James Mason (1909-1984)
- Melville Cooper, The Private Life of Don Juan, 1931. Ignominous beginning for Britain’s supreme screen actor: “The greatest actor,” said iconic director DW Griffith. Cinema Actor of the Century, said the 1967 Montreal Expo. Producer Alexander Korda felt Mason was miscast and dropped him after a few days. Another five years passed before he started over.
- Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights, 1938.
- Rex Harrison, Major Barbara, 1941. In December 1939, Gabriel Pascal (probably the only director born in Transylvania), shot a still-photo “test” of Mason - for Adolphus in the George Bernard Shaw film. Andrew Osborne won the role... until the 1941 shooting. Then, Pascal called Mason to Denham Studios: “Jimmy, we’ve made a great mistake.” (“We?” thought Mason!). He was sent home with the script to study. The part was obviously his, after all. Four days later, he read Rex Harrison had been signed opposite Wendy Hiller!
- Stewart Granger, The Man in Grey, 1943. Mason made the film. Of course, he did. And horsewhipping Margaret Lockwood made him A Star... When Eric Portman quit the whip-hand, James was promoted (reluctantly, he maintained) to “swaggering through the title role,” said Time magazine, “sneering like Laughton, barking like Gable and frowning like Olivier on a dark night.” (James Agate called the film “bosh and tosh”). Granger took over the young hero from Mason. They were swiftly paired - or interchanged - in other preposterous UK romances and, eventually, in Hollywood's Prisoner of Zenda, 1952.
- Stewart Granger, Cesar and Cleopatra, 1944. Mason passed on Apollodorus - and took over Granger’s highwayman in The Wicked Lady, starting his two-year reign as Britain's biggest box-office draw.
- Roger Livesey, I Know Where I'm Going, 1945. Once again, Mason was due to star with Wendy Hiller. Until a row with director Michael Powell about salary - and billing. Powell said: “The name of the lady precedes yours, as is usual in society.” Oh, retorted Mason, like Mrs and Mr? The dispute solved all future billing problems - and he was free to make the melodrama that made him internationally known, The Seventh Veil!
- Stewart Granger, The Magic Bow, 1946. Just as Mason was superbly suited for the 1945 highwayman, Granger was a better Paganini than Mason - who fled this insipid biography.
- John Abbott, Anna and The King of Siam, 1946. When visited by Fox chief Spyros Skouras, James was promised two films. Including the Siamese court’s Prime Minister. When Mason asked who’d be the king, Skouras said he needed a young Charles Laughton, “foreign, of course.” Mason nodded, thinking Oriental or Mexican, Czech or Greek before realising that to Hollywood, English actors were foreign.
- Gregory Peck, The Paradine Case, 1946. After musing on such Shakesperians as Maurice Evans and Laurence Olivier (plus Alan Marshal, James Mason) for the lawyer defending murder suspect Alida Valli, producer David Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock (who wanted Ronald Colman or Joseph Cotton) inexplicably went with Mr Cardboard. Hitch gave in to end his contract with the over-bossy DOS. Hitchcock got Mason for something much better in 1958 - one of his most perfect movies, North By Northwest.
- Michael Redgrave, Secret Beyond The Door, 1946. Director Fritz Lang’s very own Rebecca (complete with Mrs Danvers, er Miss Robey), was Redgrave’s Hollywood debut. Although Lang had wanted wanted Mason for the guy with the crazy hobby - recreating rooms where murders have occurred. Goofy would have been more scarier than Redgrave. It cost a bomb - and bombed, after reviews like as “beyond human endurance” and “it stinks.” Joan Bennett, as Rebecca - er, Celia - called it “an unqualified disaster.” And she helped produce it!
- George Sanders, Forever Amber, 1947. The second Fox offer - Charles II - was “unthinkable.”
