As you can see from the advertisement above, this was originally intended to be quite a different film, directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Spencer Tracy in the role of ageing poker champ Lancey. The director had just come off one troubled shoot, Major Dundee (1965), and was seeking Hollywood redemption. Two-time Oscar winner Tracy was also hoping to revive his career. Except for what amounted to little more than a extended cameo on It’s A Mad, Mad,, Mad, Mad World (1963) he had not worked since Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Also initially on board in a small role was Sharon Tate (Valley of the Dolls, 1967)
This was also a big gamble for industry outsider Martin Ransohoff who had moved to the forefront of independent production after The Americanization of Emily (1964) with Julie Andrews and James Garner and The Sandpiper (1965) starring current top-billed royalty Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He had wheeled and dealed with top studios – MGM, Columbia and United Artists – desperate for quality product. He was planning the biggest movie of his career having purchased the rights to the Alistair MacLean bestseller Ice Station Zebra. Ransohoff was a marketing innovator and long before Robert Evans pumped tens of thousands of Paramount dollars into advertising the book of Love Story (1970) to ensure it rode high on the bestseller charts and thus increased public awareness, Ransohoff had pulled off the same trick for Richard Jessup’s novel The Cincinnati Kid.
Tracy was first to quit, infuriated that he was denied script approval. Essentially, he wanted his role beefed up. But Ransohoff “would not expand his role in any way” and angered at the prospect of playing second fiddle to McQueen the actor walked out, to be replaced by a star with considerably less marquee appeal, Edward G. Robinson.
At least Tracy was able to depart with head held high. Peckinpah was ignominiously fired after shooting had begun. The intemperate director had already locked horns with the producer over a story which had now taken the efforts of four screenwriters – Oscar-winner Paddy Chayefsky (The Americanization of Emily), Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. (Woman of the Year, 1943), Oscar nominee Terry Southern (Dr Strangelove, 1964) and newcomer Charles Eastman (Little Fauss and Big Halsy, 1970) – to knock the book into a workable screenplay without the extra bother of Peckinpah adding his own scenes.
Trade newspaper Variety reported: “Peckinpah’s problems stemmed from his filming of a nude scene that wasn’t in the script but which the director wrote on his own. Last Friday (November 4, 1964) he reportedly excused the featured cast and began to lense the nudie scene using an extra from the cast.” Whether this was indeed Sharon Tate, of whom Peckinpah was reported to have filmed in a flimsy shirt without a bra so that her nipples were showing, is unclear. And although there is an undertone of sex in the actual picture, as delivered by Ann-Margret, it was considerably more discreet.
Strangely enough, Ransohoff was no stranger to the benefits of nudity in his pictures and had fought a losing battle with the all-powerful MPAA, the industry ruling body in matters of censorship, to have nude scenes included in The Americanization of Emily. The nude statue of Elizabeth Taylor in The Sandpiper was permitted, however, and Ransohoff sent hundreds of miniature statues out to influencers as a gift.
Peckinpah did not have final cut so Ransohoff could easily have excised any nude scenes from the finished movie. What was considerably more alarming was that Peckinpah was shooting in black-and-white. Later, Ransohoff would contend that he was outraged by this notion but he surely must have signed off on it at the outset. Whatever the reasons, and some believed fisticuffs were involved, Peckinpah was sacked, leaving a $750,000 hole in the budget.
Production closed for over a month while Ransohoff scrambled for a new director. McQueen was pay-or-play, so if the film was cancelled, the actor was due his entire fee. McQueen had signed on for a fee of $200,000 – or $350,000 depending on who you believe – and $30,000 a week in overtime plus 25 per cent of the profit and a host of extras. McQueen had been initially lined up for a Ranoshoff remake of Boys Town to co-star James Garner, but that proved little more than a publicity flyer.
