MovieChat Forums > The Greatest Story Ever ToldĀ (1965) Discussion > So what casting worked and did NOT work?

So what casting worked and did NOT work?

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD has been most infamous for its all-star cast. It has been called 'a Biblical AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS,''IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD RESURRECTION,' and 'an Easter LOVE BOAT special.' There are some weird choices, but there are star performances that I felt worked.

-Charlton Heston as John the Baptist. In a film where everyone plays things reverently and a bit slowly, Heston's overacting at times is like a shot in the arm.
-Claude Rains as Herod. Herod had been described as a decrepit paranoid old man, and Rains NAILED that.
-Jose Ferrer as Antipas
-Martin Landau as Caiaphas (It's interesting they cast a younger actor for this role; he's probably the handsomest High Priest)
-Joseph Schildkraut as Nicodemus (Schildkraut has had an interesting career portraying Jewish characters. He was Judas Iscariot in DeMille's KING OF KINGS, Dreyfuss in THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, Otto Frank in the Broadway/movie versions of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, and a Death camp ghost in a TWILIGHT ZONE episode). His protest over Caiaphas' kangaroo court would be used in other Jesus movies.
-Donald Pleasance as the Dark Hermit.
-Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate. Yeah, I know, but Kojak definitely has presence.
-Van Heflin as Bar Amand.
-Sal Mineo as the cripple.

I would also give recommended mention to Joanna Durham as Mary Magdelene (even though her pregnancy showed) and Ina Balin as Martha, attacking Jesus at the funeral. And of course, Max Von Sydow as Jesus.

-Shelley Winters as the Woman with No Name.
-Ed Wynn as the blind man. I know Wynn can handle drama, but portraying a Judean old man is really stretching things (doesn't help that he is saddled with lines like 'When you were a little fella...')
-Pat Boone as the Angel in the Tomb.
-And of course, John Wayne as the Centurion.

A versatile group of Apostles, from former child stars (MacDowall, Considine), a future possible murderer (Blake) and Jamie Farr.


Interesting idea for a thread. Hope you draw some responses.

Of your "worked" list.

I agree with all of them--Rains, Ferrer, Landau, Schildkraut, Pleasance, (and also Victor Buono) were character men one would expect in an A budget movie in these sorts of roles. So was Telly Savalas. The "Kojak" identification would be years later. Most ticket buyers probably weren't that familiar with Savalas in 1965. Other than perhaps baldness, he seemed perfect casting for a Roman governor.

Heflin and Mineo were probably better known, but both seemed to fit into their roles smoothly.

Heston was a big star, but John the Baptist was an important role, and I agree he gave the movie a shot in the arm.

I admit I didn't recognize McDowell or Blake under their beards until I checked the credits.

Von Sydow did his best with an essentially unplayable role.

Of the "did not work" list

I agree with Winters and Boone. They just seemed jarring.

Ed Wynn? I thought he was okay.

You didn't mention Carroll Baker and Sidney Poitier. I actually didn't recognize Baker so she presented no problems. Poitier's casting was heavy-handed symbolism but I had no issue with his performance.

John Wayne--Ouch. His one line reading was terrible. Wayne's flop cameo is probably the main reason this film catches so much flak for its "stunt" casting.

**If it is of interest, I have been watching movies for more than sixty years now and these stars are familiar to me.

I wonder how the younger folks react. To average film fans under thirty, probably only Wayne, Poitier, and Heston are that well known today.


I agree with most everything you have said.

Generally everyone does top notch work - all the actors knew that they were working for one of the most demanding directors--- I think everyone worked to give it their best.

Even the ones most often cited as bad - Shelley Winters, Pat Boone and John Wayne - are not as jarring as they once seemed. Winters is the least effective as the Woman Healed- did she understand the term "underplaying"? Boone had a basically unplayable role as Angel at the Tomb - there is really nothing he did wrong - he is just so darn recognizable. And JW as the centurion is fine until we hear in his final closeup his one line- "Truly this man was the Son of Gawd" -- that western accent hurts.

And as has been pointed out , as time passes , and many of these actors are no longer familiar to the average film goer, most of these problems become moot.


