During filming an actual fire broke out on one of the sets and Steve McQueen found himself briefly helping real firemen put it out. One of the firemen, not recognizing McQueen, said to the actor, "My wife is not going to believe this", to which McQueen replied, "Neither is mine."
According to actor/stuntman Ernie F. Orsatti, Faye Dunaway was often late to the set or didn't appear at all. This made some scenes impossible to film and caused other actors such as William Holden and Jennifer Jones to become quite upset. Holden reportedly shoved Dunaway against the wall one day and threatened her. For the next month, she had a perfect attendance record.
Paul Newman later regretted his decision to co-star with Steve McQueen because of the rivalry between the two, created by Steve. As a result, the fireman role dominates Newman's architect. Three contributing factors are 1) Both characters have the same number of lines (at McQueen's insistence); 2) McQueen's character doesn't appear until 43 minutes into the film. As a result, Newman had used almost half his lines before McQueen enters. And 3) the fire chief is the authoritative hero who outranks and captures center stage over all other characters. During filming, Newman was quoted as saying, "For the 1st time, I fell for the goddamn numbers. I did this turkey for a million and 10% of the gross, but it's the 1st and last time, I swear." He later collaborated with Irwin Allen on When Time Ran Out... (1980).
Both novels were inspired by the construction of the World Trade Center in the early-1970s, and what could happen in a fire in a skyscraper. In Richard Martin Stern's novel "The Tower", the fictional 140-story building was set next to the north tower of the World Trade Center. The climax of the novel was centered around a rescue mounted from the north tower.
Steve McQueen was married to Ali MacGraw at the time. Right before filming the dangerous and climactic scene in the Promenade Room, he told everyone, "If anything happens to me, Ali gets my pickup truck."
Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway left strict instructions that they should not be approached by visitors to the set. McQueen also refused to give any interviews. Paul Newman asked only that he not be "surprised".
Paul Newman's and Steve McQueen's names are staggered in the opening credits, closing credits, and on the posters so that, depending on which way you read it (top to bottom or left to right), both appear to get top billing. This is known as "diagonal billing", This strategy was being worked on when Newman and McQueen almost co-starred together in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), but McQueen eventually dropped out of the project and was replaced by the lesser known Robert Redford.
In an interview given years after the film was released, writer Stirling Silliphant said that he always sat under a sprinkler system head when visiting a building. He said he did that because he learned it from a fireman he interviewed while researching this project.
Based on two novels: "The Tower" by Richard Martin Stern, and "The Glass Inferno" by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. After the success of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), disaster was hot property and Warner Brothers bought the rights to film "The Tower" for $390,000. Eight weeks later Irwin Allen (of 20th Century Fox) discovered "The Glass Inferno" and bought the rights for $400,000. To avoid two similar films competing at the box office the two studios joined forces and pooled their resources, each paying half the production costs. In return, 20th Century Fox got the US box office receipts and Warners the receipts from the rest of the world.
Desperate to capture a truly surprised reaction from the cast, Irwin Allen actually fired a handgun into the ceiling without warning the actors, who were understandably "surprised". The trick worked and he got his shot.
The building used in the film was a series of miniatures and matte paintings. Only sections of the building were actually constructed for the actors and stunt people to perform their scenes. Interior shots of the building were of San Francisco's Hyatt Regency. Exterior shots used the Bank of America building (at 555 California St.) with an additional 50 stories of matte paintings added.
At first Irwin Allen did not want to use music during the first five minutes of the Helicopter Sequence. John Williams told Allen that he could come up with five minutes of music for the beginning. When Allen heard it, he agreed with Williams.
Irwin Allen originally wanted Steve McQueen to play the part of building architect Doug Roberts. McQueen, however, fought for and got the role of fire chief O'Halloran. The role of Doug Roberts went to Paul Newman.
According to Susan Flannery, 20th Century-Fox refused to let Irwin Allen direct all of the film. Allen directed all the action sequences and John Guillermin was hired only to direct the actors for non-action sequences. There were a total of four film units shooting at the same time.
The movie premiered on December 16, 1974. It won three Academy Awards--Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Song ("We May Never Lose Love Again"). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Fred Astaire ), Art Direction, Music (John Williams ) and Sound. It made over $100 million on its domestic run alone.
Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant took seven main figures from each novel and incorporated them into the screenplay, as well as the major climax of each novel: the lifeline rescue to an adjacent rooftop from "The Tower", and the exploding water tanks from "The Glass Inferno".
The fancy "blinkenlights" computer which runs the Glass Tower is an IBM AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central, built in 1954 to protect the US from Soviet bomber attack. About a dozen of them were installed around the US. Based on vacuum tube technology, the 'Q-7 in action took up the whole first floor of a "bomb-proof" concrete blockhouse, and generated as much raw heat as five single-family houses. The whole system became obsolete when missiles replaced manned bombers as the main threat. Components of decommissioned systems were sold for scrap and bought by film and television production companies who wanted futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s. The components used in this film were previously used in The Time Tunnel (1966) and Earth II (1971), and later used in Futureworld (1976) and Independence Day (1996).
Industry rumors circulated that Jennifer Jones received the part of Lisolette once Olivia de Havilland had turned it down, due to the influence of Jones' husband Norton Simon. Simon was a multimillionaire and held a large amount of stock in 20th Century-Fox; he also loaned several priceless Pablo Picasso paintings to the production for set decoration.
Four separate camera crews were utilized in some scenes, a record at the time. The crews were designated with capturing different aspects of the scenes: character filming, action shots, special effects, and aerial shots.
Fred Astaire lobbied to write a song for the film, but his effort was deemed to be too old-fashioned, making the way for Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha's Oscar-winning "We May Never Love Like This Again".
In the original script the role of the fire chief (known at the time as Mario Infantino) was considerably smaller. According to director John Guillermin, the role was offered to Ernest Borgnine with Steve McQueen playing the architect. McQueen later said, "If somebody of my caliber can play the architect, I'll play the fire chief," and Paul Newman was brought onto the project as the architect.
This was the second time in two years that Gregory Sierra worked with Steve McQueen and also the second time he died after being impaled in the stomach. The first time was in Papillon (1973) as he ran through the jungle and was impaled on a booby trap set by natives who were tracking him and Papillon.
James Franciscus and John Forsythe were the original choices for Sen. Gary Parker. However, it was felt that they too closely resembled then-Sen. John Tunney' and then-Governor Ronald Reagan. Since one was a Democrat and the other a Republican, they decided that they wanted to leave politics out of it. They then elected to offer the role to Robert Vaughn, who did not resemble anyone political at the time.
The fox fur-trimmed pink satin cape worn by Sheila Matthews as Mayor Ramsey's wife during the dedication ceremony of the Glass Tower was a leftover costume originally worn by Jean Simmons in Désirée (1954).
Released in the same year as the disastrous Joelma building fire in São Paulo, Brazil, in February 1, 1974, in which 191 people died and which was caused by the same reasons seen in the film (see Joelma 23º Andar (1980)).
After an extremely busy day of filming, both Paul Newman and Steve McQueen left the sound stage and decided to hang out for a while near one of their stand-by trailers. Paul came out of his trailer and invited the special effects crew members to join them in eating a big paper bag of freshly-made popcorn and enjoying a few cans of beer.
Over at Fox Back Lot, A crew constructed a Three Story Replica of The Scenic Elevator Explosion. LB Abbott and AW Flowers were in charge of the Elevator Explosion. Some of the Cast Members was inside the Elevator, including Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones, and including the Future Mrs. Irwin Allen, Shelia Matthews. Allen was Directing the Blast Sequence. It was shot at night, and when the massive explosion went off, with the Stars inside the Scenic Elevator, they could feel the massive heat coming from the explosion. So much so, the explosion caught other parts of the outdoor set on fire, and including the trees behind the set. Matthews told Allen, that they were all wearing chiffon clothing and could feel the heat. The Massive Explosion was the only take that Allen did, and used in the Film.
The First Interstate Tower in downtown Los Angeles was completed the same year this film was released (1974). Fourteen years later, in May of 1988, the FI Tower experienced a real fire that burned out 4-1/2 floors, ruined many floors above with smoke and below with water, and closed the building for almost five months. The fire happened late at night, when only a few dozen people were in the building, and no crowds, traffic or other demands on water hampered firefighters. Only one death occurred, when someone used an override key to force an elevator to the floor where the fire had started, and perished--such as was shown happening to elevator riders in the film. The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner ran side-by-side photos of the actual fire and the fire from this film on its front page the following day. The story of the real fire was told in the TV film Fire: Trapped on the 37th Floor (1991).
