The late ‘60s were a turning point for sci-fi cinema. Though the occasional triumph like 1956’s Forbidden Planet would slip through the cracks, the genre was mostly a dumping ground for low-budget schlock fests throughout the ‘50s and early ‘60s. That started to change with the release of 1968's Planet of the Apes. The movie, starring Charlton Heston and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, proved that science fiction was something that could be thought-provoking, transcendent, and (most importantly) massively profitable.
Along with 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes changed the perception of what sci-fi was capable of and opened the door for everything from Star Wars (1977) to Blade Runner (1982) in the decades since. As a new segment in the Planet of the Apes saga, Matt Reeves's War for the Planet of the Apes, prepares to hit theaters in July, here are some fascinating facts about the movie that started it all.
1. MOST STUDIOS, AND THE BOOK’S AUTHOR, THOUGHT IT WOULD MAKE A TERRIBLE MOVIE.
Apes, especially talking ones, were the stuff of B-movies back in the 1960s, so nobody took them seriously. That’s exactly the mantra producer Arthur P. Jacobs ran into when he was shopping Planet of the Apes around Hollywood. Jacobs’s pitch was soundly rejected everywhere he went; even Pierre Boulle—author of the source material, La Planète des Singes—agreed. In the documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes, it’s revealed that Boulle considered the book one of his lesser works and never imagined that it would ever make it into theaters.
2. A MAKEUP TEST HELPED CONVINCE 20TH CENTURY FOX TO PRODUCE THE MOVIE.
Jacobs’s Planet of the Apes pitch did manage to catch the attention of one executive: former vice president of 20th Century Fox Richard Zanuck. But Zanuck had one reservation: What if people laughed at the makeup? Up until that point, onscreen apes had either been real monkeys or people in flimsy costumes—and if the makeup didn’t hit the mark, the movie wouldn't work.
To convince Zanuck, Jacobs shot a makeup test, complete with star Charlton Heston as George Taylor and Edward G. Robinson (who later dropped out of the film) as Dr. Zaius in full ape getup. A young James Brolin and Linda Harrison (who would be cast in the full movie as Nova) played the two chimps—Cornelius and Zira. Though it cost a mere $5000 to shoot, the test impressed Zanuck enough to quell fears over the ape makeup, and he agreed to give Jacobs and director Frank Schaffner $5 million to get Planet of the Apes off the ground.
3. THE MAN BEHIND THE APE MAKEUP ALSO HELPED DESIGN SPOCK’S EARS.
The man hired to design the increasingly vital ape makeup for the movie was John Chambers, who had made a name for himself by this time as one of the premier creature effects artists in Hollywood. He had experience working on sci-fi and fantasy shows like The Munsters, The Outer Limits, and Lost in Space. But his biggest contribution to the genre was his makeup design for Spock’s pointy ears on the original Star Trek TV series.
Chambers’s background was unique in Hollywood at the time: In his younger days, he worked at a veterans' hospital after World War II, where he helped design prosthetics and facial restorations for soldiers wounded in combat.
4. ROD SERLING WROTE AN INITIAL DRAFT THAT FEATURED A CONTEMPORARY CITY.
The first writer to take a shot at adapting Planet of the Apes was Rod Serling, the man who brought twists, turns, and terror to TV sets across the country with The Twilight Zone. Serling wrote feverishly, producing upwards of 30 drafts of the script in a year [PDF], but one problem kept his vision from reaching screens: money. Serling’s scripts featured ape society as technologically advanced—with apes driving cars, piloting helicopters, and conducting ape-y business in skyscrapers.
Though this was closer to the society depicted in Boulle’s novel, it didn’t fit in with the studio’s $5 million budget. Subsequent drafts placed the apes in a more primitive society where they rode on horseback and lived in cities that could be constructed as less expensive sets.
5. WRITER MICHAEL WILSON BROUGHT MORE HUMOR AND POLITICAL OVERTONES TO THE SCRIPT.
After much of Serling’s script was deemed unusable, writer Michael Wilson was brought onboard to create a filmable version of the movie. Wilson was a victim of Hollywood’s blacklisting in the ‘50s, being forced to go uncredited on some of his most notable works, including the script to 1958's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was also adapted from a Boulle novel.
Wilson’s Apes work included punching up the dialogue to be more humorous and introducing the idea of the sham of a trial that Heston’s Taylor has to endure (no doubt a callback to Wilson's own experience on the blacklist). These new drafts overhauled much of the existing script, which led Serling to say [PDF], “[It’s] really Mike Wilson’s screenplay, much more than mine.”
