The Towering Inferno (1974) - Illustrated Reference

The Towering Inferno (1974) poster art by John Berkey
The Towering Inferno (1974) poster art by John Berkey

The Towering Inferno was directed by John Guillermin and premiered on 10th December 1974. Starring Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Susan Blakely, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, O.J. Simpson, Robert Vaughn and Robert Wagner. Screenplay by Stirling Silliphant. Music by John Williams. 165mins.

On the day of its opening dedication ceremony a fire breaks out on the 81st floor of the tallest building in the world, the Glass Tower. 300 VIP guests are partying on the 135th floor.

After the super success of The Poseidon Adventure in 1972 the Hollywood studios were planning more disaster movies. By coincidence both Warner Bros and Twentieth Century Fox wanted to make a film about a burning skyscraper. Warner Bros had paid $390,000 for the rights to the book “The Tower” (1973) by Richard Martin Stern and Fox Studios paid $400,000 for the rights to the book “The Glass Inferno” (1974) by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson.

Rather than have two similar films competing at the box office the two studios, in a rare move, joined forces to make one big expensive movie based on both books. 20th Century Fox would release the film in North America and keep the domestic box office takings while Warner Bros would distribute the film around the world collecting the worldwide receipts for the film.

Doug Roberts: I thought we were building something where people could work and live and be safe! If you had to cut costs, why didn't you cut floors instead of corners?
James Duncan: Now listen. Any decisions that were made for the use of alternate building materials were made because I as a builder have a right to make those decisions. If I remained within the building code and god-dammit I did!
Doug Roberts: Building code? Jesus. Building code. Come on, Dunc, Corridors without fire doors in them, sprinklers that won't work, and electrical system that's good for what? I mean it's good for starting fires! Phew, where was I when all this was going on? What do they call it when you kill people?

Paul Newman (1925-2008) / Doug Roberts - The Architect

Born in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Paul Newman won a Best Actor Oscar for The Color of Money (1986) and was also nominated for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Rachel, Rachel (1968), Absence of Malice (1981), The Verdict (1982), Nobody’s Fool (1994) and Road to Perdition (2002).

Paul Newman received an Honorary Oscar in 1986 - In recognition of his many and memorable and compelling screen performances and for his personal integrity and dedication to his craft.

Steve McQueen (1930-1980) / Chief Mike O’Hallorhan - The Fire Chief

Born in Beech Grove, Indiana, Steve McQueen was Oscar Nominated Best Actor for The Sand Pebbles (1966) and has received Golden Globe nominations for the films Love With a Proper Stranger (1963), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Reivers (1969) and Papillon (1973). He won Best Actor for The Great Escape (1963) at the Moscow International Film Festival.

William Holden (1918-1981) / James Duncan - The Builder

Born in O’Fallon, Illinois, William Holden won a Best Actor Oscar for Stalag 17 (1953) and received nominations for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Network (1976).

Faye Dunaway (1941-) / Susan Franklin - The Girlfriend

Born in Bascom, Florida, Faye Dunaway won a Best Actress Oscar for Network (1976) and received nominations for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Chinatown (1974).

Fred Astaire (1899-1987) / Harlee Claiborne - The Con Man

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Hollywood musicals legend Fred Astaire was Oscar Nominated Best Supporting Actor for The Towering Inferno. He won British Academy and Golden Globe Awards for Best Supporting Actor for The Towering Inferno.

Fred Astaire received an Honorary Oscar in 1950 - "For his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures." He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1981.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009) / Lisolette Mueller - The Widow

Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Jennifer Jones won a Best Actress Oscar for The Song of Bernadette (1943), and received nominations for Since You Went Away (1944), Love Letters (1945), Duel in the Sun (1946) and Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955). She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe for The Towering Inferno.

Richard Chamberlain (1934-) / Roger Simmons - The Son-in-Law

Born in Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Richard Chamberlain’s films include – Julius Caesar (1970), The Music Lovers (1970), The Three Musketeers (1973), The Four Musketeers (1974), The Slipper and the Rose (1976), The Swarm (1978) and King Solomon’s Mines (1985). Popular in TV movies, mini-series and as Dr. Kildare (1961-1966).

Susan Blakely (1948-) / Patty Simmons - The Wife

Born in Frankfurt, Germany, Susan Blakely’s films include – The Way We Were (1973), Capone (1975), The Concorde – Airport 79 (1979), Over the Top (1987) and My Mom’s a Werewolf (1989).

O.J. Simpson (1947-) / Harry Jernigan - The Security Man

Born in San Francisco, California, O.J. Simpson, a celebrated professional football player, turned actor and currently a convicted criminal. His films include - Klansman (1974), The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Firepower (1979) and The Naked Gun I-II-III (1988-1991-1994).

