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Originally, MGM wanted Robert Taylor, Mickey Rooney, or a contracted actor to play the lead in Blackboard Jungle.
Producer Pandro Berman, however, insisted on Glenn Ford.
“I didn’t have any doubt that this could be a great picture,” Ford remembered. “I’m not big on message pictures as such. But this was highly dramatic material that also revealed a reality and a problem that had not been seen in motion pictures before.”
The team wanted Ford so badly that they were even willing to delay filming so he could finish another movie, Interrupted Melody.
That film ended on Saturday, November 13, 1954, and Blackboard Jungles started right away on that Monday.
Much of the draw of Blackboard Jungle was director Richard Brooks. While Ford had never worked with him before, the director’s work was known. He had adapted the first film to tackle anti-Semitism Crossfire (read about that here) and worked with John Huston on Key Largo (read about that here).
“When I read [Brook’s] script for Blackboard, I knew we were in good hands. It was a great piece of work, maybe even better than the book,” Ford said. In fact, Brooks was even nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation.
This film was also the first time Ford worked with Sidney Poitier, and the two became friends and remained in touch afterwards.
Poitier said, “As a young man coming along, I tagged him as someone from whom I could learn.”
Blackboard Jungle was a significant film in Ford’s career because of its box office success and because of a new hairdo.
Before filming began, director Richard Brooks brought Ford into the dressing room and surprised him with a haircut.
Brooks explained that Ford’s character had just finished serving and so would have short hair.
“I had thick, wavy, dark hair then, and I always wore it pretty much the same in my pictures,” Ford said.
Little did he know that when Brooks meant short hair, he meant it.
“We argued back and forth, with me losing a little more hair every time,” Ford said. “And as Dick Brooks never failed to point out, I got to like the way it looked, and I ended up wearing my hair short like that in most of the pictures I made from then on.”
Brooks said, “I think Glenn’s whole career changed at that time with that picture… He became a leading figure for the 1950s.”