The Making of Marvel’s The Avengers, 1958 – A tale
(WARNING: This is a work of fiction)
The year was 1956 and Walt Disney Productions had just acquired the rights to Marvel Comics The Avengers movies based on the hugely popular comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and were looking to make a huge profit. Their biggest money-earner at the time was the successful animated film Cinderella (1950) which grossed over $320 million worldwide. Their ultimate goal was to make the highest grossing movie of all time and top Gone With the Wind's (1939) $437 million worldwide gross. Their target: $500 Million! Walt Disney himself would act as executive producer.
THE DIRECTOR - Richard Fleischer
42-year old director Richard Fleischer who had directed Disney’s Jules Verne adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under Sea in 1954, was chosen to helm the project. His knack for making surefire, tentpole hits had him winning over other directors, namely: Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and Byron Haskin (War of the Worlds).
The biggest names in movies at the time were still Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and John Wayne, by then ageing stars all born before 1910. William Holden was the most bankable star of the 50s and Marlon Brando was being considered a thespian revolutionary. Other notable stars were Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas and Burth Lancaster. The most bankable actresses were Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe and Kim Novak.
AVENGERS ROLL CALL
Kirk Douglas as Thor, God of Thunder
The first to be cast was 40-year old Kirk Douglas, Fleischer’s star in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). He was offered the role of Tony Stark but the actor thought that he’d be more fit to play Thor, the god of thunder, he was after all, involved in a movie called The Vikings for United Artists that Fleischer himself, was set to direct. But Disney had already talked to 33-year old Charlton Heston about playing Thor and intimated to his director that Douglas at 5’9” might be “too short” to play the Asgardian. Heston was a towering 6’3.” But Fleischer stood by his star, and when Douglas agreed to have no salary in exchange for 60% of the movie’s profits, Disney finally gave in. Upon knowing about it, Heston was livid and got even with Douglas by snatching the coveted role of Ben-Hur from him years later, Douglas would retaliate by making Spartacus. The rest as they say, is history.
In The Vikings (1958, United Artists) directed by Richard Fleischer, Kirk Douglas played a one-eyed viking named Einar opposite Tony Curtis. The movie was a commercial success. Douglas' character would eventually influence how Thor would evolve in the Avengers series.
Robert Taylor as Tony Stark / Iron Man
The role of Tony Stark eventually went to veteran leading man Robert Taylor, 45, who had fought hard to be in the movie. His 1957 melodrama Tip on a Dead Jockey (MGM) with Dorothy Malone was a commercial failure and his popularity had been dwindling of late because of the emergence of Holden and Brando, and with recording stars Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra also taking to the big screen. He was hoping the Avengers movie would put him back in the limelight. With his razor-thin mustache, slicked hair, Taylor who was nicknamed “The Man with the Perfect Profile,” was dead-on as Tony Stark.
Before giving the role of Tony Stark to Robert Taylor, Fleischer and Disney considered ageing star Clark Gable who was 55 at the time (Robert Downey Jr. was 54 in Avengers:Endgame). But concerns over the physically demanding role (it would require the actor to put on a heavy suit of armor and be suspended on cables most of the time would likely take a toll on the King's health) prompted them to look for somebody else. As it turned out, Gable would only be making six more pictures before suffering a heart attack in 1961, meaning he would not have been around for the "Snap."
Tab Hunter as Steve Rogers/Captain America
Studio execs were already unanimous in offering William Holden the role of Captain America. Not only was the 38-year old actor the no.1 most bankable star of the year, he already has a Best Actor trophy for Stalag 17 (1953, Paramount) and several noteworthy films under his belt including Sunset Boulevard (1950, Paramount) & Sabrina (1954, Paramount). Plus, he served as a Lieutenant in the air force during WWII! They were ready to give Holden a handsome fee to complement his handsome face, but alas, the actor was in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) filming The Bridge on the River Kwai (Columbia) for director David Lean. According to reports, he also lost some weight to play another P.O.W.
Disney, of course, threw a fit, and gave everyone a dressing-down, even screaming about Communist plots. Magazines flew in the air, with one landing face up to a cover a Confidential headline featuring Tab Hunter. And that’s how America’s heartthrob became America’s ass.
Disney saw the potential in Tab Hunter to attract female audience that don’t even read comic books but would no doubt, line up to see him in leotards. The 25-year old actor was tall, muscular and Manhattan-bred. The trinity of Kirk Douglas, Robert Taylor and Tab Hunter seemed like a good start.
In the 50s, Tab Hunter was on an exclusive contract with Warner Brothers. Since the 1930s, Disney had been duking ito out against Warner Brothers for animated supremacy. Bugs Bunny and his Looney Toon pals versus Mickey Mouse and friends. With Disney looking to buy Marvel Studios, Warner Brothers also had set their eyes on rival DC comics. It took a lot of negotiating before Jack Warner loaned Hunter for a 4-picture deal.
Dana Andrews as Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk
For the role of the mild-mannered scientist who turns into a raging monster, Fleischer would have loved to have gotten John Garfield to play Banner, and spoke of his admiration on how the actor imbued a sense of inner strength and anger that’s bottled up inside ready to explode. He would have been great, Fleischer imagined, but the talented actor had died prematurely four years earlier due to a heart attack.
So, other actors were invited, like John Agar, Cornel Wilde, Van Heflin and Dana Andrews. Fleischer took a liking to Andrews because he thought he looked like someone who has a terrible secret and hides his true emotions. Andrews, a staple of noir films have mostly played gumshoes and men in uniform (he must have played all known military rank from sergeant to general) was more than happy to play an exciting new role.
