The billboard that the twin-engine Beechcraft flies through was made of thin balsa wood, except for a thicker frame for support. Stunt pilot Frank Tallman had to fly the aircraft directly through the center of the billboard or the thicker frame would shear off a wing. The billboard was located in Irvine, at what is now the intersection of Interstate 405 and Hwy 133 (Laguna Canyon), near Lion Country Safari, just east of John Wayne Airport. They had practiced with paper signs, but used balsa wood for the actual movie stunt. The wood stopped one engine and the other was sputtering enough that the plane barely made it back to John Wayne airport.
Don Rickles reportedly wanted to be in the movie but was never asked. He never let Stanley Kramer live it down, either, even heckling him about it from the stage whenever Kramer came to see Rickles' show.
Most of the desert "chase" sceneswere filmed near what is now Palm Desert, CA. If you look closely, you will see a road sign for Highway 74, which runs south from the heart of the city of Palm Desert. The vast open spaces are now largely residential country clubs with golf courses. The chase scenes that are not in the desert were mostly filmed along Highway 101 between Woodland Hills and Agoura Hills, with a few scenes in Malibu and Port Hueineme. The former Mobile gas station where Don Knotts loses his car is now Wood Ranch Grill in Agoura Hills. The red Dodge and the blue Chevy overturn into a creek at Agoura Road and Vejar Drive, in Agoura Hills.
In the scene where Pike is attacking Meyer at Irwin and Ray's Garage, Jonathan Winters actually injured Phil Silvers at least twice, visibly seen due to Phil Silver's reactions to getting hit. Once when Pike rams the back of Meyer's head into a gas pump a little too hard, and again at least once during when he is hitting Meyer with a pair of spare tires.
Arnold Stang broke his left forearm just days before his scenes were shot. In all shots, he wears garage workman's gloves on both hands and his his left arm is always crooked, and held in place by a cast concealed under his garage uniform.
Contrary to popular belief, the car that Jack Benny drives in his cameo is not a Maxwell, the defunct brand of automobile famed as his "jalopy" on his radio show. The car he is driving is a 1931 or 1932 Cadillac. It is either a Series 355-0A (which came with a V-8 engine) or a Series 370-A (which came with a V-12 engine).
In the opening title animation, when the figure blows up the world and the actors' names scatter on the screen, there is a very brief moment - only three frames, in fact - when the letters form the names of the animators, including Bill Melendez, Bernie Gruver [ Bernard Gruver ], and other animators.
In the scene where Jonathan Winters backed the truck into the water tower, it actually fell too soon, before the truck actually hit it. To compensate, special effects split the screen and slowed down the side with the water tower so that the fall would coincide with the hit.
It became well known that Stanley Kramer was casting nearly every comedy performer he could think of. Some famous stars actually contacted Kramer to volunteer for the project, or to inquire as to why they had not been contacted.
When the cast first assembled for a meeting with the director, they were shown the stunts and second unit footage that had already been shot. One of the performers was so impressed they asked "Why do you need us?"
A dance sequence featuring The Shirelles was filmed but never used and appears to no longer survive. However, their uncredited performances of the title song and "31 Flavours" can still be heard on the soundtrack album.
Despite being released by Cinerama, this film was not shot in the three-strip Cinerama process, but was projected on the deeply curved original Cinerama screen upon original release, which was exclusively to Cinerama theatres, followed by release to "regular" theatres. It was shot in Ultra Panavision 70, a one-strip process that, when projected on a huge curved screen, somewhat mimics the Cinerama effect. The souvenir booklet for the film, sold during the picture's roadshow run, falsely boasted that the Cinerama image, which normally required the use of three strips of film on three projectors running simultaneously, had been "miraculously blended into one", when in fact the film was not being projected in Cinerama at all.
The famously stone-faced Buster Keaton was originally set to play "Smiler Grogan." When the part was re-assigned to Jimmy Durante, Keaton was given another role as "Jimmy", a former smuggler who Captain Culpepper forces to help him in his plan to run away with the money.
Many of the locations for "Santa Rosita" were filmed in Long Beach, CA. The "Santa Rosita" Police Department was in real life the main branch of the YMCA at 6th and Long Beach Blvd. The hardware store the Crumps were locked in was at 5th and Locust.
The roles of Melville and Monica Crump were originally larger roles and written for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in mind. However, when production on The Judy Garland Show (1963) ran into trouble, she had to turn down the part. Rooney was eventually given the supporting role of Ding "Dingy" Bell. Edie Adams, who was originally cast in the role of Emeline, was given the role of Monica. Ernie Kovacs was then cast as Melville but was tragically killed in a car crash before shooting began and was replaced by Sid Caesar.
Top-billed Spencer Tracy worked on the film for a total of nine days. Aware of Tracy's poor health--stemming from type 2 diabetes and emphysema--director Stanley Kramer only allowed him to work for three to four hours a day and did not let him appear in any of the hot and arid desert exterior scenes. A stunt double was used for Tracy in a few action scenes, one of which includes him running up the building stairs during the climactic chase where you don't see his face.
For the intermission of the premiere engagement at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, the filmmakers recorded messages supposedly sent over police radios describing what was happening to various characters. These messages were played not only in the auditorium during the intermission, but out at the concession stand and even in the bathrooms.
In guitar legend Jeff Beck's 1999 album "Who Else?". the first track is titled "What Mama Said". There is a repeated sound sample of Dick Shawn (as Sylvester) saying "Y'all hear what Mama said?". This line is from the scene where the men are all digging up the money under "The Big W". Beck did this as an homage to this film, as it is one of his favorite movies due in much part to its many crazy car stunts.
The final gas station collapse did not go quite as planned. The water tower crashed into the small building behind the station, which was rigged to collapse but was accidentally triggered before the water tower actually hit it. Special-effects technician Linwood G. Dunn was called in to optically fix the scene. Dunn took the scene and split-screened the small building, first freeze-framing it then catching the collapsing action up to the water tower strike. All this too place on the right side of the frame.
The Rancho Conejo Airport, where Dingy and Benjy land, was a real airport by that name that was open in Newbury Park, a part of Thousand Oaks, from 1960 to 1965. In 2013 the property is covered by a gated community named Rancho Conejo Village. It is just north of the 101 freeway at the Ventu Park exit. The Rancho Conejo Airport never had a tower. The one in the movie was built just for the movie.
During filming of the infamous "gas station" destruction, Jonathan Winters was accidentally left on stage and completely bound in thick tape. Hours later, when the cast returned from lunch, they found that he had not even been able to free his arms from the chair. In retaliation, Winters gave a three-hour lecture to Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan on forced potty training.
On 17 November 1963, the day before the movie opened for the public in New York, there was a much-publicized gala charity premiere benefit at the Cinerama Theater for the Kennedy Child Study Center in New York and the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Institute of Washington. In addition to the stars in attendance, most of President Kennedy's family was there, including his mother, sisters, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and brothers Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas five days later.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Only one of the four palm trees that made up the "Big W" survived into the 21st century. However, some time between 2000 and 2010, the remaining tree (the very far-right of the Big W) was lost during a storm, leaving a stump. None of the trees have been replaced as of July 2010.
The "big W" is visible almost the moment the cast arrives at the park. In a wide shot showing the first ones to arrive (Edie Adams, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney) you can see three of the four palms to the extreme left of the screen, albeit obscured by bushes.