World of Henry Orient, The: George Roy Hill’s Comedy, Starring Peter Sellers in his First Hollywood Picture

George Roy Hill directed The World of Henry Orient, a coming-of-age comedy, starring Peter Sellers, Paula Prentiss, Angela Lansbury, Tippy Walker, Merrie Spaeth, Phyllis Thaxter, Bibi Osterwald and Tom Bosley.

It’s based on the novel of the same name by Nora Johnson, who co-wrote the script with her father, noted scribe Nunnally Johnson.

The novel, published in 1958, was described as full of “warmth, insight and nostalgia.”

The original story was inspired by Johnson’s experiences as schoolgirl, and by real-life incident of singer Tony Bennett and two teenaged fans.


In early 1960s New York, concert pianist Henry Orient (Peter Sellers) pursues an affair with the married Stella Dunnworthy (Paula Prentiss), while two adolescent private-school girls, Valerie “Val” Boyd (Tippy Walker) and Marian “Gil” Gilbert (Merrie Spaeth), stalk him and write their fantasies about him in diary.

Orient’s paranoia leads him to believe that the two girls, who pop up everywhere he goes, are spies sent by his mistress’s husband.

In reality, Val, 14, is the bright and imaginative daughter of wealthy international trade expert Frank Boyd (Tom Bosley) and his unfaithful snobbish wife Isabel (Angela Lansbury).

Val has developed teenage crush on Henry after seeing him in concert, and has involved best friend Gil. Although Gil’s parents are divorced, she lives happily stable life in townhouse in the city with her mother and her mother’s also-divorced female friend.

Val, whose parents are still married (unhappily), sees a psychiatrist on a daily basis, and lives with paid caretakers while her parents travel the world.

Val’s parents return for Christmas, and Val becomes concerned that her mother Isabel having extramarital affair with young pianist. Val’s interference leads her mother to find Val’s diary.

Isabel chastises Val and seeks out Henry, ostensibly to tell him to stay away from her daughter.  But the cheating Isabel and the womanizing Henry are attracted to each other and begin an affair, which Val and Gil accidentally discover.

Val’s devastation and Isabel’s attempts to cover up her behavior cause Frank to figure out what happened. Frank and Isabel separate, while the paranoid Henry flees the country. However, Frank, unlike Isabel, cares about his daughter. As a result, he resolves to stop traveling and establish real home where they can spend quality time together.

Coming of Age

In the end, Val and Gil have matured and moved on from fantasy play to makeup, fashion and dating boys their own age.

This was the first appearance for both Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth.

The pianist’s unusual name “Orient” came about because Nora Johnson based the character on Oscar Levant, a real-life concert pianist, raconteur, and actor on whom she had crush as teenager. Since the word “levant” means Orient in French (the direction from which the sun rises), the name is play on words.

Several allusions to the pianist’s unusual name are mad when two teenage fans put on Chinese conical hats, address their idol as “Oriental Henry,” kowtow to Asian-style altar, and adopt Japanese-sounding names.

Johnson’s initial doubts about the material changed when he saw Hayley Mills on screen, and felt it could be done with Mills and Patty Duke (Oscar winner for The Miracle Worker in 1962) Johnson wrote the script on “spec” and gave it to his agent to sell.

Johnson says his daughter had written a script herself but felt it did not work as she was too inexperienced as dramatist and too faithful to the book. He purchased the screen rights from her and they split the screenplay fee fifty-fifty.

Henry Koster, who directed several comedies written by Johnson at Fox, read the script and loved it and pressured Richard Zanuck at Fox to buy it; Zanuck was keen but wanted his father Daryl to read it first. Daryl did not get around to reading it and Johnson decided to sell to United Artists. Daryl Zanuck, upset, felt he had been misled and ended his close relationship with Johnson.

In April 1963, George Roy Hill announced that he and producer Jerome Hellman had bought the screen rights and would film it for their Pan Arts company.

Johnson wrote the role of Henry Orient for Rex Harrison but Harrison turned it down as the part was not big enough. Peter Sellers signed to play the male lead, which became first American movie. The production was sped up to take advantage of his availability.

Sellers said his character had “dreadful Brooklynese accent but in an attempt to appear cultured and charming he hides it with phony French accent.”

Spaeth, who was then 15, had no acting experience except for minor role in school production, and was cast after the head of school’s drama department suggested her to talent scout. The World of Henry Orient is Spaeth’s only film appearance.

Walker, who was 16, had worked as model and was suggested to the producer by a photographer. The filmmakers auditioned hundreds of girls and the two chosen benefited from recommended by friends.

Director George Roy Hill handpicked Walker from hundreds of actresses who auditioned for the role of Val. The filmmakers were so impressed with her that they reshaped the film to focus more on her character. They even shot the scene of her walking through a snowy Central Park after production had wrapped.

According to Colapinto, in the 2000s Walker revealed through a series of posts on IMDb that she and Hill fell in love during the filming, and that the relationship lasted throughout most of Walker’s senior year in high school, despite the fact that Hill was married with children and, at age 44, was nearly 30 years older than Walker. Walker claimed that Hollywood gossip made others reluctant to cast her and contributed to her decision to quit acting in the 1970s.

Eddie Duchin’s son Peter made his acting debut in the film.

he World of Henry Orient premiered at Radio City Music Hall on March 19, 1964.

It was the official U.S. entry at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival.

In 1965, it was nominated for the Writers Guild Award for “Best Written American Comedy.”

The film was well received by critics, with the N.Y. Times praising it as “one of the most joyous and comforting movies about teenagers that we’ve had in a long time.”

It was voted one of the Year’s Ten Best Films by the National Board of Review.

The film performed strongly at the box office in New York but struggled elsewhere and failed to return its costs.

The strange title was partly blamed for the failure, as well as Peter Sellers, who played the role too broadly.

Peter Sellers as Henry Orient
Tippy Walker as Valerie “Val” Campbell Boyd
Merrie Spaeth as Marian “Gil” Gilbert
Angela Lansbury as Isabel Boyd
Tom Bosley as Frank Boyd
Paula Prentiss as Stella Dunnworthy
Phyllis Thaxter as Mrs. Avis Gilbert
Bibi Osterwald as Erica “Boothy” Booth
John Fiedler as Sidney
Al Lewis as Store Owner
Peter Duchin as Joe Daniels
Fred Stewart as Doctor
Philippa Bevans as Emma Hambler
Jane Buchanan as Lillian Kafritz