Cleopatra: Elizabeth Taylor stars in trailer in 1963
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The Hollywood epic began filming almost three years before it was released with a budget of $5 million. But by the time of its release in 1963, Cleopatra’s costs had ballooned to $44 million (an earth-shattering $430 million today) after going through two directors, a couple of casts and periodic filming in Egypt, Italy, Spain and England. All the while stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton began their love affair which would result in two failed marriages. Yet long before the Mark Anthony star filmed his first scene with the leading lady, she fell seriously ill on set.
Cleopatra initially began filming at Pinewood Studios in England on September 28, 1960 after Taylor had requested a record-breaking contract of $1 million plus 10 per cent of box office gross.
At this point in the production, Burton’s Anthony and Rex Harrison’s Julius Caesar were played by Stephen Boyd and Peter Finch. They only left the film due to other commitments when delays forced them to.
At one point Taylor was filming Cleopatra in 40 degree heat and fell sick with a sore throat, being unable to work for two weeks.
Yet Taylor’s cold turned into a fever and she was incapacitated for weeks, being treated by a number of doctors. Among them was Lord Evans, who was physician to Queen Elizabeth II herself.
By November 13, the Cleopatra star’s body temperature was soaring at almost 40 degrees and she was diagnosed with meningitis.
A week later the shoot was postponed indefinitely as the actress continued to be hospitalised before flying to Palm Springs to recuperate with her then-husband Eddie Fisher. Lloyds of London’s insurance agency would pay out $2 million to cover Taylor’s medical expenses.
Filming on Cleopatra was set to resume on April 4, 1961. However, a month prior Taylor had been hospitalised again for pneumonia, with one news agency reporting that she had died. In fact, she would recover after having a tracheotomy performed on her throat.
Yet still not being in a fit state to resume filming, 20th Century Fox suspended production with sets being dismantled at an eye-watering $600,000.
When the movie was finally released in 1963, Taylor ended up making $7 million, which would be over $68 million today. And the film itself, the most expensive ever made at the time that almost bankrupted the studio, didn’t break even until a decade later.
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