Robert Vaughn (1932-) / Gary Parker - The Senator

Born in New York City, Robert Vaughn was Oscar nominated Best Supporting Actor for The Young Philadelphians (1959). His films include – Teenage Caveman (1958), The Magnificent Seven (1960), Bullitt (1968), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Demon Seed (1977 voice of Proteus IV), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Superman III (1983) and The Delta Force (1986). Starred as Napoleon Solo in hit TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968).

Robert Wagner (1930-) / Dan Bigelow - The Publicity Man

Born in Detroit, Michigan, Robert Wagner’s films include - Titanic (1953), Prince Valiant (1954), Broken Lance (1954), A Kiss Before Dying (1956), The True Story of Jesse James (1957), The Longest Day (1962), The Pink Panther (1963), Winning (1969), Midway (1976), Airport 79 The Concorde (1979), Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) and Austin Powers I-II-III (1997-1999-2002). TV series – It Takes a Thief (1968-1970) and Hart to Hart (1979-1984).

Chief O'Hallorhan: It's out of control, and it's coming your way. You got about fifteen minutes. Now, they wanna try somethin'. They wanna blow those water tanks two floors above you. They think it might kill the fire.
Doug Roberts: How are they gonna get the explosives up here?
Chief O'Hallorhan: Oh, they'll find some dumb son of a bitch to bring it up.

Irwin Allen (1916-1991) produced The Towering Inferno and directed the action scenes. Allen was born in New York City, he was a director back in the 1950’s, his films include The Story of Mankind (1957) and The Lost World (1960), he also created hit TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), Lost in Space (1965-1968), Time Tunnel (1966-1967) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970).

Director John Guillermin (1925-) was born in London, England, his films include – Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959), The Blue Max (1966), The Bridge at Remagen (1969), Skyjacked (1972), King Kong (1976), Death on the Nile (1978) and Sheena (1984).

Irwin Allen originally wanted Steve McQueen as the architect, Ernest Borgnine as the fire chief, Burt Lancaster as the builder and David Niven as the con man.

The book titles “The Tower” and “The Glass Inferno” were combined to produce the movie title “The Towering Inferno” the name of the building was called “The Glass Tower” and the story set in San Francisco. The film’s screenwriter, Stirling Silliphant, took seven main characters from each of the novels and combined the endings of the two stories.

“The Tower” was set in New York and the fire is started by a terrorist who blows himself up in the basement of the building. At the end of the story some people are rescued by connecting a rope and pulley system between the burning tower and the nearby World Trade Center (North Tower), but only a few are saved the rest die in the blazing inferno.

“The Glass Inferno” is set in an unnamed US city. The fire starts in a storage room on the 17th floor, the fire spreads quickly trapping people in the top floors some are rescued by helicopter. The fire is ultimately put out by blowing up giant water tanks near the roof of the building.

Apparently as part of their contracts Paul Newman and Steve McQueen had exactly the same number of lines of dialogue in the script.

Each star had to have equal billing on the film. Steve McQueen’s name is seen first - left to right and Paul Newman’s is first - top to bottom.

During filming a real fire broke out on one of the sets, Steve McQueen helped firemen put it out. Both stars did most of their own stunts.

Paul Newman’s son Scott appears in the film as a frightened young fireman.

In the film the Glass Tower is 1,652ft high with 138 floors. The lobby and shopping centre is on the 1st floor. Offices are on floors 3-49 and 51 to 80. Residential floors are on 81-120. The Promenade room is on the 135th floor and water tank storage on the 137th floor.

The effects people constructed a 70ft high model of the Glass Tower for some scenes. The model looked especially good lit up in night scenes and when set on fire. In some shots matte paintings were used.

57 sets were built for the film, a record at the time, only 8 sets were still intact at the end of filming. Scenes were shot in the atrium of the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco and its famous glass elevators recreated for key scenes of the movie.

A massive 340ft painted cyclorama of the San Francisco skyline was used for the background of many scenes. This cyclorama can also be spotted in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) outside Admiral Kirk’s apartment window in San Francisco.

Almost a million gallons of water was used for the ending when the water tanks are blown up and the sets are flooded with water.

The famous poster artwork of the burning building was by the late John Berkey, one of the great SF artists.

The scene where Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) is running through the room on fire was always cut out or trimmed when shown on British TV but on DVD and Blu-ray the scene and John Williams superb music is thankfully intact.

