Actor Versus Actor: On-Set Thrown Downs

March 13, 2018
The on-set relationship between actors can be a positive one, but sometimes, it can be something altogether different, as these notorious actor-versus-actor production spats amply attest.


When Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman were cast in John Schlesinger’s gripping, wire-tight 1976 thriller, Marathon Man, two wildly divergent acting styles were sent careening toward each other. Olivier was one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of the modern era, and was a classicist in every sense of the word. Given a mild taste of the more contemporary Method style of acting when he directed Marilyn Monroe in The Prince And The Showgirl in 1957, Olivier copped a big, meaty mouthful in the form of Dustin Hoffman, who immersed himself fully and bodily into the role of a young history student on the run from Olivier’s ruthless Nazi war criminal. The pair allegedly clashed constantly due to their differing acting styles, but Hoffman has attributed these rumours to malice on the part of writer, William Goldman, who wasn’t happy that Hoffman had persuaded John Schlesinger to change the ending of his source novel. The film’s most infamous anecdote has Hoffman refusing to sleep all night in order to approximate exhaustion in one of the film’s notorious torture scenes, to which Olivier is said to have quipped, “Why doesn’t he just act?” John Schlesinger addressed the alleged animus in Venice Magazine in 2000. “Laurence Olivier didn’t want to improvise, and Dustin did. He was trying various acting techniques to appear out-of-it during the dental [torture] scenes. When I looked at the dailies, I realised that there was no reaction from Hoffman’s eyes, so I had to completely reshoot all the close-ups. That’s when Olivier said to me, ‘Why doesn’t he just try acting?’”


Despite being one of the biggest box office successes of 1983, and garnering five Oscars, the shoot for the much loved drama, Terms Of Endearment, was a notoriously hellish affair. The story of a warring mother and daughter, James L. Brooks’ adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel starred Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger. The two women – from two very different schools of acting, and with wildly differing opinions on the craft – worked wonders on screen, but rubbed each other the wrong way right from the get-go. Details of their spats vary, but one much reported incident involved Winger lifting her skirt and farting in the direction of MacLaine. On another day, Winger had pushed MacLaine so far that the older actress jumped in her car with the intention of leaving the set for good. MacLaine was stopped only by a production assistant throwing himself on the hood, and begging her to stay. With MacLaine infamously spiky, and the equally difficult Winger battling a nasty cocaine habit, the shoot was damned. Terms Of Endearment still stands as a classic, and the cutting irony of a “women’s film” being best-known for its off-screen catfights has only added to its lustre. When MacLaine was filming the disappointing 1996 sequel, The Evening Star, the producers wanted to use a picture of Debra Winger in one scene. In an interview with E! Online, MacLaine recalled, “The producer called Debra and asked if we could use it, and Debra said, ‘Sure, just make sure that Shirley doesn’t use it as a dartboard.’”


“I don’t like actresses at all,” Mickey Rourke told FilmInk in 2005 in typically brusque, controversy-baiting fashion. Despite this characteristically macho proclamation, most of his female co-stars (from Keira Knightley and Marisa Tomei to Megan Fox and Faye Dunaway) have had nothing but kind words for Rourke. One of the few exceptions is Kim Basinger, who starred opposite the actor in the dark, sexy 1986 drama, 91/2 Weeks. Detailing the steamy but ultimately ugly relationship that cooks between Rourke’s dominating financial high flyer and Basinger’s submissive art scenester, the film required the pair to get up very close and extremely personal in a number of censor-tempting sex scenes, an experience which the actress described as decidedly unpleasant. “Kissing Mickey Rourke was like kissing an ashtray,” Basinger infamously said, pointing to her general dislike of the actor. The rancor, however, was later revealed to largely be the doing of director, Adrian Lyne, who encouraged Rourke to be cruel and distant toward Basinger in an effort to create the appropriate on-screen tension. “I hated him sometimes,” Basinger told The New York Times of her co-star. “I got confused. I didn’t know who I was after a while.” Rourke and Basinger later patched up their differences, and even appeared together in The Informers (they shared no scenes, but walked the red carpet together at the film’s premiere) and Black November. “That fuckin’ Kim Basinger was hot as shit,” Mickey Rourke charmingly reminisced of 91/2 Weeks in 2011. “I used to go home with a boner every night. Really. That was no fun…”


