powered by AFI
When you think of George C. Scott, or even Mike Nichols for that matter, talking dolphins are probably not the first things that come to mind. In The Day of the Dolphin (1973) George C. Scott plays a dedicated scientist working with dolphins on a remote island. Involved in a top secret project, Scott and his team are training dolphins to both understand and speak the English language. When he has a remarkable breakthrough, however, Scott must race to stop the dolphins from being used as pawns in a bizarre plot to assassinate the President of the United States. The Day of the Dolphin is nothing if not unique, and its curious hodgepodge of different genres including science fiction, political thriller, and environmental cautionary tale is a sincere effort and probably unlike anything you have ever seen.
Based on the 1967 French novel Un Animal Doue de Raison (A Sentient Animal) by Robert Merle, The Day of the Dolphin was originally going to be made by director Roman Polanski of Rosemary's Baby(1968) and Chinatown(1974) fame. Polanski was busy developing the project in London when he received the devastating news of the violent murder of his wife Sharon Tate in Los Angeles at the hands of members of the Manson family. Understandably, Polanski abandoned the Dolphin project and returned to the states to deal with the tragedy. What the film would have been like in the stylish Polanski's hands remains an intriguing thought.
Instead director Mike Nichols was offered the project as the result of a contract he had with producer Joseph E. Levine, who ran Avco Embassy Pictures. Nichols had already made two successful films for Levine: The Graduate (1967) and Carnal Knowledge (1971). In order to fulfill his contractual obligation with Levine, Nichols had to complete one more picture for him, but the two couldn't agree on a project. Nichols and Levine went round and round trying to come up with something, Nichols even trying to get out of his contract at one point. Finally, the two found that they were able to agree upon The Day of the Dolphin. Nichols, desperate to move on from this contract so that he could make other films, jumped in with both feet.
At Nichols' request, Buck Henry, who had penned the scripts for Nichols' previous hits The Graduate and Catch-22 (1970), took on the job of adapting Robert Merle's novel into a screenplay despite his reservations about the material. Having never written a melodrama, Henry thought that The Day of the Dolphin would be a stimulating challenge.
It was a challenge that proved harder than Henry had bargained for, however. "I was trying to make it my own, but I was also trying to make sense of it," said Henry in a 2003 interview. "The novel was this giant sprawling mess with two fundamentally unbelievable pieces built into it. And once you remove those pieces, like with most stories that rely heavily on narrative, everything falls apart." Henry wound up making major changes from the book's plot and kept his fingers crossed that it would all work.
George C. Scott was at the top of his game-and fame-when he joined the cast of The Day of the Dolphin. The commanding actor was fresh off his indelible Academy Award-winning performance in Patton (1970) (an award that he famously refused) and had just received an Academy Award nomination for his work in The Hospital (1971). Both feared and revered, Scott brought his temperamental and bigger-than-life reputation with him to the three-month long shoot on the island of Abaco in the Bahamas, where there was little to do except eat, drink, swim and play tennis. While Scott could lose his temper easily and had a penchant for too much alcohol, most found him to be a teddy bear at heart whose label as one of the greatest living actors was well deserved. "He could be a nightmare," said Buck Henry, "but he was a blessing. He could do an awful lot with an awful little."
Buck Henry also made a significant contribution to The Day of the Dolphin in a most unlikely way by providing the voices for the dolphins, Alpha and Beta. The final dolphin voices used in the film were actually a mix of Henry's voice, mechanical noises, and other dolphin sounds all put together. During the shoot, Henry would often stand off camera and talk in the dolphin voices in order to cue the other actors for their scenes.
A total of six dolphins were trained to perform in the movie. Two dolphins named Buck (for Buck Henry) and Ginger (for Ginger Rogers) played Alpha and Beta, and the four others were backup. Buck and Ginger had been found off the coast of Florida in 1972 and specially trained to perform for this film using an "immediate reward" system.
The strong supporting cast of The Day of the Dolphin includes Trish Van Devere (George C. Scott's real-life wife) playing his onscreen wife Maggie, Paul Sorvino, Fritz Weaver, and Edward Herrmann. Fans of General Hospital will enjoy seeing a very young Leslie Charleson (aka Dr. Monica Quartermaine) in a small but memorable part as a member of George C. Scott's research team.
Though the film received decidedly mixed reviews, The Day of the Dolphin was deservedly rewarded with two Academy Award nominations for Best Sound and for Georges Delerue's hauntingly beautiful score, which provides an atmospheric musical backdrop to some truly beautiful scenery and stunning dolphin sequences.
This highly anticipated re-teaming of Mike Nichols and Buck Henry after their previous successes turned out to be the last time the talented pair would work together. Each branched off to work on his own projects creatively, though there was always the chance (and still is) that the pair would collaborate again someday. "In truth," said Buck Henry in a recent interview, "I thought maybe we'd run out of good ideas for awhile with that particular film, but it was nothing ever but pleasure for me to work with Mike. We always had a good time."
Producer: Robert E. Relyea
Director: Mike Nichols
Screenplay: Buck Henry, based on the novel Un Animal doue de raison by Robert Merle
Cinematography: William A. Fraker
Art Direction: Angelo P. Graham
Production Design: Richard Sylbert
Music: Georges Delerue
Film Editing: Sam O'Steen
Cast: George C. Scott (Dr. Jake Terrell), Trish Van Devere (Maggie Terrell), Paul Sorvino (Curtis Mahoney), Fritz Weaver (Harold DeMilo), Jon Korkes (David), Edward Herrmann (Mike), John David Carson (Larry), John Dehner (Wallingford), Severn Darden (Schwinn), Elizabeth Wilson (Mrs. Rome).
by Andrea Passafiume