My Fair Lady: Casting Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison

My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical, was a mega stage hit. Acclaimed for its witty book out of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and the melodic sweep of its score, the musical received a sensational reception on its l956 opening, enjoying a record run of 2,717 performances in NY. Not surprisingly, the struggle to acquire the film rights from the Shaw estate went on for years. In February 1962, Jack Warner paid an all-time record price of five and a half million dollars.

The most expensive musical ever made, My Fair Lady was initially budgeted at $12 million, but by completion, its cost rose to $17, an extravagant figure in the 1960s. Jack Warner announced that he personally would supervise the production, using the finest talent available for the most ambitious project the studio has ever launched.

As soon as the rights were secured, casting began. Lerner proposed that Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews recreate their stage roles. The young Andrews had a beautiful voice and exquisite diction. In the theater, Andrews’ melodic singing against Harrison’s “uttering” of his songs had proved a winning combination. Warner did not want Andrews because she was not well known in the U.S.

Audrey Hepburn, a well-respected actress, was Warner’s choice for Eliza Doolittle from the beginning. There was nothing mysterious about his decision to cast Audrey, Warner told the press. Julie Andrews was “just a Broadway name,” but “in the thousands of cities throughout the US and abroad, you say ‘Audrey Hepburn,’ and people instantly know you’re talking about a beautiful and talented star. In my business, I have to know who brings people to the box-office.”

Hepburn was cast in May l962, a few months before Cukor was engaged. Cukor was not the first director to be offered the film. Both Lerner and Warner wanted Vincente Minnelli, who had directed many successful musicals, among them Gigi, which swept most of the l958 Oscars. But Warner thought they should have an alternate, just in case he couldn’t make a deal with Minnelli. “I jumped in,” Lazar recalled, “and suggested Cukor, who was my client and had a big reputation for doing good movies.”

Negotiations began with Minnelli, but as Warner suspected, a deal was not easily cut. Badly advised by his agent, Minnelli demanded a lot of money and final cut of the picture. “He knew that Lerner wanted him,” said Lazar, “but mistakenly thought nobody else could direct the film. Minnelli underestimated Warner’s power, he thought he had him in a bind.” Warner’s decision was also influenced by the fact that Minnelli’s last film, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, was a flop.

Warner called Lazar and said, “I’m having trouble making a deal with Minnelli. What about George Cukor How much do you want for him” “Jack, whatever you say, I’ll take,” Lazar said matter-of-factly. Lazar knew that Cukor needed the picture desperately, it was a bad time for him, Heller in Pink Tights was a failure, and Chapman Report barely recouped its expense. According to Lazar, “George wasn’t easy to sell, because his popularity had declined, getting My Fair Lady was the most important thing that could have happened to him.” Lazar knew that Warner’s offer would be fair–when the mogul offered half a million, he immediately consented. “It was fantastic that I got the job for him, it was a very big coup of mine.” Cukor was ecstatic.

A day after he was signed, Cukor cabled Hepburn, “At long last, I’m delighted at the prospect.” The actress was ecstatic: “We waited the longest and got the best.” Determined not to lose any time, Cukor sent her an edition of Pygmalion and suggested that she look carefully at the l937 British film, which starred Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller.

The casting generated a great deal of publicity. It was almost as big a kudo as the casting for Gone With the Wind, except that this time Cukor was more in control. All summer, rumors continued to fly about who was going to play Professor Higgins. At first, Warner suggested Trevor Howard, who had been originally thought of for the play. And Cukor considered Jimmy Cagney, who had just retired from the screen, for the role of Doolittle. But both names received a “calm reaction” from Warners.

Cary Grant was also approached, though Cukor expressed some reservations about his peculiar manner of speaking, “a little Cockney creeps in.” Despite Cukor’s doubts, Grant was offered the part, but in a gentlemanly fashion, he turned it down, claiming, “It was Rex’s and only Rex’s part.” Grant told Warner that he wouldn’t even go to see the film, if anyone but Harrison played the role.

In the meantime, Lerner had met Peter O’Toole, the new star of David Lean’s forthcoming epic, Lawrence of Arabia. After seeing a rough cut of Lawrence, Cukor became immediately convinced that O’Toole, with whom he got on “like a house on fire,” should play Higgins. At Lerner’s suggestion, Cukor met O’Toole and Jules Buck, the actor’s manager, in London. Buck was guarded, but Cukor sensed that O’Toole was “crazy” to do the picture. However, the tricky Buck made such excessive demands that Warner, a shrewd negotiator himself, refused to meet them.

As late as October, Cukor still had no idea who would play Professor Higgins. When the negotiations with O’Toole floundered, Rex Harrison’s name was again at the top of the list. Harrison was a fascinating actor, but Cukor was concerned that he might be too old. Warner, however, didn’t want him. “Jack Warner was very anxious not to have the stage people in the film,” Harrison recalled, “besides, I did it for three years on stage and thought it was enough.” Still, Cukor kept in touch with Harrison, who was then vacationing in his villa in Portofino.

“Cukor called me one day and asked for photographs,” Harrison recalled, “My younger son took some shots: One shot showed me with a Chianti bottle covering my genitals, another reading the New Statesman.” The actor sent these “happy snaps,” taken in and around the villa, so the director could see the “sort of decay” he was in. But Harrison was dismayed, when the studio wanted him to come to Hollywood for tests; tests signaled trouble, and there was no need for them. Cukor concurred with Harrison’s reservations, and with a little prodding, the studio saw his point. Cukor thought that even the photographs were unnecessary, but he knew they would help the studio make a decision.

Once a decision to cast Harrison was reached, Cukor informed the actor that it was the pinup picture with the bottle that did the trick. With his inimitable humor, Cukor said that he ultimately ruled out New Statesman picture, because it had too much dignity. “So all’s well that ends well,” Cukor noted, the film had magical material, magical cast, and a great old director.

Cukor was pleased with the casting, thinking that if he could capture what Harrison did on stage, he was home. He told Hepburn that he didn’t think Rex could be improved upon. “You sought the dauphin and you found the king,” Hepburn wrote back. Harrison was ecstatic at the prospect of working with Cukor, as it has always been his great ambition.

As usual, Allan Davis tested every good character actor in England for this movie, which was not hard, because “it was such a prestigious operation.” “I particularly was pleased,” Davis recalled, “to find a character actress, Mona Washburn, whom I knew George would love.” Cukor thought that as the housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce, Washburn was perfect–“warm-hearted, sympathetic and motherly.” Cukor adored Washburn–always wanting to work with her. “He trusted me absolutely about casting,” said Davis, who also helped cast Jeremy Brett as Freddie.

Cukor finally got to work with his close friend Gladys Cooper, who was signed to play Mrs. Higgins. Every part in the film was meticulously cast. For the bit parts of Higgins’ servants, Cukor interviewed each one of the twenty final candidates. The only strain over casting concerned Wilfred Hyde-White as Colonel Pickering. Jack Warner did not want him, but Cukor was determined to use him, for his “real personality and period style.”