1994’s I Love Trouble is one of the truly forgettable flicks of the nineties, a mishandled star vehicle for then-red-hot Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte that was one-part romantic comedy, one-part thriller, and all parts failure. The only thing that has given the film any modicum of memorability is the chaos that reigned on the set. Though the film’s director, Charles Shyer, and co-writer, Nancy Myers, were said to have an unhappy relationship with their stars, the real snap-and-crack frittered between Roberts and Nolte. Both stars are said to have thrown tantrums, as well as lots of four-letter-words, at each other. Many years after the film had been released, Roberts publicly referred to Nolte as “a disgusting human being”, which the veteran actor didn’t take lying down. “It’s not nice to call someone ‘disgusting,’” Nolte replied when asked about Roberts’ comment. “But she’s not a nice person. Everyone knows that. Does something like that hurt? Maybe. But it’s not important whether I’m liked or disliked. Some people like me. Some don’t. Some people I like working with, some I don’t.” The Pretty Woman not a nice person? Nolte would appear to have back-up. Comedian/actor, Jeff Garlin, who co-starred with Julia Roberts in 2002’s Full Frontal, has been equally uncomplimentary. “I said to her, ‘It’s an honour to work with you’ and she couldn’t have been more dismissive,” he told British magazine, Closer. “She talked to everyone in the room but me. My wife asked me how it went, and I said, ‘I don’t think Julia Roberts likes me.’”


When comic firebrand, Bill Murray, opted not to return in the role of Bosley for the action-comedy sequel, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, speculation sizzled about the reasons why. 2000’s Charlie’s Angels had been a hit, and Murray’s on-screen chemistry with the film’s leading ladies, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu, bubbled with charm and energy. The reason for the actor’s departure was soon located by media consensus at the feet of Lucy Liu, with whom Murray reportedly had a violent on-set argument. Both actors have since tried to hose down the alleged hostility. “We began rehearsing this scene,” Murray has said, “and I asked, ‘Lucy, how can you want to say these lines? These are so crazy.’ She got furious with me because she thought that it was a personal assault, but the reality is that she hated these lines as much as I did. But for twenty minutes there, we went to our separate corners and threw hand-grenades and sky rockets at each other. But we made peace, and I got to know her better from that day, and I feel very warmly for her now.” Lucy Liu, meanwhile, has been equally magnanimous, if a little more icy. “There’s nothing to talk about,” the actress told The LA Times in 2012. “Bill Murray’s incredibly talented, and I think that he has a very creative life. It’s okay for people to have opinions. It’s a discussion. Everyone has an opinion about something. Maybe you don’t agree, but it doesn’t mean that it was anything more than that.”


Though famed as a big screen hardman with an off-screen penchant for laidback interests like Buddhism, blues, and the environment, according to one co-star, Steven Seagal’s tough guy mean streak isn’t just confined to his movie roles. As relayed by John Leguizamo (occasional stand-up comedian and cheeky big-mouth of renown), Steven Seagal walked onto the set of their 1996 action flick, Executive Decision, and instantly informed the cast and crew that he was the shoot’s alpha male, despite only having a supporting role. “I’m in command,” the actor announced. “Everything that I say is law. Anybody doesn’t agree?” When the ever-sassy Leguizamo let out a big laugh in response, the diminutive actor quickly felt the wrath of Steven Seagal. “I started cracking up because he sounded like a retard,” Leguizamo – who lampooned Seagal and many other actors in his 2011 stand-up show, Ghetto Klown – said on QTV. “Then he Taekwondo’ed my ass against a brick wall and hit me with his elbow. He’s six-foot-five, and he caught me off guard. He knocked all of the air out of me, and I was like, ‘Why?!’ I really wanted to say how big and fat he was, and that he runs like a girl, but I didn’t, because all I could say was, ‘Why?!’ Why’d he slam me against the wall? We were rehearsing. Why can’t I call him names? If I can’t let it out, it’s going to build like a cancer. His publicist told my publicist that he wants to punch me out. I better stop talking about him.”


