Believe every Hollywood myth and you’ll think William Randolph Hearst killed producer Thomas Ince, a ghost haunted the set of Three Men and a Baby, and Marisa Tomei owes her Oscar to Jack Palance. You may also believe Frank Sinatra was cast in From Here to Eternity after the Mob plunked a horse’s head in the bed of Columbia chief Harry Cohn.
And why not? By the time Eternity opened on Aug. 5, 1953, Sinatra was a washed-up crooner whom nobody wanted to hire. When The Godfather was published 16 years later, with a Sinatra-based character named Johnny Fontane who enlists the Mafia to land him a movie role, a conspiracy theory was born.
”It’s a great story,” laughs Eternity’s Oscar-winning screenwriter, Daniel Taradash, who was involved in the film’s casting. ”But it ain’t true.” In actuality, Sinatra got the part through mere bullheaded lobbying. Well, that and a stroke of luck: The first choice to play Pvt. Angelo Maggio, Eli Wallach, fell through.
Still, the myth illustrates the challenges in bringing James Jones’ 1951 novel to the screen. From the moment Columbia acquired the prewar tale of love and dishonor for a then-hefty $85,000, it was known as Cohn’s Folly. Few thought a movie critical of the Army could get made in the McCarthy era. ”In those days it was considered pornographic,” Taradash, now 89, says of a story that includes adultery and torture. ”Today it would be considered Mother Goose.”
But Cohn and Taradash, along with director Fred Zinnemann, pressed on. They made slight script changes to satisfy censors and rounded out the powerhouse cast with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, and Donna Reed. Their story tweaks also appeased the military enough for the production to gain access to Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks for a three-week location shoot — vital, since Lancaster and Kerr would get famously frisky in the nearby Diamond Head surf.
Audiences, too, were swept away. Eternity was a critical and box office smash; it netted 13 Oscar nods and eight wins, including Best Picture. In 1979, NBC launched a six-hour miniseries based on the novel, which was followed by a short-lived prime-time drama. Meanwhile, the movie’s mix of explosions and romance helped set the formula for hits from Doctor Zhivago to Pearl Harbor.
As for Sinatra, thanks to a role that earned him just $8,000, his career rebounded instantly — starting with a Best Supporting Actor win. And he didn’t need to thank a horse’s head for that grand twist of fate, either.