- Michael Redgrave, Mourning Becomes Electra, 1947. One of many he had to refuse while “immbolised by the law” for 18 months due to an alleged contract with Hollywood producer David E Rose. Mason never saw the film that slashed the six-hour O'Neill's verbal fireworks in half. Friends assured him it was “a mite too stodgy.”
- Robert Ryan, Caught, 1948. Mason’s first Hollywood experience. He won Round One - refusing to be the villain, having been there too often in London, and so Robert Ryan made life hell for Barbara Bel Geddes. Mason lost Round Two - the preview cards were ecstatic, three months later, the reviews were lousy.
- Van Helfin, Tap Roots, 1948. Still with “a cloud on my title,” he escaped Walter Wanger's mini-Gone With The Wind. “It was,” noted Mason, “a mess.”
- Louis Jourdan, Madame Bovary, 1949. Instead, Mason played Flaubert, “lazily and unimaginatively,” defending his book in the script’s public immorality trial.
- Michael MacLiammoir, Othello, 1949. Inspired thinking but Mason was more used to films with iron-clad schedules and payments. So Orson Welles called upon the Irishman - “we’ll be Chubby Tragedians together.” As biographer David Thomson put it: “Imagine this mind in charge of a studio”
- George Dolenz, Vendetta, 1950. Director Preston Sturgess formed California Pictures with Howard Hughes and used Prosper Merimée's Colomba (the source of Carmen) as the perfect launchpad for Hughes’ latest full-bodied find, Faith Domergue - rather than the US debut of Mason and director Max Ophuls. The career of the Yugoslavian Dolenz slid back into support roles and Mason and Ophuls made their Hollywood debuts with Caught, 1949.
- Humphrey Bogart, The African Queen, 1951. Bette Davis’ dream movie. She tried to get it going in 1938 with David Niven, in ’47 with James Mason and in ’49 with John Mills.
- Thomas E Breen, The River/Le fleuve) France-India-USA, 1951. Stars like Brando, Mason and Michael Redgrave were mulled over by realisateur Jean Renoir and his one-off producer Kenneth McEldowney - a successful LA florist, wed to an MGM publicist. When he moaned about one of her films, she dared him to do better. He sold their home and businesses, and worked from 1947-51 on this film of Rumer Godden’s novel. Like his character of flyer Captain John, Breen had lost a leg. (UK actor Esmond Knight, also cast, had lost an eye).
- Cameron Mitchell, Man on a Tightrope, 1952. New York director Elia Kazan trid to persuade him to join the circus troupe making a daring escape to Germany from the Communist Czechoslovakia.
- Joseph Cotton, Niagara, 1953. Director Henry Hathaway wanted a reunion with his Desert Fox, but Mason did not want his daughter, the infamous Portland, to see him die yet again. “Marilyn [Monroe]was no problem but Joe drove me mad,” moaned Hathaway. “He has no mystery, playing everything on the one, same note. I'd say: ‘Joe, try it a different way, look I’ll show you what I mean.’ He’d listen and say: ‘Very good, I get it.’ And then he’d play the scene exactly as before!”
- Rossano Brazzi, The Barefoot Contessa, 1954.
“The character was not only relatively unimportant but impotent. A madly competitive actor, which is what I was at this stage of my career, does not wish to play the part of an impotent Italian count, even if he is supposed to symbolise the decadent culture of Europe... If Joe [Mankiewicz] had offered the impotent part to Bogart and the Bogart part to me, he'd have had my acceptance in a flash.” (The year before, during Julius Caesar, Marlon Brando said - in fact, yelled it in an angry outburst - that Mason and Mankiewicz (and Mason’s wife) were three-way lovers). Brazzi, said the director, could not act or be sensual. He “could hardly speak English.” But that helped Mankiewicz find his third and last wife. Rosemary Matthews was Brazzi’s English language coach!