Rumor has it that Boris Karloff heard of the news that Disney was looking for an actor to play a monster, sent a telegram wishing to be screen tested. Studio heads invited him out of respect. Karloff was turning 71 that year and was just too old. Bela Lugosi, Karloff’s on-screen rival would die that very same year.
Diana Rigg as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
The action heroine was practically unknown during that time that it had to be invented. No one expected actresses such as Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Deborah Kerr, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe to suddenly do cartwheels. The closest female action role there was, is that of the feisty female reporter who fights evil with her purse.
For the role of Black Widow, Fleischer and Disney needed a fresh face and placed ads in newspapers looking for a young actress who is ably fit and athletic. Those who can do their own stunts a big plus. A young British drama student named Diana Rigg from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London tried out on a whim and got the part. Rigg, with her unique charm and Brit wit seemed rigged for the role of the Russian spy and S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. She also looked stunning in black leather and beat other newcomers like Lee Meriwether and Julie Newmar who both eventually became action heroines later on.
After the success of the Marvel’s The Avengers franchise, Diana Rigg returned to England where she got the part of Emma Peel in a series that was also called The Avengers with actor Patrick Mcnee. The series became a cult favorite.
Richard Greene as Clint Barton/Hawkeye
For the actor who would play Hawkeye, the last core member of the Avengers, Disney execs didn’t have to look farther than their own TV sets. The Adventures of Robin Hood was a British television series that starred Richard Greene as the outlaw of Sherwood forest. Fleischer liked the idea of hiring an actor who was already handy with the bow and arrow. On a commercial standpoint, the show attracted 32 million viewers weekly during the Golden Age of Television, and that was such a win-win situation for Disney. Someone was heard saying: "He may be bland, but boy, does he have a lot of fans."
Speaking of Robin Hood, the availability of Errol Flynn have crossed the minds of Fleischer and Disney, albeit very briefly. Flynn had a late career resurgence playing supporting roles, mostly drunks and would have taken a minimal fee. But, father-time hadn’t been particularly kind to ole Errol that at 47 years of age, he looked much, much older than he should. It was all those years of booze, sex and his mysteriously wicked, wicked ways that led to his death at age 50 in 1959. Like Gable, had he been cast, he would not have been available for the "Snap."
Sidney Poitier as Nick Fury
There was much controversy surrounding the character of Nick Fury, the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. (a really big organization), who was responsible for putting the Avengers together. First of all, he’s black, second, it’s the freakin’ 50s. Even before the start of script development, there were demands to turn the character into a Caucasian and cast someone like Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda or Spencer Tracy in the role. Walt was afraid of the backlash the movie would suffer and seemed to be leaning on the idea, but when a 29-year old African-American actor by the name of Sidney Poitier, who was lauded in his performance last year in The Blackboard Jungle (MGM), screen-tested, they saw a leader, utterly confident, stubbornly proud and one who is not afraid to talk back. And when he spoke his line:
"There was an idea, Stark knows this, called the Avengers Initiative. The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, see if they could become something more. See if they could work together when we needed them to to fight the battles we never could."
But Walt was adamant. Only when someone pointed out to him that Mickey Mouse was actually black before he became technicolor, that he gave in and green lit Poitier.
In all the hullabaloo, Gregory Peck was actually accosted to play Nick Fury, but turned it down saying he’s not into comic books but rather characters of literature. “Captain Ahab, now that’s a role for the ages!” said he and went in character: “From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale.”
Anthony Perkins as Loki, God of Mischief
Fleischer and Disney were on a hunt for an English actor to play Loki, one they thought, has a Shakespearean quality about him. There were a string of choices: Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. Olivier would certainly be a big draw. Americans love him. The Oscars certainly love him. They thought he’d bring credibility to the movie that would improve its chances of winning awards. Walt Disney even thought of pampering the actor. “He could bring his wife (Vivien Leigh) to Disneyland, have a jolly good time as the English would say,” he said, having heard their marriage was on the rocks. All of those only for Olivier to say no. Apparently, the thespian’s production of The Prince and the Showgirl (Warner Bros.) was marred with problems, most notably the struggle to direct Marilyn Monroe.
Tab Hunter came out and suggested an actor he had met in the Chateau Marmont poolside. A young guy named Anthony Perkins. “He’s not English, but he’s really nice and shy,” Hunter said. “And he could act.” With nothing to lose, Perkins was called in for a screen test. And lo and behold, Fleischer found his reticence as a sort of camouflage to the actual demons that resided in him. “That’s mischief right there,” Fleischer quoted. Perkins got the part.
THE HIGHEST GROSSING MOVIE OF ALL TIME! NUFF SAID.
The Avengers opened in the summer of 1958 to huge box-office success, grossing over $620 million worldwide followed by the musical South Pacific with a mere $142 million. It beat Gone With the Wind ($437 million) to become the highest grossing movie at that time. During the 31st Oscar Awards, it bagged 7 nominations including Best Picture, Director, Sound, Art Direction, Cinematography, Special Effects and Editing, but took only one trophy home (Special Effects). Gigi won best picture and direction by Vincente Minnelli. No matter, the Avengers was the most popular movie of the year, selling millions in merchandise, and the comic book was as popular as ever. The franchise was off to a good start as Disney set his eyes on its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron.
TO BE CONTINUED...