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If there was one common denominator for the 1974 disaster flick The Towering Inferno, it was: BIG. Everything about the production was larger-than-life, from the astronomical budget, the powerhouse studio effort, the top stars, the fantastical storyline, massive sets, and the booming box office receipts. The film was the top grosser of the year - a good thing, considering the fact that it cost $14 million or more to make. Such a hefty price tag was manageable because it was a joint production between Twentieth Century Fox and Warner Brothers, the first of its kind for a major film effort like this. The two studios had purchased almost identical disaster-story properties: Fox had The Glass Inferno, Warner Bros owned The Tower. Fearing that such similar films might cancel each other out at the box office, the studios took producer Irwin Allen up on his idea to combine the two scripts, split the costs, and share in the profits. Allen knew what he was doing with catastrophe flicks: he was the driving force behind The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a film that, with Airport (1970), whetted audiences' appetites for large-scale screen calamity. Allen hired screenwriter Stirling Silliphant, who also penned Poseidon, to combine the two stories into one script, now christened The Towering Inferno.
Here's the plot in a nutshell: The world's tallest new building catches on fire during its grand opening, trapping hundreds of party-goers inside, and it's up to the fire chief and his men to save the day with the help of the building's architect. In a film where Fred Astaire, William Holden, and Jennifer Jones are the second-tier stars, you know it's going to be a doozy. Steve McQueen plays the no-nonsense fire chief, Paul Newman the architect, and Faye Dunaway stars as his girlfriend. McQueen and Newman had not been in a film together since Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956); as an extra, McQueen vowed that he would one day have higher billing than Newman (reportedly, this was the missing component that made Steve turn down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969). McQueen almost got his wish with Inferno, or at least, an acceptable compromise: The actors' names were presented using diagonal billing, meaning that Steve's name was first when reading from left to right, but Newman's name was placed higher on the screen. McQueen also insisted that the two have the exact same number of lines in the script, were paid the same salary and received the same percentage of box office profits. Newman, for his part, never appeared bothered by McQueen's obvious chip on the shoulder and was relaxed and calm throughout production. As a comparison, Steve declared he was accepting no visitors or press interview invitations, while Paul just asked to be given advance notice on considering any press requests.
William Holden was also rather prickly on-set, mostly because he didn't want to do the film in the first place. He deemed the story to have "a lousy script" and of his character, the tower's builder, complained, "I spend all of the time talking on the phone." So why did he take the part? Moolah and lots of it! He collected $750k for his work, his largest paycheck in years. The money, however, did not prevent him from flipping out on often-tardy co-star Faye Dunaway. Biographer Bob Thomas revealed in Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden that "For two hours one day, Bill waited on her to appear for an important scene. When she finally arrived, he took her by the shoulders and shoved her against the sound-stage wall. 'You do that to me once more,' he muttered, 'And I'll push you through that wall.' Set workers noted that Miss Dunaway's punctuality improved thereafter." Dunaway makes a curious statement in her autobiography Looking for Gatsby that may refer to the incident: "[Holden] and I had brushed up against each other briefly in Towering Inferno, a movie that had left a bad taste in his mouth." Interesting choice of words!
Inferno was Jennifer Jones' last film: her part was turned down by Olivia de Havilland and the industry rumor was that her millionaire husband (and hefty Fox stockholder) Norton Simon, had secured the role for her. An avid art collector, he also lent no less than four Picassos to be used as set decoration! The tireless Fred Astaire, by this point over forty years into his career, retained his trademark amiability, commenting in an interview from Astaire: The Man, the Dancer, by Bob Thomas: "Towering Inferno was a good cameo. If you're going to do a cameo, that was a good one to do, because it stood out. The other guys in the picture said, 'Hey, I wish I had that part.'" Jones and Astaire have a short dance scene together, something costume designer Paul Zastupnevich remembers the actress was very excited about. Yet despite their caliber, Jones and Astaire weren't treated exceptionally well by the studios: Zastupnevich remembers that they were initially relegated to trailer dressing rooms that were parked outside the stage area in the gutter, a situation finally resolved by his indignant insistence. But the two remained consummate professionals: in Edward Z. Epstein's bio Portrait of Jennifer, the designer recalled, "It's amazing that she was paired off with Fred. I was amazed to discover that Fred, too, was so shy and reserved. Fred and Jennifer were so much alike! I suppose that's why they got along so well and blended so smoothly."
Most of the medium and close shots were done on the Fox lot, where a full five floors of the skyscraper were constructed in full scale; in total, 57 sets were constructed there, setting a record for a single production. The coup de grace was the mammoth promenade deck set, which cost over $300k to construct and boasted a 340 foot long cyclorama around it to represent the city landscape the deck overlooks. It was destroyed--like most of the other sets--in the final scene by almost one million gallons of rushing water. In fact, after shooting wrapped, only 8 sets were left standing. In keeping with the film's larger-than-life nature, even the miniature replica of the glass tower was big: using half-inch scale, the 138-floor building came in at 70 feet... that's roughly a 5-story building! Real-life locations were used for key shots: for example, the scenic elevator and lobby area were graciously provided by the Hyatt Regency Hotel in San Francisco.
To capture the action, a then-record number of four camera crews were used to cover character filming, aerial shots, special effects, and, of course, the action sequences. Working in such a precarious environment meant that the producers took no chances with safety: over 30 members from the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Fox Studio fire departments were hired as consultants to supervise the action scenes. In addition, a fireman was assigned to each member of the cast during scenes where potentially dangerous effects were being used. As stunt coordinator Paul Stader pointed out, "In most films, if something goes wrong a stuntman would get hurt. In The Towering Inferno, if something had gone wrong a stuntman could have been killed."
Aside from thoroughly entertaining audiences, The Towering Inferno also brought attention to safety issues regarding tall buildings, as well as recognizing the men and women who were committed to helping in perilous situations. As its opening credit message indicates: "To those who give their lives, so that others may live--to the firefighters of the world--this picture is gratefully dedicated." The Fox PR machine pulled out the stops when it arranged for McQueen to be dubbed an honorary L.A. firefighter. The film reportedly inspired an increase in safety awareness with a reexamination of building codes in many cities, and it had a personal effect on a few people directly associated with the film. Allen switched his New York hotel suite to the 5th floor from the 38th, and Newman allegedly stopped seeing his dentist...whose office was on the 14th floor.
In terms of box office, The Towering Inferno did well, grossing almost ten times its budget; with eight total, it also scored in terms of Oscar® nominations. The film ultimately walked away with three: Best Song, and two of the most technically coveted awards - for Best Cinematography and Best Editing. Beyond the star-studded primary cast, viewers will also spot Richard Chamberlain, Robert Wagner, and O.J. Simpson. But keep an eye out for Newman's son Scott in a bit role as a fireman and Mike Lookinland (aka Bobby Brady) as a child in need of rescue. Readers interested in learning more behind the scenes information should visit www.thetoweringinferno.info webpage, a fascinating reference for any Towering Inferno enthusiast.
Producer: Irwin Allen
Director: John Guillermin, Irwin Allen
Screenplay: Stirling Silliphant
Cinematography: Fred J. Koenekamp
Film Editing: Carl Kress, Harold F. Kress
Art Direction: Ward Preston
Music: John Williams
Cast: Steve McQueen (Chief Michael O'Hallorhan), Paul Newman (Doug Roberts), William Holden (James Duncan), Faye Dunaway (Susan Franklin), Fred Astaire (Harlee Claiborne), Susan Blakely (Patty Simmons).
by Eleanor Quin