powered by AFI
With the title role in Zorba the Greek (1964), Anthony Quinn had the part he was born to play, the one for which he is perhaps best-remembered. Based on a famous novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, the screenplay had been considered and ultimately rejected by every Hollywood studio over the years, with Burt Lancaster and Burl Ives among the stars who turned down the lead role. When the script arrived in Quinn's lap, the actor immediately fell for its exuberant tale of life, love and loss - so much so that he put quite a bit of personal effort into getting it off the ground and in front of the cameras.
The story finds a blocked English writer named Basil (Alan Bates) arriving on Crete to check on a lignite mine he has inherited, but he is really on a journey of self-discovery. He is befriended by Zorba, a larger-than-life, big-hearted Greek laborer who shows Basil the ways of the world. Basil is drawn to a beautiful widow (Irene Papas) who has made herself unapproachable to the other men in the village, while Zorba kindles a romance with Mme. Hortense (Lila Kedrova), an aging French courtesan who runs a small hotel and is the ex-mistress of four admirals.
Zorba the Greek was to be a low-budget, independent production financed by United Artists and directed, written and produced by Michael Cacoyannis. Agreeing to only a modest living allowance during production, Quinn took a one-third interest in the picture, with Cacoyannis and United Artists splitting the rest. This kept the budget down to $400,000. A five-week shooting schedule was planned in Crete. One big problem, however, was casting the role of Mme. Hortense. UA insisted on a star, and Cacoyannis and Quinn thought of Simone Signoret, the great French actress. They went to Paris and pitched her the part. Initially hesitant, Signoret finally agreed, and a few weeks later she was in Crete shooting her first scene. It went disastrously.
As Quinn later wrote in his memoir One Man Tango, the scene called for "Madame Hortense...to prattle on in an expository way about the great admirals who used to be her lovers, but Simone was not ridiculous enough, not pathetic enough in her portrayal. Michael kept after her, trying to get it right. We started shooting at eight o'clock in the evening, and by midnight, when we broke for lunch, the scene had not moved anywhere. As the night wore on, Simone became even more unsure of herself, and for the first time I became concerned...I did not think to worry for the picture itself - Simone would be fine, eventually - but we could not afford to waste a whole night's shooting.
"Then, during a pause between takes, I looked over and saw Simone, on the floor, crying. 'Forgive me,' Simone said, up from her weeping, 'but I can't. I can't do this part. I should never have taken it.'" When pressed why, Signoret finally explained it was because "Hortense is an old woman, and I've got a young husband. I cannot let him see me like this."
Signoret was on a flight back to Paris the next day. Quinn started calling every possible actress he could think of for the part, including Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Southern and Tallulah Bankhead. All loved the script but could not be ready in Crete quickly enough. (The production was losing money every day of the delay.) Finally Cacoyannis thought of an actress named Lila Kedrova, whom he claimed would be perfect. Trouble was, no one else had ever heard of her and United Artists was totally uninterested. As Quinn wrote, "we traded one problem for another." Quinn put in a call to Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox, hoping to convince him to take over the budget - which now totaled $750,000. The outcome was one of those only-in-old-Hollywood stories which would never happen in the business today. After listening to Quinn explain the situation, Zanuck asked, "'You believe in it, Tony?'
"'I think it could be the best picture I've ever done. It's a story about life, and how to live.'
"'I don't know why,' Zanuck said, 'but I believe you. When do you want the money?'
"'It'll be there.'
"And it was," Quinn wrote. "He never even asked to see a script. He just sent his son-law over with the money, and we were back in business.'"
The rest was history. Kedrova was indeed perfect and wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Zorba the Greek also won for Black-and-White Cinematography and Black-and-White Art Direction and garnered nominations for Picture, Actor, Director, and Adapted Screenplay - not bad for a little black-and-white movie in an era of widescreen color films. It was Quinn's second Best Actor nomination (he had previously won twice in the Supporting category), but this was the year of My Fair Lady, which swept the Oscars including Rex Harrison's win for Best Actor. "To his credit," Quinn later wrote, "Harrison came up to me at the gala reception following the awards ceremony and placed the statue on the table in front of me. 'We made a $20 million picture,' he said. 'You made a $750,000 picture. You should have won.'" Zorba the Greek was originally released in art houses by Fox's International Classics division, but with all the critical and Academy attention, the main studio took over for a wider release, which was very successful.
In his memoir, Quinn related an amusing story about Zorba the Greek's most famous image - the ending, in which Zorba teaches Basil a little dance on a beach. The scene was set for the last day of shooting. The day before, however, Quinn broke his foot. When filming resumed after several days, the foot had been wrapped in tape which could be removed for the shots, but Quinn could not jump or hop around as the scene required. Cacoyannis was worried, but Quinn reassured him. "And I danced. I could not lift my foot and set it down - the pain was unendurable - but I found that I could drag it along without too much discomfort, so I invented a dance with an unusual sliding-dragging step. I held out my arms, in a traditional Greek stance, and shuffled along the sands. Soon, Alan Bates picked up on the move, and the two of us were lifted by the music and the sea, taken arm in arm to a spiritual place, out of the ordinary and far away. We were born-again Greeks, joyously celebrating life. We had no idea what we were doing, but it felt right, and good." Afterwards, Cacoyannis asked him what that dance was called. Quinn replied, "It's a Sirtaki. It's traditional. One of the villagers taught it to me." He drew the name from thin air.
Quinn cast Pia Lindstrom, Ingrid Bergman's daughter, in the role of Zorba's first wife, and the two had an affair even as Quinn was going through a divorce and carrying on with a mistress whom he later married. Lindstrom's part was cut entirely from the final film. Quinn revisited Zorba two decades later on Broadway, in a 1983 revival of the 1968 musical Zorba. Lila Kedrova also reprised her character in that production, which ran for nearly a year.
Producer: Michael Cacoyannis, Anthony Quinn
Director: Michael Cacoyannis
Screenplay: Michael Cacoyannis, Nikos Kazantzakis (novel)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Film Editing: Michael Cacoyannis
Art Direction: Vassilis Photopoulos
Music: Mikis Theodorakis
Cast: Anthony Quinn (Alexis Zorba), Alan Bates (Basil), Irene Papas (Widow), Lila Kedrova (Madame Hortense), Sotiris Moustakas (Mimithos), Anna Kyriakou (Soul).
by Jeremy Arnold