According to Sidney Lumet the "Mad as Hell" speech was filmed in one and a half takes. Midway through the second take, Peter Finch abruptly stopped in exhaustion. Lumet was unaware of Finch's failing heart at the time, but in any case did not ask for a third take. What's in the completed film is the second take for the first half of the speech, and the second half from the first take.
To celebrate Faye Dunaway's first Oscar victory, husband-to-be photographer Terry O'Neill arranged to meet her at the Beverly Hills Hotel at 6:30 am the morning after the Academy Awards for a photo shoot. What transpired was the famous image of a listless Dunaway, reclining beside the tranquil hotel swimming pool with her Oscar statuette standing upright on the table beside her. Thrown in for good measure were various newspapers scattered on the ground and table, the headlines of which mostly echoed the previous night's festivities. Dunaway had not slept since her win and so appears totally fatigued, prompting O'Neill to title his photograph "The Morning After" shot.
Sidney Lumet recalled that Paddy Chayefsky was usually on the set overseeing his direction, and would give him advice on how certain scenes should be played. Lumet claims that Chayefsky had better comedic instinct than him, but when it came time to shoot the scene between Max and Louise, Lumet told Chayefsky, "Paddy, please, I know more about divorce than you".
Peter Finch died before the Academy Awards were to take place, where he was nominated for Best Actor. He won, making him the first performer ever to receive a posthumous award at the Oscars. The second winner was fellow Australian Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008) in 2009.
Arthur Burghardt, the actor playing Great Ahmet Khan, was a vegetarian. For the scene where he was to munch on a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burghardt stuffed his cheeks with paper towels and smeared the grease on his face before the camera rolled, instead of actually eating meat.
Director Sidney Lumet said that he shot the film using a specific lighting scheme. He said in the film's opening scenes, he shot with as little light as possible, shooting the film almost like a documentary. As the film progressed, he added more light and more camera moves and by the end of the film, it was as brightly lit and "slick" as he could make it.
Henry Fonda turned down the role of Howard Beale, saying that it was "too hysterical." Glenn Ford and George C. Scott did also. Although William Holden turned it down, he was cast in the other male lead and was nominated for Best Actor along with Peter Finch.
Sidney Lumet claimed that he wanted to cast Vanessa Redgrave in the film, but Paddy Chayefsky didn't want her. Lumet argued that he thought she was the greatest English-speaking actress in the world, while Chayefsky, a proud Jew and supporter of Israel, objected on the basis of her support of the PLO. Lumet, himself a Jew, said "Paddy, that's blacklisting!" to which Chayefsky replied, "Not when a Jew does it to a Gentile." The year after this film swept the Oscars, Redgrave won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Julia (1977). The Jewish Defense League had protested her nomination and was picketing and burning her in effigy outside the Academy Awards ceremony. In her controversial acceptance speech, Redgrave decried intimidation by "Zionist hoodlums". Chayefsky was one of the scheduled presenters later in the evening, and he took a moment to express his contempt at Redgrave for "exploiting" the Academy Awards for "personal propaganda".
United Artists agreed to make the film despite having recently settled a lawsuit brought on by producers Paddy Chayefsky and Howard Gottfried that challenged the company's right to lease their previous film, The Hospital (1971), to U.S. television network ABC in a package with less successful film. Later, UA backed out, fearing the subject matter was too controversial. Once MGM agreed to make the movie, UA suddenly did a reversal, choosing to co-produce the film with the competing studio that, six years later, would buy UA outright following the debacle of Heaven's Gate (1980), a financial and public relations nightmare that prompted UA's parent company, Transamerica, to bail out of the film business.
According to Shaun Considine, the author of "Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky", George C. Scott was offered the role of Howard Beale but declined without reading the script, apparently due to his having once been offended by director Sidney Lumet. Whatever happened, exactly, the hatchet must have been buried at some time, as Scott made his final feature film appearance in the Lumet-directed Gloria (1999).
Upon its original release, the film was a co-production of MGM, which released the film in the US, and United Artists, which distributed internationally. Following the 1981 merger of the two studios, the newly-formed MGM/UA Entertainment Company held worldwide rights for five years. In 1986, the US rights were included in Turner Entertainment's purchase of the pre-1986 MGM library, but not the non-US rights, as MGM/UA retained UA's own post-1951 releases. MGM continued to hold US video rights for 13 more years, after which they reverted to Warner Bros., whose parent Time Warner purchased Turner in 1996. As of 2014, Warner/Turner still controls US rights to the film, and MGM still controls international rights.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Writer Paddy Chayefsky was eerily prescient in his screenplay in three significant ways. First, the screenplay pertains to the goings-on at UBS, the fictional fourth network existing alongside the non-fictional ABC, CBS and NBC. In 1987 Fox became the real fourth network. Second, in her speech to her employees about her goals for UBS, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) says, "I don't want conventional programming on this network. I want counterculture, I want anti-establishment," the type of programming delivered by Fox with its two debut series - Married with Children (1987) and The Tracey Ullman Show (1987). Third, Diana Christensen's creation of the show about the Ecumenical Liberation Army and its criminal activities is prescient of "reality TV" in that, as a result of the writers' strike of 1988 (which lasted 22 weeks), Fox started to run low on new content. To replace it, the network bought the show Cops (1989) (which featured police officers trying to thwart criminal activity). Despite very noteworthy predecessors, such as An American Family (1973), which depicted the experiences of the Loud family, and Scared Straight! (1978), some consider "Cops" the true progenitor of the long-running trend of "reality TV".
Erroneously claimed to be the film debut of Tim Robbins as one of the assassins that kills Peter Finch's character. Robbins himself has stated publicly that he did not play the part and was in fact a senior in high school at the time.