Producer Robert Evans was set upon getting Laurence Olivier to play the role of Szell. However, because Olivier at the time was riddled with cancer, he was uninsurable so Paramount refused to use him. In desperation, Evans called his friends Merle Oberon and David Niven to arrange a meeting with the House of Lords (the upper body of the British parliament). There, he urged them to put pressure on Lloyd's of London to insure Britain's greatest living actor. The ploy succeeded and a frail Olivier started working on the film. In the end, not only did he net an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but his cancer also went into remission. Olivier lived on for another 13 years.
During the scene where the heavies try to drown Dustin Hoffman in the bathtub, Hoffman (always the method actor) insisted upon being made to stay underwater as long as possible to make it real. Several takes were done and Hoffman insisted on being kept down longer in the water. By the end of the scene, he had to be given oxygen. In his own words, "I said, 'Don't press on my Adam's apple, but try to really hold me under. Let me see how long I can stay under. Let me see if I can fight you. Let me see what happens.'"
Dustin Hoffman lost 15 pounds for this role. He ran up to four miles a day to get into shape for playing the role. He would never come into a scene and fake the breathing. According to producer Robert Evans, Hoffman "would run, just for a take, he would run for a half-mile so he came into the scene, he'd actually be out of breath."
Laurence Olivier took the role of Szell in part to leave a great deal of money to his wife and children, as he expected to die from the cancer that afflicted him throughout production. He performed the role while undergoing treatment for his cancer, which included heavy doses of painkillers to allow him to work every day. The pain medication affected his memory and at times the actor could not remember more than one or two of his lines at a time. In a testament to the actor's fierce concentration, his performance garnered rave reviews and an Oscar nomination and despite working under such aggressive medical treatment, the actor experienced a full recovery allowing him to enjoy the success of this film and a series of leading roles that followed.
A story circulated for a long time that Dustin Hoffman (being a "method actor") stayed up all night to play a character who has stayed up all night. Arriving on the set, Laurence Olivier asked Hoffman why he looked the way he did. Hoffman told him, to which Olivier replied in jest, "Why not try acting? It's much easier." Hoffman repeatedly denied the story, and finally cleared up the matter in 2004. The torture scene was filmed early in the morning, Hoffman was going through a divorce from his first wife and was depressed, and had spent the previous two nights partying hard. Hoffman told Olivier this and his comment related to his lifestyle and not his "method" style of acting.
Laurence Olivier was so afraid that he would accidentally hurt Dustin Hoffman while filming the torture scene that he would constantly ask Hoffman if he was all right after shooting a take. As a joke, Hoffman tried to make Olivier think that he had really hurt him by screaming in a very convincing and unexpected manner.
On the last day of shooting, Laurence Olivier visited Dustin Hoffman at his home, bringing with him "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare" as a gift. He then proceeded to read scenes from several of the plays, much to Hoffman's delight. The actor credits the story about his conflict with Olivier to general malice on the part of writer William Goldman, who did not take kindly to the fact that Hoffman had persuaded director John Schlesinger to change the ending of Goldman's book.
In the novel, Doc meets one of his rivals as an assassin at Los Angeles International Airport, and the two talk. Doc realizes that all assassins such as himself eventually are killed and, indeed, the fellow assassin is soon murdered in an airport rest room. Doc nearly kills the men who did it, which shows his behavior is becoming erratic and he may too soon be terminated. The incident makes Doc realize that the one thing he wants in his life is to die in the company of someone who loves him, not in the sordid manner of his fellow assassin. This desire explains Doc's motivation of going to his brother Babe after being mortally wounded, an action which is misunderstood by Szell and Janeway. In the movie, Doc's near murder of the killers of his fellow assassin was filmed, but cut, which also likely eliminated the motivation of why Doc goes to Babe.
According to "Adventures in the Screen Trade", at one point in rehearsal, Laurence Olivier asked William Goldman if he could change a line slightly, and called Goldman "Bill" while doing so. Goldman describes it as the high point of his career.
During the torture scene, Szell indicates he is afflicted with alexia. Alexia is a brain disorder in which a person is unable to understand written words. Sometimes also called acquired dyslexia, it refers specifically to the loss, usually in adulthood, of a previous ability to read.
The film changes the novel's ending, and Goldman thought the new ending was "shit". He felt the way the film ended, it left out two important plot clarifications. In the novel, Babe led Szell by gunpoint to Central Park, and shoots him multiple times, subsequently lecturing him. He then threw the diamonds away and is quietly led away by a policeman.