- Alec Guinness, The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1956. Producer Sam Spiegel was more keen than director David Lean on Mason for Nicholson. Carl Foreman’s scenario was also mailed to: Ronald Colman, John Gielgud, Cary Grant, Charles Lauaghton, Ray Milland, Laurence Olivier, Eric Portman, Anthony Quayle, Ralph Richardson - and Spencer Tracy, who bluntly told Spiegel that the mad Colonel had to be an Englishman. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to watch a stiff-upper-lip British colonel for two and a half hours,” said Guinness. So, Spiegel took him to dinner. “He was very persuasive.” Of course, he was. In the 50s/60s, to “Spiegel” was LA parlance meaning: to cajole, manipulate or con. That’s how producer Spiegel won his deals, casts, women - and Guinness. “I started out maintaining that I wouldn’t play the role and by the end of the evening, we were discussing what kind of wig I would wear.”
- Kirk Douglas, Paths of Glory, 1957. Mason was approached about Colonel Dax - not easy as most LAgents refused to show the script to their clients. Kubrick, of course, later famously made Lolita with Mason, 1962. He lost out on two of the greatest anti-war films, as he also turned down...
- Rod Steiger, Cry Terror! 1957. Who should be the criminal brain behind the bomb planted (by Angie Dickinson!) on a Twentieth Century Airlines plane? Not me, said Mason, settling for the electronics store owner tricked into making said bomb. “If I’d been a littler smarter I would’ve accepted since it was a much better part than that of the nice guy.” Yet that’s what he played again the following year in the same director Andrew Stone’s next thriller, The Decks Ran Red. Just rather more heroic.
- Michael Rennie, The Third Man, TV, 1959-1965. He refused a second twist of Harry Lime. Far too busy in Hollywood. Rennie was not and shot 77 BBC episodes as a Lime far more gentle than Orson Welles in The Third Man, 1949.
- Charles Laughton, Sotto dieci bandiere (UK/US: Under Ten Flags, Italy-US,1959. The Hollywood dailies insisted that Mason and Laurence Olivier were“slugging it out” (ho! ho!) to be the Royal Navy admiral responsible for finally sinking the continually disguised German surface raider, Atlantis, which sank 22 Allied ships during a non-stop, 665 day mission. This was the second of two fascinating WWII dramas made by Paramount in Italy that year, the other being Jovanka e le altre (US: Five Branded Women).
- Rod Taylor, The Time Machine, 1960. George Pal's first choice. Next: Paul Scofield.
- Hurd Hatfield, King of Kings, 1961. Mason, rather wisely, passed on being Pontius Pilate in Nicholas Ray’s uneven film. Despite being, at 35, closer to Christ’s age than per usual in Schmollywood epics, Jeff was soon dubbed “I Was a Teenage Jesus.”
- Herbert Lom, Mysterious Island, 1961. Inevitable - both the request and the refusal to reprise his Captain Nemo as his Nautilus submarine enters the tale of Union soldiers escaping a Confederate prison in a balloon as full of hot air as this version of Jules Verne. Just not in the same 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, 1954!
- Dirk Bogarde, Victim, 1961. “Because I wanted him..!” After Jack Hawkins fled from Britain’s first film about homosexuality, James was approached but had to stay outside the UK for tax reasons.
- Eric Portman, West 11, 1963. UK director Michael Winner lost his third star because producer Danny Angel “thought Mason was past it.” Angel also said Julie Christie and Sean Connery (testing for the drama) were B-movie stock!
- Sean Connery, From Russia With Love, 1963.
- David Tomlinson, Mary Poppins, 1963. Richard Harris, George Sanders, Donald Sutherland and Terry-Thomas were also in the mix for Mr Banks in Walt Disney’s supercalifragilisticexpialidocious version of PL Travers’ books - an eight-Oscar trumph for Uncle Walt! Ten years earlier, Mason had been Captain Nemo is Disney’s take on 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Mason was not into parenting a film family until returning to his Yorkshire roots for Spring and Port Wine, 1970.
