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An acknowledgment and a prologue after the opening credits read: "We gratefully acknowledge the cooperation of the United States Navy whose men, vessels and installations in the Pacific made this motion picture possible. This story takes place in the waning days of the Second World War aboard a navy cargo ship operating in the back areas of the Pacific. In the Navy Register it is listed as THE RELUCTANT, but to its crew it is known as 'The Bucket.'" The four lead actors listed in the opening credits are not listed with the other players in the end credits. Orange Productions, Ltd. was an independent company owned by Leland Hayward and Joshua Logan, who adapted the original stage play from Thomas Heggen's novel.
A February 1953 Daily Variety news item announced that Hayward, Mister Roberts' Broadway producer, was considering a 3-D film deal for the property. The news item predicted that neither the play's Broadway director, Logan, nor its lead, Henry Fonda, would work on the film due to prior commitments. Although Warner Bros. production notes for the film claimed that Fonda was the "only man thought of for the title role," modern sources state that William Holden was first offered the role of "Doug Roberts." Holden turned it down, saying that Fonda was so identified with the role after 1,600 performances that he "owned" it.
According to modern sources, Warner Bros. hesitated in casting Fonda because they believed he was too old for the part, and felt that he had been away from feature films long enough to be forgotten by the general public. His previous film had been the 1948 John Ford-directed RKO production, Fort Apache. A September 1953 Daily Variety, January 1954 New York Times and Hollywood Reporter news items reported that Marlon Brando was cast as Roberts, but when director Ford was assigned to the film, he insisted that Fonda, who, like himself, had been in the Navy and served in the South Pacific during World War II, and whom Ford had directed in six previous films, play the role. By February 1954, a Hollywood Reporter news item announced the casting of Fonda.
According to an October 1954 Los Angeles Times article, Ford borrowed Jack Lemmon, who portrayed "Ensign Pulver," from Columbia. Pat Wayne, who played "Bookser" in the film, was the son of John Wayne. Television and film actor Tige Andrews (1920-2007), who made his feature film debut in Mister Roberts, was billed onscreen as "Tiger Andrews." Although his appearance in the film has not been confirmed, an August 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item adds Jim Lilburn to the cast. According to a modern biography of Fonda, Eva Marie Saint was cast as a nurse, but was later replaced because she was considered too attractive for the part. The source also stated that Ford originally assigned John Patrick as screenwriter, but later replaced him with his son-in-law, Frank Nugent.
An August 1954 New York Times article reported that Ford planned to "stick close to the play," although he and Nugent had to "wash out" some of the "vulgar language." Ford also remarked that several of the play's minor subplots, such as a nurse's birthmark, were replaced by other comic sketches, such as the explosion of soap bubbles in the ship's laundry. The Hollywood Reporter review would later note that the humor in the film "often skips into zany slapstick" and the New York Times would praise "screamingly funny scenes which, in several instances, are visual improvements on the play." However, modern sources report that Fonda, having strong opinions after playing the role for many years, was uncomfortable about the changes and feared losing the subtlety of the play's original concept of boredom at sea.
Filming began in late August 1954. Modern sources state that Ford was drinking more heavily than usual, causing him to behave erratically, and that actor Ward Bond helped direct when Ford was too inebriated. According to various modern sources, which vary in the details, Fonda, unhappy with Ford's concept of the film, complained to him in private and was "slugged" in response. Two months into production, Ford was hospitalized for a gall bladder removal operation, and some modern sources say that he was also hospitalized to "dry out" from his alcoholism. All Hollywood Reporter production charts, ending in November 1954, listed Ford as director, but January 1955 Hollywood Reporter and Variety news items reported that Mervyn LeRoy replaced Ford when the latter was forced to undergo emergency surgery, and that the two directors would share screen credit.
Although modern sources state that LeRoy tried to direct the film the way he thought Ford would have wanted, in a modern interview, LeRoy claimed that he changed the role of "Doc" from an alcoholic, as Ford made him, back to the original sober character in the play. Fearing bad publicity regarding his takeover of the directing reins, LeRoy said he hired his own press agent, Arthur P. Jacobs, who would later produce many feature films. According to modern sources, Logan also directed portions of the final film and directed the editing; however, in the opening credits, only Ford and LeRoy are billed as director. Although Ford received top billing, LeRoy's name, superimposed over a shot of the sea, is brighter and seems to shimmer.
According to October 1954 Hollywood Reporter news items, portions of the film were shot in Honolulu and Kaneohe Bay on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Another location site, according to Warner Bros. production notes found in the AMPAS file for the film, was the Naval Station Midway, which was the last Allied-held base between Pearl Harbor and Japan during World War II, and the scene of one of the biggest air battles in history. Ford was familiar with the area, having directed the documentary The Battle of Midway, and Heggen had served in the Navy at Midway during World War II. Other location sites, according to Hollywood Reporter news items, included the cargo ship USS Hewell, and for night shots, the U.S. Marine Air Station on Kaneohe Bay, HI. Interior scenes were shot at the Warner Bros. soundstage.
Before the premiere, Mister Roberts was promoted on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town television show on the CBS network, which aired on June 19, 1955. The film was also publicized with a cover story in Life. Mister Roberts marked the last film of William Powell, who retired from the screen and died in 1984. The New York Times review praised the film for retaining its "picturesque ribaldry within the bounds of the Production Code" and named it one of their top ten films of 1955. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Motion Picture, but lost to Marty. Jack Lemmon won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the film, and William A. Mueller was nominated for best sound recording, although he lost to Oklahoma's Fred Hynes.
In 1964, a sequel to Mister Roberts, Ensign Pulver, was produced by Warner Bros. and directed by Joshua Logan. It starred Robert Walker, Jr., Burl Ives and Walter Matthau. A television show, Mister Roberts, aired on the NBC network during 1965-66.