The Towering Inferno was nominated for 8 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire), Best Music (John Williams), Best Art Direction, Best Sound and winning for Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography and Best Song (“We May Never Love Like This Again”).

Won British Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire) and Best Music (John Williams).

The Towering Inferno cost $14m to produce and was a smash hit grossing $139.7m worldwide, one of the most popular movies of the 1970s.

Chief O'Hallorhan: You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count's less then 200. You know, one of these days, you're gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I'm gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us... how to build them.
Doug Roberts: Ok, I'm asking.
Chief O'Hallorhan: You know where to reach me.

The Critics Wrote –

"The Towering Inferno is a brawny blockbuster of a movie, by far the best of the mid-1970s wave of disaster films. It's an example of Hollywood commercial moviemaking at its finest. It's also a movie to make me happy I don't live in a high-rise; people above the seventh floor should find it thought-provoking." (Roger Ebert)

"If you must have a conflagration-film this is the hell of a good conflagration, the stunts superbly executed, the illusion of a desperate situation brilliantly achieved. In the huge spectacle pity is lost; and I am left reflecting that addiction to Great Disaster cinema is lowering to the sensibilities." (Dilys Powell)

"Each scene of someone horribly in flames is presented as a feat for the audience's delectation." (New Yorker)

"You can tell that a disaster film is achieving its purpose if your palms begin to sweat. Mine did. The special effects boys have done wonders. So let the sweat flow." (Films & Filming)

" As one disaster piled on top of another with astonished realism, my heart was seldom out of my mouth." (Daily Express)

"The Towering Inferno is one of the greatest disaster pictures made, a personal and professional triumph for producer Irwin Allen. The $14 million cost has yielded a truly magnificent production which complements but does not at all overwhelm a thoughtful personal drama."

"The strategy of casting expensive talent pays off handsomely. Steve McQueen, as the fireman in charge of extinguishing the runaway fire in a 130-story building, Paul Newman, as the heroic architect of the glass and concrete pyre, William Holden as its builder, get and deserve their star billing." (Variety)

"At the end of the film, after the last flame has been doused, Paul Newman surveys the ruined hulk of his skyscraper. He suggests allowing it to stand as 'a monument to all the bullshit of our age'. Probably The Towering Inferno should be placed on permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian for the same reason." (Richard Schickel, Time)

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Comments 23 comments

Rosemay50 profile image

Rosemay50 4 years ago from Hawkes Bay - NewZealand

This is such a good movie. I do enjoy a good desaster movie.

Great hub thanks


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

This film was a big favourite of mine when I was young.

Thanks for commenting Rosemay50.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Another great review, Steve. Irwin's stuff on TV was cheesy-- but I watched them all growing up. I particularly liked the picture of the cast linked arm-in-arm on the studio lot. Voted up and interesting.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks UnnamedHarald, appreciate the comment. I watched them too, they were fun then but a lot of it is cringeworthy now. Star Trek was so much better. :)


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Steve, definitely a movie I never get sick of watching. I remember my parents going to see it at the cinema and raving about it when they got home. I had to wait ages to finally see it but it was worth the wait.

Voted up, loved the photos, especially the one of Paul Newman with the blaze going on in the background (just above Fred Astaire).


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks Jools, your comments are always appreciated.

The last time I saw Towering Inferno at the cinema was at a west end re-release in the early 80's, I think it was the Empire Leicester Square.

I remember there was an intermission at the bit where Paul Newman is helping Jennifer Jones and the children, there's a big explosion and the Intermission came on.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Ah intermissions, makes me remember the taste of ice cream!


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

:) They do come in useful.


Cogerson 4 years ago

First of all the first poster by John Berkey is very impressive. I love watching this movie on a regular basis....it was pretty much the pinnacle of McQueen's career as he only made three or so more movies after this one.....where Newman would still have another 35 years and countless movies left in him. I love the quote from Newman about the fight over top billing with McQueen...."Hell.... the fire was the star".

A nice supporting cast makes watching the movie very enjoyable....with Wagner, Jones, Astaire and even Simpson performing well.

I really like the photo of all the stars arm in arm....4 Oscar winners, a superstar rebel, 3 tv legends and OJ(no comment).

I will have to keep an eye out for Paul Newman's son the next time I watch this movie.....voted up and interesting.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

"4 Oscar winners, a superstar rebel, 3 tv legends and OJ(no comment)."

That's 9 of the 10 in the photo, who's the odd one out? Let me see... oh yes Fred Astaire, a golden age legend.

Thanks for commenting Cogerson, much appreciated.

I wish I had that Towering Inferno poster back in the 70's. Might be worth something now.