Sometimes actor-on-actor clashes are all in the service of the film itself. James Gray’s dark, grimly atmospheric 2007 crime drama, We Own The Night, hinges on the difficult relationship that simmers between Robert Duvall’s old school cop and his nightclub manager son, played by Joaquin Phoenix. To punch up the on-screen friction, Gray quietly instructed Phoenix to get under the veteran actor’s skin during the shoot. “It really got on my nerves,” Duvall told FilmInk, “but maybe it helped the relationship. It wasn’t my idea to work that way. He’d ask me personal questions like, ‘How many times a week do you make love to your wife?’ He was pissing me off, so I said back to him, ‘How can you play Johnny Cash with a hair lip?’ We were getting really personal, but it served the characters. He was always fumbling, and saying to James, ‘Oh, I can’t do this or that.’ He was a cry baby, but he’s wonderful in the movie. I told him at the premiere that he was a lot better than I thought he was going to be! He actually told me to tell my wife after the shoot that he’s not really like that!” But what was Phoenix specifically trying to achieve in his Method approach, when he asked Duvall how many times he made love to his wife a week? “I asked him that?” Phoenix blushed to FilmInk, before regaining his memory. “I don’t know, but he looked like he was going to fucking smack me! It was fantastic.”


Now known as the cuddly, inoffensive star of family-friendly flicks like Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, The Flintstones, and Ghostbusters, the diminutive Rick Moranis started out as a smart-mouthed comic and radio DJ, and it was these qualities that he allegedly brought to the set of Walter Hill’s 1984 cult action fantasy, Streets Of Fire, which was one of his first big screen roles. “Rick Moranis drove me out of my mind,” co-star, Michael Pare, told Ain’t It Cool. “There’s this whole wave of insult comedy. If someone insults you a couple of times, you can smack them, but you can’t do that on a movie set. These comedians walk around, and they can say whatever they want. I’m just not that handy with that. Comedians are a special breed. They can antagonise you, and say whatever they fucking want, and you can’t do anything to stop them. It’s one thing once in a while, but I was with the guy all fucking day. He’s this weird looking little guy who couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse with a fistful of fifties. He would imitate me. The first thing he says to me is, ‘Do you just act cool, or are you really cool?’ That was the first sentence out of his mouth to me in [producer] Joel Silver’s office. I was like, ‘Oh fuck, this is not going to go well.’ But he was one of Joel’s dear friends, and he later made lots of hit movies. I just wasn’t that sharp. I wasn’t ready for that kind of crap.”


The 1976 classic, Jaws, had one of the most infamously troubled shoots of all time, with a mechanical shark that wouldn’t work, an inexperienced director in the young Steven Spielberg, unpredictable weather, and a nervous gaggle of studio executives sweating over the bloating budget. The most titanic battle, however, raged between hardened veteran actor, Robert Shaw, and plucky up-and-comer, Richard Dreyfuss. The older, seasoned British performer, for whatever reason, took an instant dislike to his younger, New York-bred co-star. “Robert was the largest personality that I’ve ever met,” Richard Dreyfuss has said. “He was outsize in his kindness, and in his capability of being nuts. In private, he was the sweetest man in the world, but then he would walk onto set and turn into this vicious, nasty guy who tried to cut you down at the knees…and I was his greatest target.” The film’s star, Roy Scheider, once described a typical barbed comment that Shaw slung viciously in Dreyfuss’ direction. “Shaw would say, ‘Look at you, Dreyfuss. You eat and you drink and you’re fat and you’re sloppy. At your age, it’s criminal. Why, you couldn’t even do ten good push-ups!’” Consensus has much of Shaw’s bitterness and anger blooming out of his alcoholism, which was on prime display through much of the production. “Shaw was a perfect gentleman whenever he was sober,” Dreyfuss says in the documentary, Jaws: The Inside Story. “All he needed was one drink, and then he turned into a competitive son-of-a-bitch.” “It got ugly,” Spielberg has admitted of the feud between his two stars.


