bradbury used words like "silly" and "childish" when discussing the "Planet of the Apes" franchise.

"I know it's popular, but it's too childish. Not my cup of tea," he said. "What always struck me as silly about it was you couldn't tell one actor from another."