Anthony Quinn was working on a film with Giulietta Masina when she introduced him to her husband, Federico Fellini. Fellini was immediately convinced that the Mexican actor would make the perfect Zampano the strongman in his new film, which was to become (La Strada (1954), and implored him to accept the role. The nonplussed actor, who had no idea who Fellini was, initially turned him down, but Fellini was persistent, pestering him for days about the project. Shortly thereafter, Quinn spent the evening with Ingrid Bergman and her husband, director Roberto Rossellini. After dinner, the three watched Fellini's most recent film, the comedy-drama (I Vitelloni (1953), and Quinn realized with astonishment that the crazy Italian filmmaker who had been hounding him for days was a genius.
Federico Fellini had an extraordinarily difficult time finding producers who were willing to back the film. Several of the producers who had previously financed Fellini's work felt that the script was promising but that the film would be unlikely to turn a profit. Other potential backers were turned off by Fellini's insistence that his wife, Giulietta Masina, should play the role of Gelsomina. Fellini began shooting the film before any financial backers had officially signed on.
Anthony Quinn said in an interview a few years before his death that he originally accepted a deal that would have paid him a percentage of the profits this film generated instead of an upfront salary. When his agent found out about it, the agent changed the deal and insisted an upfront salary and no percentage. Quinn said that decision cost him several million dollars.
Walt Disney expressed serious interest in creating an animated feature based on Gelsomina, and there was interest from doll manufacturers and sweet firms to use her name. "I could have lived on Gelsomina for twenty years," Fellini said.
Very early on in the filming process, Giulietta Masina suffered a severe ankle sprain. This was potentially quite a serious setback since the film's financial backing was tenuous and producers had initially objected to Masina's casting. The injury stalled production for several weeks and led to a scheduling conflict for Anthony Quinn who had signed on to play the title role in Attila (1954). In an exceptionally gracious move, Quinn offered to continue working on this film to spare the production any further setbacks. He endured a grueling schedule, working for this film in the mornings and filming Attila during the evenings.
Director Federico Fellini has admitted that he each of the principal characters in the film represented the elements. Zampanò represented the Earth, Gelsomina represented water, and the Fool represented air.