Gina Lollobrigida was one of the biggest sex symbols of Hollywood’s Golden Age, sharing the big screen with 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 that her co-stars would instantly fall for her, and that’s how she apparently found out that the Rock Hudson in her closet was gay. She also famously shared the big screen with Yul Brynner, though it wasn’t originally meant to be until tragedy struck the set of one of her best-known movies.
In 1959, Lollobrigida starred in the Biblical epic Solomon and Sheba. The Old Testament tale directed by King Vidor needed a big star to play King David’s son opposite his irresistible Queen of Sheba. Initially, Brynner was offered the role of her, but she turned it down. Like Witness for the Prosecution and The Mark of Zorro’s Tyrone Power. That was until she agreed to take the role 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 head ballet at the Bern State Theater in Switzerland. The protagonist spent more than a month rehearsing her dance for the pagan sequence that surprised the public.
A couple of months and disaster struck. Two-thirds of the film was shot when Power suddenly dropped dead at the age of 44.
Power had been filming a dueling scene with George Sanders, who played her brother; the two met again in their sword fighting antics after 1942’s The Black Swan.
After several takes, the Solomon star dropped his gun and admitted he couldn’t continue, complaining of pain in his left arm. In response, they took him to his dressing room where they gave him brandy to drink. What happened next depends 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, the body of him was “carried” out of the studio into a car with a scarf around his neck to prevent his jaw from falling off.
This was apparently done because Mrs. Powers was staying at the hotel and did not yet know her husband’s fate.
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As a result, production of Solomon and Sheba was shut down. With a third of the film still to be shot, another actor would have to be cast for the love scenes yet to be shot. Meanwhile, battles had been filmed and close-ups of the new star could be added. At one point, rewriting the imagery of Power as a young Solomon for the first half of the film was considered, as was canceling the film entirely.
Ultimately though, Brynner, who had been a friend of the late actor, was cast. This later delayed his plans to star in an adaptation of the 1951 novel Spartacus, something Kirk Douglas did in his place.
The King and I star ended up reshooting all of Powers’ scenes, although the original Solomon remains visible in some of the film’s wide shots.
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