Charlton Heston didn’t hesitate when producer Arthur Jacobs asked him to star in a new sci-fi film as an astronaut who crashes on a planet ruled by talking apes. “I liked the idea of the talking monkeys and a different civilization,” said the actor of 1968’s Planet of the Apes.
No studio went wild for the idea until producer Richard D. Zanuck and Jacobs convinced 20th Century Fox to give it a go. “It ended up being one of their biggest hits,” Thomas R. Burman, a makeup tech on the film, raves to Closer. “Second to The Sound of Music!“
The movie spawned four sequels, a TV series, and a 2001 reboot that revived the franchise. Andy Serkis, who played the chimp Caesar in the new films, says the original movie’s impact has lasted 50 years because it felt “prophetic and truthful. It’s such an incredible metaphor for the human condition.” Here’s a look at the classic film that made Hollywood, and audiences, go bananas.
Art director William J. Creber says he found inspiration for the Ape City in the Turkish town of Cappadocia, which has ancient cone-shaped rock formations. “I said we need something like this that’s not like Earth in any way,” Creber tells Closer.
One of the most iconic moments in the film is the final shot, when the camera pulls back to reveal the remnants of the Statue of Liberty and Heston’s astronaut realizes he’s been home the whole time. Creber recalls he was having a drink with director Franklin Schaffner, as they talked about the ending: “I grabbed a bar napkin and drew a storyboard no bigger than a postage stamp,” as they worked out the details. “That was the ending of the picture and it all came from the little storyboard on the back of the napkin!”
While the humans were nearly naked in the movie, the ape actors wore “very heavy, woolen outfits,” says Burman. “Working outside in 100 degrees was uncomfortable.” It took three to four hours in the makeup chair to glue on the foam latex masks and Roddy McDowall, who appeared in four movies and the TV series, “was extremely claustrophobic,” says Will Conlin, director of the new documentary Making Apes. “At the end of the day he would grab the prosthetic and rip it right off his face. It must’ve been painful because it will rip the hairs out of your skin!”
At lunch, the set went primal. “The gorillas would gather at their table, the chimpanzees at theirs and the orangutans at their table,” says Burman. Makeup artist Daniel Striepeke recalls the budget for makeup being as high as $300,000, with 47 artists working at one time. “It was very funny,” he adds of the downtime between scenes. “You’d see four or five gorillas around a table playing cards.”
A lot of actors tried out, including a young Tom Selleck, and Ingrid Bergman later regretted turning down the role of Zira, played by Kim Hunter. Edward G. Robinson did a makeup test to play Dr. Zaius, but Burman recalls the actor ultimately said, “I can’t wear that makeup all day. It’s just too much for me!”
Linda Harrison, who played Charlton’s mute mate, Nova, and would become Zanuck’s wife, was awed to work with “my idol” Charlton, she says. “He seemed like such a good man,” she tells Closer. “He was quiet,” but he did open up about doing his first nude scene for the movie at age 45. “He said he was very skinny.” she remembers. “So he just worked out and developed and ended up with a really nice physique!”
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