Replacement Norman Jewison had no reputation for hard-line drama – more at home with light comedy such as Send Me No Flowers (1964) – but was available and more likely to toe the Ransohoff line. However, initially he demurred. It was against the rules of the Directors Guild to step in in such a manner and Jewison required reassurance that Peckinpah was indeed out of the picture, and the film had been shut down, before accepting the job. Theoretically, Jewison received more control of the final cut than Peckinpah. His contract called for him to be in sole charge of the completed picture until after the third public preview. If it wasn’t working by that point, Ransohoff had the right to take over. Jewison exerted control in other ways, denying actors a chance to look at the rushes
Theoretically, McQueen had conceded top billing to Spencer Tracy, but that was not reflected in the artwork MGM put out – the illustration at the top of the Blog appeared in the trade press prior to production. To keep McQueen sweet during the layoff, Ransohoff handed him $25,000 to play the tables in Vegas. Edward G. Robinson had the same worries as Spencer Tracy, fearing his part would be cut to build up the star. In reality, McQueen welcomed going head-to-head with an older star, a situation he had not experienced since The Magnificent Seven (1960) with Yul Brynner.
But if the male stars, under the confident direction of Jewison, gave no trouble, that was not the case with the female contingent. Tuesday Weld came with a heap of personal issues related to becoming, as a child model, the family breadwinner at an early age – nervous breakdown at nine, alcoholic at ten, suicide attempt at twelve. She had never quite achieved stardom, in part as a result of turning down roles like Lolita (1962)
Ann-Margret was the opposite. She could earn nearly as much as McQueen – her fee at some studios was $250,000. However, Twentieth Century Fox was holding her to an earlier four-picture deal which paid a miserly $25,000 per movie, forcing her to lose out on a $150,000 payday in Europe for The 10th Victim (1965) with Marcello Mastroianni – known at the time as The Seventh Victim, Ursula Andress her replacement – in order to take up a contracted role in the remake of Stagecoach (1966). Her over-sexed screen persona had caused playwright William Inge to remove his name from Bus Riley’s Back in Town (1965).
One of the hottest young stars in the business, she intended to stay that way, and her portrayal of Melba in The Cincinnati Kid pretty much fitted in with audience expectation. She was in such demand that she was under contract to make a total of 17 pictures for five separate studios plus Frank Sinatra’s independent production company. Her deals were with Universal (six pictures), Fox (four), MGM (three), Columbia (three) and United Artists (one). But after dropping out of Marriage on the Rocks (1965) with Sinatra her output for the rest of the decade comprised one movie apiece for Paramount, MGM, Fox and Columbia and four independent pictures in Italy.
MGM spent big bucks promoting the picture and, in particular, the Ann-Margret connection. The studio had put a marker down on Thanksgiving 1965 for the launch date, but was marketing the movie more than six months ahead, the kind of exposure that was normally only allotted to roadshow features.
SOURCES: Christopher Sandford, McQueen: The Biography, Harper Collins paperback (2002) pages 165, 170-176; Penina Spiegel, Steve McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood, Collins, 1986, p162, 169-173; “Ransohoff To Start Five Films in 6-Month Period,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, p27; “Marty Ransohoff To Seek Code Changes,” Box Office, November 25, 1963, p6; “Ann-Margret Into The Cash Splash,” Variety, July 22, 1964, p5; advert, Box Office, October 9, 1964, p9; “More Cincinnati Kid Books,” Box Office, October 24, 1964, pW-5; “Refuse Spencer Tracy Xincy Kid Script Okay So Actor Takes Powder,” Variety, November 11, 1964, p24; “Jewison Replacement for Sam Peckinpah,” Variety, December 9, 1964, p24; Advert, Variety, March 10, 1965, p80; “Fear Ann-Margret Going Wrongo In Her Screen Image,” Variety, March 24, 1965, p5; “Fox Holds Ann-Margret To Stagecoach, Denying Her For Mastroianni,” Variety, April 14, 1965, 4; Advert, Variety, May 19, 1965, p20.