The horribly absorbing tale of four city boys who head down river into hillbilly territory and pay the ultimate price, John Boorman’s 1972 thriller, Deliverance, is one of the true masterpieces of seventies cinema, a brutal stand-alone that leaves unrivalled emotional scars. Shot on location in South Carolina, the film’s most notorious sequence has Ned Beatty’s pudgy innocent raped and humiliated by two demented backwoodsmen in broad daylight on the banks of a raging river. The scene has a truly horrific sense of immediacy, largely due to the believably rapacious performances of character actor, William McKinney, and illiterate, toothless screen debutante, Herbert “Cowboy” Coward. When John Boorman explained to Coward that he had to rape a man in the scene, he replied, “I’ve done worse.” According to the film’s star, Burt Reynolds, William McKinney went too far in his performance of the scene. “I swear to God, McKinney really wanted to hump Ned,” Reynolds writes in his autobiography, My Life. “And I think he was going to. He had it up, and he was going to bang him. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I ran into the scene, dove on McKinney, and pulled him off Ned. Boorman helped hold him down. Ned, crying with rage and fear, found a big stick and started beating McKinney on the head.” When Reynolds demanded of Boorman why he’d taken so long to stop filming, the actor alleges that the director replied, “I was waiting for you to run in. I knew when you ran in that I’d taken the audience to breaking point.”


Though barely a footnote in the history of American westerns, the 1969 potboiler, 100 Rifles, caused a minor stir upon release for throwing sex siren, Raquel Welch, and African-American NFL player turned actor, Jim Brown, together in a lense-steaming interracial on-screen relationship. Off screen, however, the pair despised each other. Co-star, Burt Reynolds, traced the source of their friction to an on-set incident in which Welch – who was travelling in a full Land Rover with Brown, Reynolds, and others on the way to the film’s remote set – refused to stop and pick up a black stuntman who was walking along the blistering hot road to the shoot. Brown then told the driver to stop, picked Welch bodily up, deposited her beside the side of the road, and ordered the stuntman to take her seat. “From then on,” Reynolds writes in his autobiography, My Life, “Raquel would have preferred to be someplace else, and I can’t say that I blamed her.” In the biography, Raquel Welch, the actress says that, “nobody could possibly top Jim Brown. It was just awful.” According to Jim Brown, however, Welch was a pain-in-the-posterior-prima-donna. “My co-star is not my boss,” he told Roger Ebert. “But she had all her people around, telling the rest of us when publicity photos would be permitted and when they wouldn’t, and all of that. The only way to save myself was to just get out of that, and to withdraw from any contact. I did my job, but I completely withdrew from the BS involving Raquel’s image.”


One of the most inventive troublemakers in movie history, the great Marlon Brando revelled in one of his best pieces of on-set silliness when he co-starred with Hollywood veteran, Glenn Ford, in the 1956 comedy, The Teahouse Of The August Moon. Perhaps intimidated by the fact that the attention-grabbing Brando was playing a Japanese man (!) in the film, Ford indulged in a whole array of not-so-subtle scene-stealing antics: stepping on Brando’s lines, placing himself in front of Brando in the camera-line, and doing odd bits of business when he was in the background of scenes to draw attention to himself. As he relays in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Brando quickly became infuriated with Ford’s immaturity, and put into action a mild course of torture. As well as then indulging in his own scene-stealing silliness, Brando identified Ford as a “food miser”, and started to steal from the cache of cookies and candies (which were hard to come by in fifties Japan, where the film was shot) that the actor had hidden away in his dressing room. Brando would eat the cookies, and then leave the crumbs outside Ford’s dressing room, which led the actor to believe that he was being food-burgled by local kids. “When he saw the crumbs, he exploded,” Brando writes. “It must have been about $1.75 worth of cookies, but it sent him into a rage, and he demanded that the producers post guards outside our dressing room. Glenn asked me if I knew anything about it, and I told him in my most convincing voice that it was a mystery to me.”



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