Gina Lollobrigida was one of the Hollywood Golden Age’s biggest sex symbols, sharing the big screen with the likes of Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, David Niven and Sean Connery. The Italian “most beautiful woman in the world” once claimed her co-stars would fall instantly in love with her, which is how she apparently worked out that the closeted Rock Hudson was gay. She also famously shared the big screen with Yul Brynner, although this was never originally meant to be until tragedy struck the set of one of her best-known movies.
Back in 1959, Lollobrigida starred in biblical epic Solomon and Sheba. The Old Testament tale directed by King Vidor needed a big star to play King David’s son opposite her irresistible Queen of Sheba. Initially, Brynner was offered the role, yet turned it down. As did Witness for the Prosecution and The Mark of Zorro’s Tyrone Power. That was until he agreed to take the part after some rewrites.
The two stars flew to Spain to film the blockbuster, which included a $100,000 ($1 million today) orgy scene that was choreographed by Jaroslav Berger, the ballet chief of Switzerland’s Berne State Theatre. The leading lady spent over a month rehearsing her dance for the pagan sequence that shocked audiences.
A couple of months in and disaster struck. Two-thirds of the movie had been shot when Power suddenly dropped dead at the age of just 44.
Power had been filming a duel scene with George Sanders, who played his brother – the two being reunited in their sword-fighting antics after 1942’s The Black Swan.
After several takes, the Solomon star dropped his weapon and admitted he couldn’t carry on, complaining of pain in his left arm. In response, he was taken to his dressing room where he was given brandy to drink. What happened next is reliant on conflicting accounts.
In one, Power was taken to hospital but died of a heart attack in Lollabrigida’s car. In another, he perished in his dressing room. After which, his corpse was “walked” out of the studio into a car with a scarf around his neck to keep his jaw from dropping.
Apparently, this was done as Mrs Powers was staying at the hotel and didn’t know of her husband’s fate yet.
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As a result, production on Solomon and Sheba was shut down. With a third of the movie left to film, another actor would have to be cast for yet-to-be-shot love scenes. Meanwhile, battles had been filmed and close-ups of the new star could be added in. At one point, the possibility of rewriting Power’s footage as a young Solomon for the first half of the movie was considered, as was cancelling the film altogether.
Yet, in the end, Brynner – who had been a friend of the late actor – was cast. This subsequently delayed his plans to star in an adaptation of the 1951 novel Spartacus, something that Kirk Douglas went on to do instead.
The King and I star ended up re-shooting all of Powers’ scenes, although the original Solomon remains visible in some of the film’s long shots.