The Roman soldier who nails Jesus to the cross was played by an Israeli who spoke very little English. 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!"
"Then We are Decided", in which Annas and Caiaphas discuss the threat of Jesus and decide to take it up with the council, was a totally new song written for this version. It wasn't used again until the 2016/2017 touring production with director Massimo Romeo Piparo, starring Ted Neeley as Jesus.
After Ted Neeley invited director Norman Jewison to see him in a matinee performance of The Who's Tommy (1975), Neeley 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 afterward, he drove from Los Angeles to Jewison's hotel in Palm Springs and dressed up as Jesus Christ. Jewison was planning to leave for Israel soon after. Not only did Jewison accept his explanation and apology, but he also gave Neeley the title role in the film.
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.
The "39 Lashes" scene 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.
Norman Jewison had originally contacted Ian Gillan to play Jesus because Gillan sang the role on the original album version of the opera. Gillan refused because of his commitments to his band Deep Purple.
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. Cassidy eventually went on to play Jesus in a stock production of "Superstar" in the 1980s.
At a cast reunion, director Norman Jewison recalled that while shooting the film, all of the electricians disappeared one day. He was told that there was a skirmish, and the crew members all had to go fight, as all Israeli adults are in the army. The electricians returned, victorious, two days later. (Commentary from Superstars (2015) bonus material.)
When Larry Marshall quivered at the end of "Simon Zealotes", this was due to him being about to faint after dancing in the 105 degree (F) heat. (Recounted in the bonus segment of the Superstars (2015) documentary.)
In the scene where Pontius Pilate first meets Jesus Christ, Barry Dennen had difficulty climbing to his spot on top of the hill, due to a scraggly path and ill-fitting shoes. Seeing this, a burly grip threw the actor over his shoulders and carried him up the hill. Director Norman Jewison then called from below for Dennen to come to the very edge of the cliff. (Recounted in the bonus segment of the Superstars (2015) documentary.)
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.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
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.
Some of the original lyrics were changed for the film, partly enriching its 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."
Ted Neeley made his debut as a camera operator during the filming of one of the more memorable scenes: 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.)