I think Paul Newman's son is the fireman who tells Steve McQueen that he's afraid he might fall down the shaft and McQueen tells him to go first so he won't fall on them. Not sure.


Flora Breen Robison 4 years ago

Sorry I didn't get to this movie hub earlier today, but I've been busy editing my Auld lang's syne poem to reflect Dick Clark who just died this morning so I could publish it on another site. I meant to write a comment last night, but was too tired. I did post it to Facebook and twitter, though

This is a great cast. I am a fan of most people in this film. These include, in order listed: Newman, McQueen, Holden, Dunaway, Astaire, Vaugn, and Wagner.

Even most of the actors in this film that I don't rush to see all of their films, I respect them. These include Chamberlain and Jones

I don't know Blakely oustide this film.

I am very carefully not discussing one star of this film whom I can't stand watching in anything anymore.

I've lost track of the number of times I've seen this film. Here is a disaster movie different from others of the same era as it is not on ship or aboard plane. (In that way it is similar to Hotel.)

I love the first poster! I cannot choose which photographs I prefer -too hard!


cloverleaffarm profile image

cloverleaffarm 4 years ago from The Hamlet of Effingham

Wow, was it really 1974? Seems like I just saw it a few years ago. Great movie, great hub. Thanks for sharing!


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

Hi Flora, glad you made it, the hub for this film looked a little bare without your comment, much appreciated.

I was thinking of adding names to each of the star photos but what was the point they are all famous (and infamous), except Susan Blakely.

An amazing cast, the film would have been worth watching even if there was no fire, just to see this group of actors in the same film together. Sadly McQueen was the first to die from that group, aged just 50, followed by Holden and Astaire, recently we lost Newman and Jones.

Thanks as ever for posting.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks cloverleaffarm, appreciate the comment. The film is 38 years old already, wow! :)


John Sarkis profile image

John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

Great hub. Yes, this was a terrific film with an above average score by the then very young John Williams. Enjoyed the hub.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

Thanks John, much appreciated. John Williams also composed a terrific score for The Poseidon Adventure a couple of years earlier. Jaws was the turning point and after Star Wars Williams became the premier music man in Hollywood. An incredible range of scores.


Cogerson 4 years ago

Actually the missing one is Susan Blakely....Fred won an Honorary Oscar...so I included him in the Oscar group.


Flora Breen Robison 4 years ago

Looking over the one credits you list of the name I don't know-I have indeed seen Susan B. in The Way we Were, but didn't pay attention to to her-when Barbra or Robert are on the screen, I ignore other people. And I still wouldn't know her name.

Talking about who is dead and who still alive, Jennifer Jones was the oldest when she died. Steve McQueen was the youngest person at the time he died. Robert Vaughn is the oldest among the surviving cast members and he is still working. Susan Blakely is the youngest surviving main cast member. I have no idea if she is still working.

As for when they were just seen in public, Robert Wagner was interviewed briefly by Robert Osbourne at the TCM film festival this past weekend and doesn't look like he's slowing down any time soon either.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

"Actually the missing one is Susan Blakely....Fred won an Honorary Oscar...so I included him in the Oscar group."

Well Bruce that still leaves one out, unless you thought Jennifer Jones was Susan in the picture? So that makes 5 Oscar winners counting Astaire. :)

Flora, thanks for the info. I use the IMDB a lot to keep track of my favourite still living actors. Comes in very useful, I stopped buying yearly movie guides because of the IMDB and various film review sites, saved me a bit of money. :)

Thank you both for posting.


Cogerson 4 years ago

Ok...I think I have it correct now......5 Oscar winners(Dunaway, Holden, Jones, Astaire, Newman 3 TV legends(Wagner, Chamberlain and Vaughn) one superstar (McQueen) and OJ(still no comment)....for some reason I was not realizing Dunaway was in the picture....I thought it was Blakely.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

Bruce, thanks for clarifying. It's an impressive group photo. Missing from the group are the two Susan's, Blakely and Flannery.

Susan Flannery played Robert Wagner's secretary and lover, both Flannery and Wagner met horrible deaths in the film, but are still with us in real life. Flannery was born in 1939.


thatmovieguy71 4 years ago

They don't make these all-star disaster movies like this anymore! There is a lot one could criticize about this movie, but it is a lot of fun to watch! With today's cgi capabilities, this movie is a prime candidate for a remake.


Steve Lensman profile image

Steve Lensman 4 years ago from London, England Author

I'm surprised no one has attempted a remake of The Towering Inferno. They did do a remake of The Poseidon Adventure a few years ago but it wasn't a success.

Thanks for commenting.

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