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Grand Prix was director John Frankenheimer’s first color film, and it was a big production.
“We had a crew of 205 people, we had 65 race cars, and we shot in nine countries,” Frankenheimer said. “If I hadn’t loved automobile racing as much as I did…”
While the movie was quite the feat, it was also quite fun.
“Making Grand Prix was the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie,” James Garner remembered. “Six months with the best cars and the best drivers on the best circuits in the world… for a guy who’d always loved cars and racing it was a fantasy come true.”
The production filmed at actual races in Monte Carlo, France, Belgium, and Italy, capturing real moments on the track and real crowds in the stadium.
But the movie was at first met with disapproval. In fact, Ferrari wouldn’t let them use their cars or even their name.
“Most of all, I think they doubted whether we cared enough to get it right,” Garner said.
The racing community didn’t look kindly at Hollywood since their previous adaptions of racing sacrificed the reality of the sport for drama.
So Frankenheimer set out to prove his concept. He put together about an hour of film and screened it for Ferrari. They were so pleased that they not only offered their own team of drivers but their factory as well.
“You could never have the access that we had to the tracks, to the drivers, to putting cars in the races, to the helicopters 20 feet over the cars [today],” Frankenheimer said.
One of the challenges was having the actors race. Brian Bedford, for instance, didn’t even know how to drive when he got the part.
The Jim Russell Racing Driver School taught all of the actors, except James Garner.
He was trained privately by Bob Bondurant, who thought the actor had enough talent to beat some actual drivers, if he were to ever compete.
“If I hadn’t been an actor, I’d like to have been a race driver,” Garner said. He was especially proud since he completed all of his own driving, while others were doubled.
Still, it was risky business. Garner drove the last month without insurance, after his car caught fire during a stunt, resulting in his policy being canceled. The insurance company also wasn’t thrilled to hear that he was driving 125mph in the rain.
Thankfully, none of the actors were injured while filming – only crash dummies – and a hydrogen cannon was used to simulate accidents.
“Grand Prix was a high point in my film career, and I owe the whole experience to Steve McQueen for dropping out of the picture in the first place,” Garner said.
McQueen, an avid racing fan himself, was originally attached as the lead, but after a behind-the-scenes conflict, he dropped out. He later did Le Mans instead (read about that here).
However, when Garner accepted the role, it was a bit uncomfortable since McQueen was his neighbor.
The ice was finally broken when McQueen’s son, Chad, convinced his dad to see the film. When they saw Garner later, the King of Cool gave his review: “Pretty good movie.”
And Garner knew that was high praise coming from him.