Ever since Bette Davis and Joan Crawford scored box-office gold in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), horror films have become a staple for aging stars. Gregory Peck entered the fray in 1976 with this satanic thriller that would become the sixth highest-grossing film of its year and inspire three sequels, a TV series and a remake. Peck stars as Robert Thorn, a U.S. diplomat whose infant son dies in the delivery room. Wanting to protect his wife (Lee Remick) from the grief, he secretly adopts a child born that day whose single mother died in childbirth. Their life with young Damien is blissful for five years, during which time Robert is appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Then strange things start happening before the couple makes a terrible discovery: the child is the Antichrist, destined to bring on the end times.
Peck had not had a box-office hit since Mackenna’s Gold in 1969 and was considering retiring, so appearing in a promising horror film at a time when the genre was enjoying a box-office resurgence thanks to the success of The Exorcist (1973) seemed like a good move financially. It also helped that he saw the script as more of a psychological thriller than a straight-out horror film. Moreover, he was drawn to the role of a conflicted father because it gave him a chance to work through his grief and sense of failure after the suicide of his son Jonathan. He even accepted a cut in salary, working for just $250,000 up front in return for 10 per cent of the film’s gross. His involvement made it possible for the producers to attract other top-level talents to the film.
The idea for the film came from a friend of Harvey Bernhard who suggested a film about the Antichrist might make money. Bernhard wrote the original story treatment himself. Because of the subject matter, the first writers approached to create the screenplay turned Bernhard down. David Seltzer had done un-credited re-writes on Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), which included adding the songs “Pure Imagination” and “The Candy Man,” and had scored a hit with the inspirational drama The Other Side of the Mountain (1975). He was broke when he agreed to write The Omen and freely admits he only did it for the money. He also set the film in London so he could visit there at the productions’ expense.
Richard Donner had done a great deal of television before this but had only made three other feature films: the aviation drama X-15 (1961); the comic spy thriller Salt and Pepper (1968), starring Rat Pack members Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford; and London Affair (1970, aka Twinky), a comedy in which writer Charles Bronson marries English teen Susan George. Donner read the script for The Omen and was so enthusiastic he convinced 20th Century-Fox head Alan Ladd Jr, whose studio had earlier passed on the film, to pick it up. In return, Ladd insisted Donner direct the picture. Donner’s first major change to the screenplay was to ask Seltzer to remove all overt supernatural elements. He wanted nothing in the film that couldn’t be explained realistically. Rather than treating the picture as a horror film, he approached it as a portrait of a family in crisis.
Press releases claimed Peck was the first choice for the lead, but apparently it was first offered to William Holden, who turned it down (he would appear in the 1978 sequel). Others considered for or offered the role included Charlton Heston, Dick Van Dyke, Roy Scheider and Charles Bronson. The part of Mrs. Baylock, the new nanny, was originally written as an Irishwoman whose warm exterior masked her evil purposes. When Billie Whitelaw, an accomplished stage actress particularly noted for her performances in Samuel Beckett’s plays, tried out, she re-wrote her lines to make the character more sinister. Donner not only cast her but also changed the role to match her audition. Donner cast Holly Palance as Damien’s first nanny at the suggestion of her father, Jack Palance, with whom he had worked on the TV movie Bronk. At the audition to cast Damien, Donner asked the children up for the role to attack him. Five-year-old Harvey Stephens was so violent, Donner cast him in the role, even though it meant dying his blond hair black and giving him tinted contact lenses to darken his eyes.
Throughout production strange accidents created the impression the film was cursed. The planes carrying Peck and Seltzer to England were both struck by lightning, and a lightning bolt just missed Donner, whose hotel was bombed by the IRA. Peck chartered a private jet to fly him home after location filming in Israel but changed his plans. The flight on which he had originally been booked crashed, killing everyone on board. The day filming started, several crew members were involved in a head-on car crash.
Although she was thrilled to finally get to work with Peck, the production had its nightmarish aspects for leading lady Remick. For the scene in which baboons attack her car when she takes Stephens to a safari park, an animal handler had two baby baboons in the back seat to get the creatures to attack. They did with surprising vehemence. Moreover, the car was a stick shift, which Remick didn’t know how to drive. It stalled, and she couldn’t get it started again, even as the baboons were screaming and trying to get in. Her terror was real. Later, she refused to do the stunt when her character falls off the balcony in the Thorns’ home. Donner wanted a shot of her falling, so the floor was actually built on a wall of the set, and Remick “fell” by being wheeled backwards toward it.
Twentieth Century-Fox put $2.8 million into a marketing campaign for the film that included several sneak previews to generate word of mouth, a novelization by Seltzer and a logo with the number “666,” the sign of the beast, inside the capital O in “omen.” To underline the significance of the number, they held previews on June 6, 1976. While the film was screening, theatre employees erected displays proclaiming, “This is the sixth day of the sixth month of the year Nineteen-Seventy-SIX!” That terrified preview audiences even more and added to the film’s word of mouth. As a result, despite tepid reviews, the picture was a huge box-office hit, posting the highest opening weekend gross in the studio’s history to that time and eventually taking in about $60 million, equivalent to almost $300 million today. Peck’s percentage of the gross represented the most he ever made for a film performance.
The Omen won Oscar nominations for Best Score and Best Song, “Ave Satani.” Jerry Goldsmith won the scoring Oscar, but it was the song that entered the record books as the only Best Song nominee to date written in Latin. The film’s success revitalized Peck’s career, which would continue until 1998, when he appeared in the TV miniseries version of Moby Dick, five years before his death at the age of 87. It also made a name for Donner, paving the way for his work on such blockbusters as Superman (1978), The Goonies (1985) and Lethal Weapon (1987). Stephens only made one other film as a child, the TV movie Gaugin the Savage (1980). He eventually built a career in finance, though he had a cameo as a reporter in the 2006 remake of The Omen.
The Omen’s success led to two sequels, Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Conflict (1981); the 1991 TV movie Omen IV: The Awakening, in which a young girl is the Antichrist; the 2016 TV series Damien, about the adult Damien; and the 2006 remake. It also inspired Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s apocalyptic novel Good Omen, which became a successful series on Amazon Prime.
Producer: Harvey Bernhard
Director: Richard Donner
Screenplay: David Seltzer
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Score: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Gregory Peck (Robert Thorn), Lee Remick (Katherine Thorn), David Warner (Keith Jennings), Billie Whitelaw (Mrs. Baylock), Harvey Stephens (Damien), Patrick Troughton (Father Brennan), Holly Palance (Nanny), Leo McKern (Carl Bugenhagen)