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It’s not surprising that a bad dentist inspired Marathon Man. William Goldman, the screenwriter and author of the novel, remembered his childhood torturer who, as he put it, did “not believe in novocaine”.
His memory paired with an article about Nazis who melted down their victim’s golden teeth for profit created a terrifying villain portrayed by the great Laurence Olivier. In fact, the famous dental scene in the film was so notorious that when it was originally released some would leave the theater and only come back once it was over.
Below are some more fun facts about Olivier and his memorable role.
1. Olivier wanted the part.
And everyone wanted him, of course. But there were concerns that the legend’s limited mobility and illness would make it impossible. Finally, the insurance company permitted six weeks work, and Olivier took the reins. However, the next issue was that his character was bald – a crucial plot point. According to screenwriter William Goldman, everyone was nervous to ask the elderly star, but Olivier, on his own, requested to have his head shaved.
2. Olivier had quite the comeback for Hoffman.
The story goes that after Hoffman told his co-star that he stayed up three nights to experience what his character did. To which, Olivier replied, “Why don’t you try acting?” But that’s not where the conversation ended. After the witty remark, Olivier laughed and told Dustin his own extreme acting story, in which he performed a dangerous jump for a production of Hamlet. In reality, Hoffman and Schneider joked with the legend, lovingly calling him everything from “lordship” to “devonshireship”.
3. Olivier gave Hoffman a gift.
While rumors of behind-the-scenes conflicts floated around, it ultimately came down to a difference in acting styles, with Hoffman enjoying to improvise and Olivier enjoying a script. While working together, Olivier took the time to talk theater and history with Hoffman (whom he called “dear boy”), and after the production, even gave him his edition of Shakespeare. “He had penciled in the sides comments he had had on certain speeches. I was overwhelmed,” Dustin said.
4. Hoffman played a prank on Olivier.
While filming the dentist scene, Olivier was very nervous about hurting Hoffman, so much so that after each take he would ask his co-star if he had accidently hurt him. He never did, but Dustin decided to give him quite the scare. During the next take, he gave a huge performance. Afterward, Olivier was sure he injured his co-star, and that’s when Hoffman said, “Gotcha!”
5. Olivier was inspired by a gardener.
“Is it safe” still sends shivers down spines. Olivier’s delivery was inspired by a gardener he saw while having breakfast. The gardener was cutting roses with great delicacy, showing an appreciation for them. The moment was inspiring, and Olivier approached the scene with the same mentality for the dental work and tools. “That’s a brilliant choice for an actor,” Hoffman said. “You don’t think of a character as a villain… because he doesn’t think of himself that way.”