And as has been pointed out , as time passes , and many of these actors are no longer familiar to the average film goer, most of these problems become moot.
Absolutely right. For me, only Wayne seems inescapably inappropriate, and that's not just the accent, but because the disparity between his star status and this tiny cameo is just too huge; too self-conscious. It's hard to think of him ever becoming so obscure that he fits the role.

I'm fond of Ed Wynn in this film. The shot of him sitting by the well, alone, is very moving for some reason; strange, melancholy; as much to do with the crags of Wynn's face as anything. I can't quite figure it out...

But I've always likened the casting of famous stars with the Rennaissance pictures, where the donors are protrayed as participants in the drama; kneeling at the foot of the cross with all their family, etc ,etc. Part of the drama, yet apart from it too.

Once we stop approaching the film as a naturalistic drama, and think of it more as a stylised Byzantine masque, some of its peculiarities (cast, pace, Monument Valley, schematic & symbolic compositions) don't seem quite so odd any more...

Call me Ishmael...


I couldn't agree more -- and nicely said. Thanks


I am wondering why John Wayne was cast as the centurion, that has to be the biggest blooper in movie history, John Wayne is a cowboy through and through, he just looked like an idiot as the centurion. Don't know who should have played that part but it should not have been a great actor like John Wayne. That is just my opinion, your opinion maybe different.


I wanna say there were probably many Roman soldiers with a "John Wayne" mentality; but nevertheless agree that the Duke was wrong for this. Maybe it could have worked if the director had told him, "Look, Duke, you've only got eight words and you probably CAN forego the cowboy accent for just those few seconds and words. So let's do a retake on this."

Other Centurian choices:

Gregory Peck
Joseph Cotten
Victor Mature
(who co-starred with Centurion "castee" Richard Burton in "The Robe")
William Boyd (Yes, I think the former "Hopalong Cassidy" Western star could have nailed this and it would have been a memorable swansong performance for him, IMO; might have been a bit too old for the part, I'll admit)
Howard Keel
Richard Egan
Stephen McNalley
Burt Lancaster
(said to have been an atheist--but, then again, so was Max Von Sydow!)
Richard Boone
Yul Brynner
Cliff Robertson
Vince Edwards
Rock Hudson
Tony Curtis
(other Jewish cast members like Ed Wynn and Joseph Schildkraut apparently had no qualms appearing in this!)


William Boyd is such an interesting "replacement" as The Centurian.
A gifted actor, he certainly could have played the part; and what a tie in, since he played Simon of Cyrene in de Mille's KING OF KINGS.


Biggest John Wayne blooper wasn't this movie, it was his starring role as Ghengis Khan in "The Conqueror" with Susan Hayward made by Howard Hughes. The only thing that came out of this movie was the number of cancer deaths. It had been shot in the Utah desert, downwind from the atomic bomb test range in Nevada and tons of the red dirt were hauled to the studio for continuity shots indoors.


I haven't seen this movie in years, but I love looking at the bit players, some of whom seem just as out of place as Wayne--Gene Roth, Jay C Flippen, John Pickard--as well as the stuntmen. A veritable Who's Who of Western actors.


Where was Gene Roth in the film?


I think Ed Wynn's casting doesn't hurt the film over the long-haul mostly because I don't think most later generations are as familiar with Wynn's body of work as a comedian other than perhaps "Mary Poppins." His longevity wasn't great in radio nor does he have many things on film showing him in his classic comedy personas. Most of us are more familar with other comedians imitating Ed Wynn without our realizing they're imitating Ed Wynn.

Shelley Winters though was a pointless waste because while Wynn's part did have some substance, her cameo basically brought everything to a halt to say "Hey it's Shelley Winters."


What did not work for me was the location. Those poor people look like they're freezing in what is supposed to be the desert. The mountains in the background covered with snow emphasize the cold weather. I know Stevens felt the US southwest could substitute for the Holy Land, but I've seen too many John Ford films for it to work for me.
Get me a bromide - and put some gin in it!


>>What did not work for me was the location. Those poor people look like they're freezing in what is supposed to be the desert.<<

Absolutely! I kept asking my husband what volcanic island was sticking out of the ocean in the background so I could identify where they were filming because it obviously wasn't Jerusalem.

