Ted Neeley almost missed out on being cast in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). After inviting director Norman Jewison to see him in a matinee performance of The Who's Tommy (1975), he was injured during a show just prior to the one Jewison had bought a ticket to see. He recovered in time for the next show. Immediately following this, he drove from Los Angeles to Jewison's hotel in Palm Springs and dressed up as Jesus Christ. (Norman was leaving for Israel soon thereafter, to shoot the movie.) Not only did Jewison accept his explanation and apology, but he also gave him the title role in the film.
A totally new song was written especially for this feature, "Then we are decided", where Annas and Caiaphas discuss the threat of Jesus and decide to take it up with the council. It was never used in any production again.
One young actor who auditioned for the role of Jesus was a young 17 year old actor from New Jersey. That actor was none other than John Travolta and even though he didn't get the part, producer Robert Stigwood kept the young actor in mind for any future productions. Three years later Stigwood would cast Travolta for the lead in the film that would make Travolta a star, Saturday Night Fever (1977).
Norman Jewison based the "Last Supper" tableau on the famous painting by 'Leonardo Da Vinci', which is located on a wall of the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, Italy. In doing so, he managed to give the dancers playing the Apostles specific character names. The only flaw is, the singer who plays "Peter", Paul Thomas, is seated in the wrong place. He is on the end, in the position Da Vinci painted "Bartholomew". In the painting, "Peter" is believed to be the apostle whispering to "John", the apostle seated immediately to Jesus' right, our left.
According to Ted Neeley and Norman Jewison on the DVD commentary, the shepherd walking across the frame in the final shot of the film was never intended to be there, and just happened across the shot as they were filming. Because of the significance of a shepherd in the teachings of Christ, Jewison and the crew were struck profoundly by the timing of this shepherd crossing the field, and kept the shot. They got a perfect sunset, as well as a subtle depiction of the resurrection.
Norman Jewison claims in the DVD commentary that this is the last movie to be shot in Todd-AO. However, it is billed as being made in Todd-AO 35. The picture was later blown up to 70mm for engagements at Cinerama screen theatres. If this had been shot in genuine Todd-AO, no "blowing up" would have been necessary, the picture would have already been made in 70mm.
"King Herod's Song" is actually a number from "King Richard", a failed Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Tim Rice had to write new lyrics for this number so that it could be added to "Jesus Christ Superstar"; originally, the number was called "Those Saladin Days".
According to the book "The Bible On Film" by Richard H. Campbell and Michael R. Pitts (Scarecrow Press, 1981), page 169, David Cassidy and Micky Dolenz were also considered to play Jesus. David Cassidy eventually went on to play Jesus in a stock production of "Superstar" in the Eighties. Ian Gillan was also considered for the role of Jesus Christ.
The "39 Lashes" scene in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) was so realistic that Ted Neeley's mother walked out on it. Mrs. Neeley had never laid a hand on young Ted in an anything but affectionate manner, and could not bear the sight of her son being whipped and tortured by anyone else, even though she knew it was just acting.
Ted Neeley made his debut as a camera operator during the filming of one of the more memorable scenes in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973): That in which "Judas Iscariot" is chased down a sand dune by five tanks. (The scene, incidentally, is meant to illustrate the desperation and personal conflict which drove Judas to consult the priests about betraying Jesus.)
Tragedy almost struck for real while the Crucifixion was being filmed. The Roman soldier we see nailing Christ to the cross is an Israeli actor who spoke very limited English; consequently, he thought Ted Neeley was actually supposed to have nails hammered through his hands! Just in time, director Norman Jewison saw what was happening and screamed, "NO! NOT IN THE HAND!"
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Some of the original lyrics were changed for the film, partly enriching it's content ("Hosanna", "The Temple") and partly making it more acceptable for a Christian audience. In a scene where a group of beggars overpowers Jesus, "Heal yourselves!", was changed to "Leave me alone!". In "Trial before Pilate", Jesus said "There may be a kingdom for me somewhere, if you only knew", while the original line had been "if I only knew". And in "Judas' Death", the line "What you have done will be the saving of Israel" was changed to "...the saving of everyone."