The movie was one of a series of films in the 1960s, beginning with the The Pawnbroker, to successfully challenge the Production Code Office. In addition to the compromise on language described below, WB studio head, Jack L. Warner, undercut the Code's usefulness by arranging to have the film released with the "For Adults Only" and required theaters to prohibit selling tickets to unaccompanied minors, which in effect unofficially created the Restricted rating years before the Motion Picture Association of America abandoned the Production Code for a classification system (G-GP-M-X) in 1968.
Frank Flanagan, who appears uncredited as the motel/café innkeeper, was the film's gaffer. The woman who plays his wife is actually his real-life wife Agnes who was Elizabeth Taylor's hairdresser on the film.
According a 2005 interview with Edward Albee, the original writer of the play which the film is based, producer Ernest Lehman hired himself to write the screenplay for $250,000. Also, Albee says that when director Mike Nichols and stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor read the script, they hated it so much that, unknown to Lehman, they changed all of the dialog back to Albee's play save two lines: "Hey, let's go to the roadhouse!" and "Hey, let's come back from the roadhouse!" Albee said, "Two lines for $250,000, $125,000 a piece. That's pretty good."
According to Edward Albee, the only thing he doesn't like about the film is the over-use of over-head shots. He did say, however, that he envisioned Bette Davis and James Mason as Martha and George rather than Taylor and Burton. If Davis had been cast, she would have ended up parodying a line from one of her old films ("What a dump!") in the opening scene.
When the film was shown on network television for the first time, some local television affiliates bumped the broadcast from 9:00 P.M. to 11:30 P.M., because a film with such adult language had never been shown on network TV.
Costing $7.5 million, it was the most expensive black & white movie yet made in the U.S. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Edward Albee's combined salaries/fees were (not including percentages): $2,350,000 - $1,100,000 for Taylor, $750,000 for Burton and $500,000 for Albee.
In this film, Elizabeth Taylor does an exaggerated impression of Bette Davis saying a line from Beyond the Forest: "What a dump!" In an interview with Barbara Walters, Bette Davis said that in the film, she really did not deliver the line in such an exaggerated manner. She said it in a more subtle, low-key manner, but it has passed into legend that she said it the way Elizabeth Taylor's delivered it in this film. During the Barbara Walters interview, the clip of Bette Davis delivering the line from Beyond the Forest was shown to prove that Davis was correct. However, since people expected Bette Davis to deliver the line the way Elizabeth Taylor had, she always opened her in-person, one woman show by saying the line in a campy, exaggerated manner: "WHAT ... A... DUMP!!!". It always brought down the house. "I imitated the imitators", Davis said.
Jack Lemmon was the only actor to be offered the role of George in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before Richard Burton was cast. He accepted the role but quickly changed his mind the next day without offering any explanation. Other sources claim that Lemmon's asking price was too high for Warner.
In addition to Sleuth and Give 'em Hell, Harry!, only one of three films in which entire on-screen billed cast received acting Oscar nominations. (Although Sleuth's credits did contain a number of nonexistent phony cast members to mislead audiences into thinking it was more than a two-character thriller and Virginia Woolf did feature two unbilled bit players as roadhouse employees.)
Although the title was obviously inspired by the song "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" (sung in the Disney cartoon The Three Little Pigs), Warner Bros. was unable to negotiate use of tune, so when characters sing the title phrase it is illogically set to melody of the public domain folk song "Here We Go 'round the Mulberry Bush."
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
According to director Mike Nichols, producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman had written a different ending for the film where George and Martha's son had hanged himself in the closet years before. Nichols refused to shoot it.