And I am totally surprised and aghast at the casting of von Sydow!
First of all, especially at the end of sentences, you can can hear his Swedish accent; he's noticeably taller than everybody else (it's grade-school symbolism if he was hired for his height) and he is surrounded by short people in the likes of Sal Mineo, David McCallum, Roddy McDowell, Michael Anderson Jr., etc.-- all these things to draw your attention away from the person of Christ. (Same with the "movie star" cast.) I would say in "The Greatest Story Ever Told" it was the scenery that stole the show.

Von Sydow obviously hadn't "gotten into the character" of Jesus because von Sydow played him very stiltedly, with no Spirit at all. I'm a Christian but my favorite "Jesus" movie has a non-Christian playing Jesus (Robert Powell as "Jesus of Nazareth"), conveying a very sweet and believable spirit so it CAN be done by a non-Christian...

Does anyone know why von Sydow was chosen? Had he played in some seriously spiritual movie before this? When the movie first came out, I had never heard of his name in my life.

All I can think is that George Stevens must have had a personal spiritual life that was dry as dust; kind of makes me feel sorry for the guy if he was truly a practicing Christian.



I agree that Max Von Sydow, great actor that he is, was rather wooden and unconvincing as Jesus Christ, especially in scenes where he's supposed to project great emotion, e.g, driving off the money changers at the Temple. Tim Neely in Jesus Christ Superstar did a better job imho, looks the part even better than Sydow. Maybe they should've switched movies? (problem would then arise as to Sydow's singing ability, but then there's dubbing).

Scenery was too, how should I say, Hollywoodish, like tall painted cardboard buildings set against a super duper humongous stage. Or like it was copied off some Renaissance style painting.

Not enough extras employed to play the crowds and multitudes that follow Jesus around, just sets of people who look more like long-robed groupies groveling and ooh-aahing at the wonders He did.

Mind you, I'm Christian and a movie buff at the same time, but that doesn't mean that all movies based on the Bible stories are worth watching, regardless of the religious /spiritual inclinations of the producer and director.
TGSET is by no means the greatest religious film of all time (judging from box-office receipts), but it isn't the worst either.


Max Von Sydow's most famous role to this day is probably as the main character in The Seventh Seal (1957) where he plays chess with death. Although it is definitely a spiritual film it is definitely NOT a Christian film. In fact the character is struggling with his belief in God and in the end realises that there is no God. It is therefore unusual that he was cast as Jesus when in his famous roles by director Ingmar Bergman he often plays emotionally stunted characters who are struggling with spiritual questions and often find themselves no closer to the answer at the end.


Agree about Max von Sydow.

This may be a case of retroactive recognition, but I adore David McCallum. But, I don't think my eyes should have kept being drawn to him.

I'm a Christian. And I believe that Jesus would have been charismatic. He would have had to have been. In order to attract disciples during his walk on earth, there would have had to been some sort of power and magnetism about him. Max von Sydow was boring! Even though I love David McCallum, my eyes should not have been constantly drawn to him.

I know it's more meaty to play a villain than a hero. But, Judas Iscariot's arc in this movie is much more dynamic than Jesus' is.

So, that was my biggest casting problem. Max von Sydow. (Although, yeah, John Wayne in his one line sucked.)


Demons I get. People are crazy.


I really liked Max Von Sydow, Charlton Heston, Jose Ferrer, and Telly Savalas.

John Wayne, well maybe not so much worked or not worked, just why? Movie could've been done without him. It's not his fault, it was just kind of a pointless cameo.



Max was just too grim to be Jesus. He couldn't even smile, all he manages is a kind of grimace. Jesus told jokes, remember, telling the dishonest teachers of the law they were "straining" a gnat while swallowing a camel...ya gotta love that mental image!

Telly Savalas, however, has always been my favorite Pilate. Others, like Hurd Hatfield, were just method actors emoting their immature guts out.


Wonder how many of you noticed that Spock's father Sarek was one of the Three Kings?


I thought Heston was great as John the Baptist, and I thought Jose Ferrer was even better as Antipas. But Claude Rains was absolutely terrific as Hero; in fact, I think his performance was the best in the film. Joanna Dunham was so captivating and gorgeous, it's not easy to forget her.

The other amazing thing about this film is that every scene, every single one, looks like magnificent painting. Every single shot. The sets and lighting and cinematography are absolutely stunning.