The largest set constructed for the movie was The Promenade Deck, the site of the party on the 135th floor. It covered a total area of 11,000 square feet, was 25 feet high and enclosed by a 340-foot cloth painted to resemble the San Francisco skyline. The set was around ten feet off the ground to allow the water in the climax to be drained off, and also to give a sense of height to the shots of people being forced through the windows. The set cost $300,000.
The upper 15 floors of The Glass Tower were built as a facade in the dirt parking lot of the 20th Century-Fox Ranch in Malibu, California, including drapes for all the windows and an explosion hole at the outside elevator track. It remained standing in the same location for many years, even after the state of California bought the land and opened the ranch to the public.
Scriptwriter Stirling Silliphant combined the two novels to create one screenplay. The combined three words that make up the titles of the two novels were combined to give the name of the film, and the name of the building that is on fire (The Glass Tower).
During the early morning process of getting the scene ready for the exploding ceilings, water pipes bursting and swinging from the ceiling area, fires burning and smoke filling the set...as one of the special effects crew members, Gary L. King was located on the set that was actually built on a platform about 10 feet above the sound stage floor level. To supply additional water to the set, a 4 inch main water hose feeding to a manifold on the set was rigged to do a rounded bend from the stage floor up and onto the set level. As the high pressure of water was turned on, a weakened part of the fire hose suddenly burst the hose into a wild twisting-and-water-spitting snake. Being closest to the hose, Gary attempted to contain the hose with a large plastic trash barrel in order to prevent the water spray from hitting any of the film equipment including cameras, lights,and sound recording equipment along with any film crew as well. As Gary battled for control of the busted hose, the rest of the film crew scattered leaving Gary alone in action. Suddenly, before the water pressure was shut off, Gary noticed someone else joining him in the battle. The water was finally turned off and Gary then heard the film crew cheer and applaud his and the helper's actions. He turned around completely soaked from head to toes to thank his helper...Steve McQueen who told Gary to see his wardrobe assistant and get a dry set of clothes to work in. It just so happened that both Gary and Steve were about the same size in height and weight...The fit was perfect.
The HH-1N helicopters are in the original paint scheme used by NAS Lemoore's (CA) Search and Rescue Flight. Later on, they were painted red and white. Up until the unit's disbandment in 2004, the Flight was still pointing out it was their helicopters used in the movie.
As a member of the special effects crew working on the film and personally involved in all of the scenes with water falling from the exploding tanks above the party / restaurant area, Gary L. King related that the special effects crew used a series of fire hoses connected to a quick-action valve that, when opened, squirted the water forward towards Paul Newman, Fred Astaire and Steve McQueen. The water was diverted by a plywood ramp located about ten feet on the floor ahead of the actors. The deflector caused the water stream to go upwards and fall down on each actor. None of the actors were injured by the special effects rigging during any of those shots filmed.
In April 1973 Twentieth Century-Fox and Warner Bros entered a bidding war for the rights to the two novels that the film is based on. On September 17 it was formally announced that, for the first time ever, two major studios had entered into a joint venture. John Guillermin was announced as director in March 1974. Production began on May 7, 1974.
The end credits on initial release listed Malcolm Atterbury as a jeweler presenting Robert Wagner's character with large golden scissors for the Glass Tower ribbon-cutting ceremony, although his scene had been edited out of the final cut. The scene was included in NBC's television premiere of the film. The credit has since been removed while it may still be seen on older prints.
In the early drafts Simmons is killed early on when he escapes by the stairs. Instead it was Sen. Parker who tries to escape in the breech-buoy panic scene. However, the role of Simmons was expanded and Sen. Parker's role was heavily cut.
In 2017, by horrific and shocking coincidence, certain story elements of "The Towering Inferno" would have uncomfortable similarities to the real-life Grenfell Tower fire, in London, England. One most obvious element that was soon apparent was a parallel in particular to cost cutting measures, changing the original design specs.