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The working title of this film was The Gabriel Horn. In August 1954, Los Angeles Times reported that permission to use the title The Kentuckian was granted to the filmmakers by the governor of Kentucky. The title cards of the picture read: "United Artists presents Photographed in CinemaScope Burt Lancaster as The Kentuckian." As noted by publicity information contained in the film's file at the AMPAS Library, the picture was produced by "the Hecht-Lancaster Organization, under its banner, James Productions." The Kentuckian was James Productions' first and only film.
In April 1954, a Los Angeles Times news item noted that Lancaster was hoping to cast Brandon de Wilde as "Little Eli Wakefield" and Jane Wyman as "Susie Spann." According to July 1954 Hollywood Reporter news items, Constance Smith was tested for a co-starring role, and Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht considered casting Kim Novak. Dianne Foster was borrowed from Columbia for the production. According to a October 27, 1954 ^HR news item, Ian Keith had been cast in the picture, but left the production because of an ulcer. Hollywood Reporter news items include Burt Mustin in the cast, but his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
Although an April 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the picture would be shot on location in North Carolina, the majority of the film was shot in Kentucky and Indiana. Studio publicity lists the Kentucky location sites as the Cumberland Falls area, the Levi Jackson Wilderness State Park near London, Owensboro and Green River, and the Indiana site as the Abraham Lincoln Memorial Village near Rockport. A August 30, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the song "They Say, They Say," written by Dave Denner and Bill Neavin, had been purchased for the picture, but it was not heard in the viewed print. According to an October 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item, Roy Webb was originally signed as the film's music director.
According to a November 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item, 100 percent of the financing for the production was supplied by United Artists. The Kentuckian marked the screen acting debut of Walter Matthau and the directorial debut of Lancaster. According to a October 2, 1954 New York Times article, Lancaster applied for membership in the Screen Directors Guild in August 1954 but was rejected "because he allegedly had expressed opinions about directors regarded as uncomplimentary by the organization." The guild granted Lancaster a waiver to allow him to direct the film and invited him to reapply after it was completed. The only other picture ever directed by Lancaster was the 1974 production The Midnight Man, which he co-directed with Roland Kibbee.
In order to publicize The Kentuckian, noted American artist Thomas Hart Benton painted a seven-foot portrait of Lancaster, Donald MacDonald and "Faro," which Lancaster donated to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1978. The Los Angeles premiere of The Kentuckian was a benefit for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the picture was entered in the 1955 Venice Film Festival.