Dr. Christian Szell was ranked as villain #34 on the American Film Institute's "100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains" list. The film itself was ranked #50 on the "100 Years...100 Thrills" list. The torture scene was named #65 on Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments.
An 8 minutes and 30 second sequence was shot with Doc fighting some men who kill a spy colleague of his. It was later cut. William Goldman speculated it was cut because it was violent. He felt it was a grievous excision, one to the detriment of the film. With the scene missing, Doc's character seems less flawed than he really is.
There are two photos of long-distance runner legends in Babe's room: one is of Abebe Bikila, who is also seen running in the beginning of the film. The other is of Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist.
Although the first preview of the movie was successful, second one which was shown in San Fransisco did not go well. Audience complained on all the violence in the movie so director John Schlesinger and editor Jim Clark deleted following scenes; Fight scene near beginning of the movie in which Doc fights with two assassins who killed his friend, graphic and gory close-ups of Szell disemboweling Doc with his wrist blade, and both of the torture scenes were heavily cut. Graphic insert shots from torture scene which were filmed by Clark were removed. Some photos, such as original lobby cards and still shots show Szell torturing Babe longer with dental instruments in first torture scene and actual onscreen drilling of Babe's tooth in second torture scene.
When Babe comes in from a run, you can see a book titled "Corbitt" on his table. Corbitt was an American marathoner in the 1950s who was also from New York City and who also taught at Columbia University, which Babe attends in the movie.
John Schlesinger envisioned a cast of Al Pacino, Julie Christie and Laurence Olivier. Pacino has said that the only actress he had ever wanted to work with was Christie, who he claimed was "the most poetic of actresses". Producer Robert Evans, who disparaged Pacino as "The Midget" when Francis Ford Coppola wanted him for The Godfather (1972) and had thought of firing him during the early shooting of the now-classic film, vetoed Pacino for the lead. Instead, Evans insisted on the casting of the even shorter Dustin Hoffman. Christie, who was notoriously finicky about accepting roles, even in prestigious, sure-fire material, turned down the female lead, which was then taken by Marthe Keller. Of his dream cast, Schlesinger only got Olivier, who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Abebe Bikila is shown in flashbacks running in and winning the 1960 Olympic Marathon shoeless. After the race, when asked why he had run barefoot, he replied, "I wanted the whole world to know that my country, Ethiopia, has always won with determination and heroism."
Although the film takes place in New York City, at least two sequences were filmed in Los Angeles: the scene where Roy Scheider meets Laurence Olivier was filmed in front of the red steps statue in downtown Los Angeles in the Arco Plaza; and the library scene where Dustin Hoffman meets Marthe Keller was filmed at the Doheny Library on the University of Southern California campus. Coincidentally, Hoffman filmed scenes on the same campus nine years earlier in the landmark The Graduate (1967).
The author Christopher Pike called the film interesting in his novel The Eternal Dawn, meaning he must be a fan, but instead of citing the famous drill scene as the best, it's the scene after when Dustin Hoffman is rescued by a friend, who's secretly in league with Laurence Olivier and drives him right back.
Although his proper first name is not listed in any of the film's credits, Dustin Hoffman's character Babe does speak his full given name once: during police questioning after the murder of his brother he is asked his name and yells out "Thomas Babington Levy"
Laurence Olivier received his only Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as Dr. Christian Szell. All of his other acting nominations were for Best Actor. Moreover, Kenneth Branagh was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for playing Olivier in My Week with Marilyn (2011).
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Roy Scheider received the book while filming Jaws (1975). He finished the book in one night. The next day he told the man who had given him the book that it was a great book, and would make a great film, though he was disappointed that the character he found most interesting, Henry Levy, died halfway through the book. Only a year later, he was playing the part.
Outtakes reveal a couple of things. First, Laurence Olivier had trouble using the large switchblade made for his character Szell. Often, he would try to activate it and the blade would not come out. Second, several actors enjoyed imitating the unique speech patterns of producer Robert Evans. Years later, Dustin Hoffman used that imitation for his performance in Wag the Dog (1997).
Screenwriter Robert Towne did an uncredited rewrite on the ending climactic waterworks scene between Babe and Szell. Towne's rewrite had Babe force Szell to eat the diamonds. Towne also changed Szell's death to self-inflicted.