Sir Laurence Olivier agreed to play the uncredited role of the narrator, because he was so impressed with Zeffirelli's work for the National Theatre of Great Britain, of which Olivier was director at the time. Not only was Olivier the narrator, but as Franco Zeffirelli has also confirmed, he dubbed Antonio Pierfederici's voice (due to the actor's heavy Italian accent) as well as lending his voice to other anonymous characters. He did it all for the love of William Shakespeare, and didn't accept any payment.
A rumor surrounding this movie was that Olivia Hussey was really Franco Zeffirelli's daughter. Not true, of course. Zeffirelli initially turned Hussey down for the role of Juliet, thinking her overweight. The actress he did choose cut her hair just before filming, ruining the effect she had on Zeffirelli. Hussey came in for another reading but by this time had developed into a beautiful teenager. She got the part.
This was the first major movie production of this play to cast a leading actor and actress who were close to the ages of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Franco Zeffirelli needed to get special permission to show teenaged Olivia Hussey topless in one scene. Leonard Whiting, who was from Great Britain, was seventeen at the time (the legal age of consent in Britain is sixteen) and did not need permission. Italy, where this movie was made, has similar age laws.
During the sword fight scene, when Mercutio throws a sword at Tybalt's feet, Mercutio's shadow is actually Franco Zeffirelli's shadow standing in for him because John McEnery was sick that day (according to Michael York's autobiography).
It's often reported that Olivia Hussey was fifteen years old at the movie's premiere, and thus not allowed to see it due to (her own) nudity. This is an urban myth. Her birth year is listed as 1951. The British film censor board gave this movie an "A" certificate, this would have made her sixteen or seventeen at the time of release in 1968, and she legally could have viewed the movie. Even if she had been less than sixteen, she could have attended with a guardian. It's possible that the studio could have reported this, as newspaper interviews as late as 1968 still quoted her as being fifteen years old, so her youth was clearly a publicity gimmick.
According to Paramount Pictures' souvenir book, it appears that director Franco Zeffirelli either filmed and cut, or at least intended to film, the scene where Paris confronts Romeo at Juliet's tomb, and is killed by him in a sword fight. Fencing master Niccolo Pena was engaged to train Leonard Whiting, Michael York, John McEnery, and Roberto Bisacco, the actor who played Paris. The book states, "Romeo, Tybalt, Mercutio, and Paris all get into trouble through their haste to draw a sword." It goes on to mention that Whiting was given an authentic Renaissance sword to use in the movie.
Bruce Robinson (Benvolio) concentrated on screenwriting, earning an Oscar nomination for The Killing Fields (1984). When he wrote and directed Withnail & I (1987), he based the Uncle Monty character on director Franco Zeffirelli, who had constantly pursued and attempted to woo Robinson during the making of this movie.
Olivia Hussey wrote in her autobiography, "The Girl on the Balcony", that director Franco Zeffirelli fell in love with her during filming. He later confessed that she was the "unrequited love of my life" and the "object of my adoration."
Although this movie was originally shown with a mono soundtrack, and although the soundtrack on the DVD is mono, the three soundtrack albums made from this movie (one with score and dialogue excerpts, one with the entire movie soundtrack, and one with only the music) were all released in stereo.
This was the first Shakespearean movie that received a classification other than "U" (all ages) by the British censors. Prior to this, Shakespeare adaptations were automatically granted a "U", but the censors ultimately changed their minds due to the nudity and the crypt scene.
With the famous line "O, Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?", Juliet uses the word "wherefore" as though it means "where" rather than "how come" or "why", as implied by her subsequent utterance of "In the bushes? Under the balcony?" which isn't in the script of the classic plays, because the Juliet of the original is wondering the reason that the boy with whom she's infatuated is Romeo, a Montague, rather than where he is. The alteration to the script was done for comedic effect, but going one step further to replace "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" with "Where art thou, Romeo?" (with a comma) would've averted this erroneous use of "wherefore", leaving only a slight deviation of the original meaning of Juliet's brief soliloquy instead.
The last Shakespearean movie (to date) to have its American television premiere on commercial network television rather than cable. Peter Brook's King Lear (1971) was never shown on commercial television networks, and by the time Sir Kenneth Branagh released his version of Henry V (1989), virtually every movie was shown on cable television before it went to the commercial networks.
Sir Laurence Olivier (Narrator), Olivia Hussey (Juliet), and Michael York (Tybalt) were amongst the all-star cast of the mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Olivier played Nicodemus, Hussey played Mary, mother of Jesus, and York played John the Baptist.
Olivia Hussey (Juliet) and Michael York (Tybalt) were among the all star cast of the 1977 miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth. Hussey played Mary, mother of Jesus Christ and York played John The Baptist. Sir Lawrence Olivier,who was the movie's narrator and served as voice dub for Italian actor Antonio Pierfederici (Lord Montague), was also in the mini-series, as Sanhedrin member Nicodemus.
Olivia Hussey later said that the studio told her she would have to appear very much like Juliet in all press interviews too. She rebelled in one famous interview, where she tied her hair back, lit a cigarette and sipped a glass of mimosa for the whole fifteen minutes. The video of this interview resurfaced on the internet in the 2010s.
For the scene where Juliet runs into Paris as she goes to see Friar Laurence, Olivia Hussey ran all around the set to get herself in the same agitated state she imagined Juliet would be. As Franco Zeffirelli attempted to give her direction, she told him there was no need and did the scene. After "cut" was called, she recalls a moment of silence before the director said "One Take Hussey I think we should call her from now on."
Leonard Whiting recalls the director coming up to him with good news and bad news. The good news - Romeo's duel with Paris in the crypt was viewed as the best acting he'd done in the whole film. The bad news - it was being cut to shorten the running time.
Both the leads were sent for a few months of vocal training before shooting started. Leonard Whiting had grown up in London and had to downplay his cockney accent. Olivia Hussey meanwhile had a slight Argentinian lilt she had to get rid of.
The music played for the 'Moresca' in the masquerade ball caused people a few headaches as they tried to track down who it belonged to. They eventually discovered that the film's composer Nino Rota had written it years ago and just forgot.