Romeo and Juliet has been known to make audiences shed a few tears over the centuries, but the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation of it also caused its actors to shed some very real blood.
Leonard Whiting and Michael York, who portrayed Romeo and Tybalt in the film, revealed they actually drew blood and scratched each other frequently during the climactic sword fight between the two characters, which sets the tragic events of the play’s conclusion in motion.
The two actors, along with Juliet actress Olivia Hussey, gathered at a 50th-anniversary screening of the film at the TCM film festival over the weekend to reminisce about their time on set. Referencing that intense scene, Whiting addressed costar Michael York, saying, “Michael, I think you still owe me about a pint of blood.” The actor explained that he and York both gave each other quite a few cuts during filming because the fight scene extended beyond their established choreography.
York added that the location also added to the danger of the fight. “We did learn this damn fight,” he recalled. “We could do it in our sleep, forward, backward, except we were rehearsing in a gym or on a lawn. [Zeffirelli] decided to use it on location in one of those Tuscan hill-towns with the road winding down, slippery pebbles, dust, you name it. Of course, the effect is stunning. But I don’t know how many times I came close to slaughtering [Leonard].” York also pointed out that the cinematographer was regularly calling for them to stop to try to protect the two actors. “He could see we were superficially cutting each other,” York said. “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
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The three stars shared many other memories and fun facts from the shoot, a particularly memorable time in their lives, especially given that Whiting and Hussey were still only teenagers themselves. Whiting remembered that he and Hussey were a perfect match for each other from their very first chemistry test together. “If you don’t believe in love at first sight, it absolutely happened then, and I thought, ‘If I haven’t got chemistry with this lady then I can’t do it with anybody else,'” he said.
Though Whiting and Hussey delivered unforgettable performances, they had to beat out over 600 other actors for the roles and learn to speak without their natural accents (Hussey’s was Argentinian and Whiting’s was a thick Cockney). Whiting recalled speaking to Zeffirelli in the audition and the director turning to his assistant, saying, “How can he speak Shakespeare if he can’t even speak English?”
The trio also spoke fondly of Zeffirelli’s artistry as a director. “This incredibly golden, shimmering light that runs through the film, he got the effect by having someone drop gold dust,” remembered York. Zeffirelli also hand-picked each of the extras and sought to arrange them like figures in a Renaissance painting. “He would say, ‘I’m not really a filmmaker. I’m an artist of the same kind of integrity as people like da Vinci and Michaelangelo,'” recalled Whiting. “Because he saw himself as a Florentine artist of the 15th century, which is why his eye is so good.”
While there have been numerous adaptations before and since, ranging from Baz Luhrmann’s 1990’s set Romeo + Juliet to a 2013 version that largely discarded much of Shakespeare’s verse, the 1968 iteration remains the gold standard.
Hussey recalled that the film was well-received at the time (except by the British press who lamented some of the cuts to the poetry), and she and the entire cast are regularly approached by people gushing about the film’s impact on their life. Hussey concluded, “[Zeffirelli] said, “50 years from now, I want people to still feel the passion and the emotions and the feelings,’ and he got that.”