- Rod Steiger, The Pawnbroker, 1964. When Arthur Hiller was to direct the story of Holocaust survivor Sol Nazerman, now working in Harlem. The film was finally made (minus Mason) by Sidney Lumet - ironically, as he and Mason later made three memorable movies: The Seagull, 1968, Child’s Play, 1972, The Verdict, 1982
- Sean Connery, Thunderball, 1965.
- Rod Steiger, Doctor, 1965. When Marlon Brando, with his customary politeness, never bothered to reply, director David Lean wrote to Mason - elated by the possibilities of Viktor Komarovsky. But preturbed by the idea of spending (as Steiger did) almost a year on it!
- Anthony Quinn, A High Wind In Jamaica, 1965. One of several properties that Mason picked up for his new actor-producer-director deal at Fox. He intended co-starring with Stephen Boyd and Hayley Mills. (Quinn’s version made the stowaway kids less important).
- Richard Widmark, The Bedford Incident, 1965. Announced for Mason in 1964.
- Richard Burton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966.
Broadway playwright Edward Albee was pleased with Jack Warner’s original notion of Mason v Bette Davis as George and Martha. “James Mason seemed absolutely right… and to watch Bette Davis do that Bette Davis imitation in that first scene [‘What a dump!”] - that would have been so wonderful.” And later? “Taylor was quite good and Burton was incredible. With Mason and Davis you would have had a less flashy and ultimately deeper film.” But Mason had already been there in 1964 and got The Pumpkin Eater tee-shirt to prove it… It was Elizabeth Taylor who had the last word on George. She rejected not only Mason but Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and the Burtons’ buddy Peter O’Toole.
- Kenneth More, The White Rabbit, TV, 1967. A decade earlier Richard Burton was to star having stupidly given another RAF hero to Kenneth More in Reach For The Sky, 1956. Now UK producer Michael Deeley found the old script based on the WWII of Wing Commander FE Yeo-Thomas - he’d assisted the French Resistance and escaped from Buchenwald. And everyone turned Deeley down: Mason, Dirk Bogarde, John Mills. Not, however, the previous RAF hero... by which time it was a BBC mini-series.
- Patrick McGoohan, Ice Station Zebra, 1968. “I don’t get any offers except to play the wrong parts.”
- Harry Andrews The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968. Mason as Lord Lucan in The Reason Why, was on director Michael Powell’s 1952 list of a dozen projects. Tony Richardson won the Light Brigade battle. Mason and Powell made Age of Consent, 1969 (in Australia, launching Helen Mirren) and talked (endlessly) about The Tempest.
- Fred Astaire, The Midas Run, 1969. Continually passed over for a knighthood, a UK secret service veteran seeks revenge with a gold bullion robbery. So, I know, let’s get.. . Fred Astaire! Absurd.
- Harry Andrews, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, 1970. Ex-TV director Silvio Narizzano aimed for Vivien Leigh and James. “He was afraid of the whole sexual theme.” Narizzano ultimately quit to helm another Joe Orton piece, the much funnier Loot.
- Robert Hardy, Demons of the Mind, 1971. Hammer Films’ horrors were running out of steam. Its new (indeed almost last) villain, Baron Zorn, was also aimed at Dirk Bogarde and Paul Scofield. They all passed on the climax of being impaled on a flaming cross… Eric Porter took it over, then switched to another Hammer vehicle: Hands of the Ripper. In what proved his final film, Mason substituted an injured Scofield in The Shooting Party, 1984.
- Michel Bouquet Paulina 1880, France, 1972. Realisateur Jean-Louis Bertucelli wanted him for the titular heroine’s father.
- John Houseman, The Paper Chase, l973. Mason was ill. Writer-director James Bridges thought about Melvyn Douglas, John Gielgud, Edward G Robinson, Paul Scofield and then sent for his old teacher at UCLA's Theatre Group, the man who had organised Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre and was now teaching people like Robin Williams at New York's Juilliard School. “Get Edward G Robinson,” said Houseman. Robinson was also ill and so “this perfectly glorious part” won an Oscar for “this ageing and obscure schoolmarm” in his third film at age 73. He won another 45 roles in his final 13 years.
