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    Thespian Thievery

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    The charming heist caper How to Steal a Million (1966) is known for several things: a reunion of the Roman Holiday team of director William Wyler and Academy Award®-winning star Audrey Hepburn, the delicious chemistry she shared with leading man Peter O’Toole, the gorgeous Panavision location filming in Paris (by veteran Charles Lang), the detailed Alexander Trauner production design that recreated museum sets and persuasive imitations of timeless artwork, the effervescent score by John (then going by Johnny) Williams, and a juicy supporting cast that included Eli Wallach, Hugh Griffith, Charles Boyer, Fernand Gravey and Marcel Dalio. One early misstep proved to be the casting of George C. Scott, whose disruptive alcohol-induced behavior caused him to be uncast, in the role Wallach took over; as biographer Jan Herman noted in his Wyler biography A Talent for Trouble, the filmmaker “already had to deal with two actors who came to the set hung over: O’Toole and Griffith,” and coping with Scott, tending to be disputatious when under the influence, unlike the more gently disposed Anglo-Irishman and Welshman, would take all the fizz out of the frolic. The plot was a lightweight affair; Herman summarizes: “Hepburn and O’Toole pull off a museum heist. They steal a fake masterpiece, which her sculptor grandfather has forged and her father (Griffith), a dealer in fraudulent masterpieces has lent the museum for an exhibition. Desperate to save her father from being found out – a certainty, it seems, because the museum intends to authentic the statue for insurance purposes with the latest scientific tests – Hepburn enlists O’Toole’s help, not knowing he is really a private detective suspicious of her father. The pair not only steal the piece – a 29-inch replica of Cellini’s so-called Venus – they fall in love during the caper while stuck for hours in a museum broom closet. Afterward O’Toole dupes Hepburn’s wealthy suitor (Wallach), a dumb American art collector, into smuggling the fake out of the country for his private collection on the condition that he never put it on display and never see Hepburn again.” It would prove to be a blithely diverting, audience-pleasing theft of 123 minutes that earned “cheers all around for everybody…and especially for William Wyler, who directed with humor and style” in the view of The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther. What How to Steal a Million is less known for is the royal title conferred on Hepburn by co-star O’Toole, and the invaluable acting tip the fair lady taught the revered actor. Hepburn treasured working with O’Toole, remembering him as “very dear and very funny. I don’t know why, but he used to call me the Duke of Buckingham,” she said in a 1988 interview on The Today Show. Barry Paris got to the bottom of it in his 1996 biography Audrey Hepburn. O’Toole always relished the tale, Paris reported, of “the great 19th-century actor Edmund Kean and a colleague – both heavy drinkers – who were playing Richard III and the Duke of Buckingham in Richard III. Kean as the King tottered onto the stage, ‘thoroughly polluted with liquid light, started his soliloquy and the audience began to call and bawl ‘You’re drunk!’ ‘He’s drunk!’…Kean glared at them and said, ‘If you think I’m drunk, wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham!’” Flash-forward to the 1965 How to Steal a Million shoot. “‘We were filming an exterior in Paris and the weather turned round and became very, very cold indeed,’ O’Toole related. ‘Audrey had to walk across the street, get into a waiting car and drive off, but the poor child had turned bright blue with cold. The light was going and the shot was needed. I pulled Audrey into the caravan and gave her a shot of brandy. She went all roses and cream, bounced out of the caravan, radiated towards the motor car, hopped into it and drove off, taking with her five great big lamps [being used to light the scene], the trimmers of which had flung themselves on the cobbles out of the way. From then on she was my Duke of Buckingham.’” And what sage wisdom did Hepburn confer on O’Toole? Flash-forward 30 years to the voice recording work underway for what would prove to be yet another acclaimed Disney/Pixar animated delight, Ratatouille (2007), in which O’Toole played acerbic and exacting food critic Anton Ego. Robert Sellers captured it in his 2016 Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography: “One thing [Ratatouille producer] Brad Lewis has never forgotten is that after 20 minutes, on every session, [then 74-year-old] O’Toole would let rip with this tremendous roar, like a lion, several times between takes. ‘At one point I said to him that he might want to be careful, just because he might tire out his voice. And he said, ‘Do you know who I learned that from? You’ll never guess.’ We didn’t guess and he said, ‘Audrey Hepburn.’ I don’t know whether it was a throat clearing or head clearing exercise, or whatever, but it truly was a roar, and it was the roar of a 20-year-old.’” When How to Steal a Million hits the gas and roars April 18 onto Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, you’ll enjoy not only the main course of this beloved soufflé in 1080p hi-def, but also a vintage Audio Commentary with Eli Wallach and William Wyler’s daughter Catherine Wyler, the documentary tribute Audrey Hepburn: The Fairest Lady and five-time Oscar® winner Williams’ delightful score on an Isolated Music Track. Preorders open April 5.