Magic Had a $5 Million Insurance Policy for... Hair?

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The 21 Club has been good to Burgess Meredith. In that New York club, an agent made a deal to bring Winterset, the Broadway play that he was appearing in at the time, to Hollywood. The film was Meredith's first. Many years later, the club was also the location where he got his Magic part after running into producer Joe Levin there.

"You'd be just right for the part," Meredith remembered him saying.

The role was first offered to Laurence Olivier, who was unable to do it.

For the part of Anthony Hopkin's agent, Meredith drew inspiration from one of the biggest names in the business – Irving Lazar. The all-star player was nicknamed “Swifty” by Humphrey Bogart after he closed five separate deals for the actor in a single day.

Meredith said, “Swifty has never been my agent, but he's put together deals I was involved in. I tried to get his cool, understated manner, his sharp clothes and, most of all, his way of speaking softly so that you've got to lean over to hear what he's saying.”

One other feature he mimicked was his hair – or rather, lack of it.

“Everybody always does something to my hair,” he said, reflecting on how film teams often changed the color or style of his hair to differentiate his on-screen roles.

But the idea of shaving part of his head for the role caused him to pause. After all, Alec Guinness’ hair never grew back properly after he shaved it for The Bridge on the River Kwai.

He even joked with Levin, “If this doesn’t grow back, I’m going to sue you. Before you cut it off, remember that.”

Inspired by the “threat,” Levin took out a five million dollar insurance policy with Lloyds of London in the event that Meredith remained bald.

Burgess said, “In his terms, that was worth it for the publicity.”

And publicity it got.

After filming ended, Meredith’s hair returned, but he wasn't quite sure that's what he wanted anymore...

He joked, “I was rather sorry to see it grow back because I saw five million dollars disappearing into the distance. And I could put a lot of interesting things on my head for five million dollars, like a crown, halo, or hair transplant in exchange for some despair.”

Regardless, he was still honored to be part of the project.

“I think it’s some kind of a masterpiece,” he said. “It is a terrifying picture. It’s Faust-esque, and that’s always a hard one when you sell your soul.”