- Max von Sydow, Voyage of the Damned, 1976. More like Film of the Damned.
- Curt Jurgens, The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977.
- Wendy Hiller, The Cat and the Canary, 1977. Mason was among the many who passed on lawyer Crosby - mainly because director Radley Metzger was better known as New York porno director Henry Paris! So Crosby became a woman. And kept Hiller busy for ten days.
- Michael Lonsdale, Moonraker, 1979.
- Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City, 1979. Among Paris auteur Louis Malle’s choices (Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Laurence Olivier) for the aging numbers runner (“a cellmate of Bugsy Siegel”) involved with an oyster-bar waitress and an ex-Betty Grable lookalike. Made after the chagrin of losing his 20-year-old dream project, Victory, Malle’s little gem won five Oscar nominations in 1982.
- Wendy Hiller, The Cat and Canary, 1979. Crosby, the lawyer, was written in this Agatha Christie pastiche - and again by director Radley Metzger - as male. Mason was among many who passed. And so, Metzger (also known in New York as porno director Henry Paris) finally worked wih a genuine Dame..
- Heathcote Williams, The Tempest, 1979. The closest that UK directing legend Michael Powell got to his 25 year dream of filming the Shakespeare play was in 1975, with the 1968 star of their Age of Consent film. Mason grew a wondrous beard. So did the project... According to Dominic Nolan in The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See book, Derek Jarman felt he’d inherited Powell’s obsession. Hah! He made a (typically) homoerotic job of it in 1979. New York Times critic Vincent Canby was unimpressed by the film, “funny if it weren't very nearly unbearable,” and Williams, “often intelligible.”
- Frank Finlay, Lifeforce, 1984. Hard to believe but Cannon’s cheesey science fiction potboiler need some class… and so, probably without him knowing, Mason was short-listed for Dr Hans Fallada, an expert of - get this! - life after death… A big hunt began for German actors (hello, Anton Diffring!) or those who could play German. Result: 22 possibilities… Rommel, himself… plus Bernard Archard, John Bennett, Nigel Davenport, Denholm Elliott, Michael Gough, Bernard Hepton, Trevor Howard, Freddie Jones, Klaus Kinski, Hardy Kruger, Herbert Lom, Donald Pleasence, Cifford Rose Leonard Rossitier, Maximilian Schell, Vladek Sheybal, Robert Stephens and even Max von Sydow. (Hey, an accent is an accent is an accent…). And all the time, US director Tobe Hooper knew it didn’t matter a damn who played what guy as all eyes would be on Mathilda May - fully naked for almost the entire 116 minutes. (A rare accomplishment, swiftly copied the following year by another Parisienne, Patricia Barzyk - Miss France 1980 - in Jean-Pierre Mocky’s La machine à découdre). After all that… web critic Stephanie Scaife denounced it as “completely batshit insane.”
- Vassili Langos, Bordelo, Greece, 1985. According to local film-maker Nicos Koundouros, he had them all in the bag: Isabelle Adjani, Sophia Loren, Mason, Peter Ustinov. Except... he didn’t. None of them! He did have Marina Vlady and she was aghast at how he made nonense of her role. Apart from the Thessaloniki festival (twice in 1985 and 1998!), the film was never seen anywhere.
- Timothy Dalton, The Doctor and The Devils, 1985. Michael Redgrave could not get the sole script by Dylan Thomas rolling in 1948 with director Fritz Lang. Hollywood’s Nicholas Ray also failed with Mason - then Maximilian Schell. Laurence Harvey had no success either in 1965. In all, the scenario of Swansea’s self-styled “Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive” remained shelved for 37 years - a record delay between the completion and shooting of a script.