This film was first telecast on US television on Easter weekend, 1968. Not only was the ABC-TV telecast aired at an early hour (7:00 PM EST) to facilitate family viewing, but it aired with only one commercial break, an unheard-of concession for the time.
Director Henry Koster chose Donald C. Klune - his 2nd assistant director - to play the role of Jesus in the film. Klune would thus sign all the extras' vouchers and finish the paperwork while still in costume. He also had to eat lunch in his dressing room, as the studio thought it would be inappropriate for "Jesus" to eat in the commissary at Fox.
Famous as the first film released in CinemaScope. It was not planned that way. After a week of shooting in standard academy (1.33:1), the production was shut down. When production was resumed, they started from scratch and did each shot in CinemaScope, and them again in the standard academy format. The film was released in CinemaScope only theatrically at first. In the 1990's this version was released to television (when "letterboxing" began to be used for widescreen films shown there). The standard academy format version was released to theatres not yet equipped for CinemaScope, and to television in the 1960's.
The opening shot after the title credits (and the background "red robe" curtain parts) is actually a scene lifted from this film's sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). That's Jay Robinson as Caligula presiding over the ceremony preceding the gladiatorial games. Susan Hayward as Messalina sitting to his left, Barry Jones as Claudius on his right, William Marshall as Glycon in the front row of gladiator on the far right, Victor Mature as Demetrius standing directly behind him and Ernest Borgnine as Strabo who is leading the gladiatorial procession.
Richard Burton hated making the film so much that he turned down a contract from 20th Century-Fox. He was amazed to receive an Oscar nomination after critics had almost universally described his performance as "wooden".
Darryl F. Zanuck originally offered the role of Marcellus to Tyrone Power in a bid to get him to renew his contract with Fox. Power instead opted to star in the play "John Brown's Body" on Broadway, which closed after 65 performances.
The set of Cana, the village of Galilea where Marcellus Gallio meets Peter, was also used in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) - this film's sequel - as the Christian neighborhood in Rome where Demetrius lives in the beginning of the movie. The well with the old broken columns can be easily recognized.
Richard Burton had a ferocious argument with 20th Century-Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck before the film's release. This was another reason why he decided to return to London's West End theater district rather than remain in Hollywood.
Acclaimed by many film historians as a triumph in the art of motion-picture music, Alfred Newman's reverent, intense, prodigious background music failed to garner an Academy Award nomination for Dramatic Score. Nonetheless, Newman did take home an Oscar that night - for his role as musical director of the Irving Berlin-Ethel Merman frolic, Call Me Madam (1953). To register his unhappiness with the snub, distinguished film composer Franz Waxman, an Oscar winner for Sunset Blvd. (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951), resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Compounding his appreciation for the Newman opus, Waxman required that his screen credit for this film's sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), note that the Waxman score was based on the Newman score. Ironically, that year's winning Dramatic Score perhaps had been placed in the wrong category. Bronislau Kaper's charming score for Lili (1953), really a semi-musical starring Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer, spotlighted Kaper's melodies for two dream-dance sequences (choreographed by Charles Walters), and the wistful hit waltz, "Li-Lili, Hi-Lo" (lyrics by Helen Deutsch). It was not nominated.