6. THE MAKEUP PROCESS REQUIRED A SMALL ARMY OF ARTISTS.
At its height, the movie’s production required around 100 makeup artists, wardrobe workers, and hairstylists to be on set to get all of the apes in costume and ready for shooting. For some of the larger scenes, there were around 200 actors and actresses to get in full ape garb, all of which required hours of work. The whole makeup process was run like a well-oiled machine by Chambers, who taught each of the artists how to mold and apply all of the ape makeup—sometimes having artists working at all times throughout the day and night to craft the individual ape pieces.
In the Behind the Planet of the Apes documentary, it’s noted that the production’s use of so many makeup personnel actually delayed work on other films throughout Hollywood due to a shortage of artists.
7. THE MAKEUP PROCESS IMPROVED AS PRODUCTION MOVED ALONG.
When the production started, it took upwards of six hours to put an actor into full ape makeup including the hair, brows, ears, mouth, and hands. This process eventually became more and more streamlined as the work progressed, with Chambers and his team eventually whittling it down to just a bit over three hours. Chambers himself referred to the whole process as an assembly line.
8. LUNCHTIME LED TO SOME UNINTENDED SEGREGATION.
One of the more peculiar side effects of having a cast of humans in ape garb occurred at lunch time on set. Subconsciously, the cast ate divided down species lines: The human actors, chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas all fell in line with a sort of self-segregation and ate with their own kind. This wasn’t some brand of method acting, either, as the actors and producers were just as confused by it as anyone, leading Charlton Heston to simply say, “I have no explanation for it whatsoever.”
In Behind the Planet of the Apes, Kim Hunter, who plays Zira in the movie, recalled how she barely spoke to Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius) on set. Despite being friendly with Evans from previous work, Hunter referred to him as one of those "others" because he was an orangutan and she was a chimp.
9. A CHIMP HANDED MAKEUP ARTIST JOHN CHAMBERS HIS HONORARY OSCAR.
In 1969, there wasn’t an Oscar category for achievement in makeup, but John Chambers’s work on Planet of the Apes was so far beyond the industry standard that it had to be recognized in some way. The Academy decided on an honorary Oscar for Outstanding Makeup Achievement and presented it during the 41st Academy Awards. Chambers was introduced to the crowd by Walter Matthau, but the real star was the chimpanzee decked out in a tux that handed Chambers his award.
10. A TRIP TO A DELI INSPIRED THE ENDING.
Early on in the process, producer Arthur P. Jacobs and director Blake Edwards—who was originally attached to direct Planet of the Apes—were having trouble cracking the film's ending. In Boulle’s original novel, the action does take place on a completely different planet. For the movie, though, they wanted something less predictable. While eating at a deli near the Warner Bros. lot, Jacobs brought up the idea of having Taylor stranded on Earth the whole time without the characters or the audience knowing it.
The stage was set, but they needed a hook. As the two men left the deli, they looked at a painting of the Statue of Liberty near the cash register. According to Jacobs [PDF], the men had just found their “Rosebud.” A call soon went out to Serling, who integrated their ideas into the script in what the writer calls a “collaboration” with Jacobs [PDF].
11. THE STATUE OF LIBERTY AT THE END WAS A COMBINATION OF A SCALE MODEL AND MATTE PAINTING.
With budget constraints already bearing down on them, there was no logical way to create an entire full-scale model of the destroyed Statue of Liberty for the film’s twist ending. Instead, the production combined a matte painting by Emil Kosa Jr., the man behind the original 20th Century Fox logo, with a practical model for the statue’s reveal.
The model wasn’t created for the whole statue, though. Instead a half-scale recreation of Lady Liberty’s head and torch were constructed to be shot from a scaffold for the statue’s slow reveal.
12. AN EARLIER DRAFT HAD A MUCH MORE OPTIMISTIC ENDING.
Compared to today’s blockbusters, Planet of the Apes ends on a bit of a downer. We learn that humanity is lost as Earth has been destroyed, with only the crumbling image of the Statue of Liberty left to remind us of our once grand civilization. However, writer Michael Wilson’s earlier draft [PDF] would have left the movie with a single sliver of hope about humanity’s future.
In this draft, it’s learned toward the end of the film that Nova is pregnant with Taylor’s child. Though Taylor is struck down by an ape assassin shortly after laying eyes on the crumbling Lady Liberty, Nova escapes into the Forbidden Zone with her unborn child, setting up a potential sequel and showing that perhaps humanity could live on in some way.
Fox executives nixed the idea, fearing that Nova wouldn’t be perceived as purely human by audiences (Wilson referred to her as “humanoid” in an interview with Cinefantastique), leaving an awkward question about whether there was an interspecies romance between her and Taylor.