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According to Shirley Jones, Frank Sinatra was over the moon about playing Billy Bigelow in 20th Century Fox’s adaption of Carousel.
“He kept saying to me, ‘It’s the dream of my life. I can’t wait to sing with you Shirley,’” she recalled. “We did all the rehearsals, all the pre-production, all of the photographs, and all of the costuming and everything else with Frank.”
Similar to a Broadway show, the film required extensive rehearsals before a single frame was shot. Unfortunately, all that hard work was about to go out the window.
The studio wanted the film to be in CinemaScope and CinemaScope 55, a large format version perfect for the spectacle that this film hoped to be. As a result, some of the scenes would need to be filmed twice, and that wasn’t to Sinatra’s liking when he arrived on set on the first day.
“Frank Sinatra said, ‘I’m not being paid to make two movies.’ He got back in the limousine, and we lost our leading man.”
In tears, writer and producer Henry Ephrom turned to Jones. Could she get Gordon MacRae on the phone?
Jones was good friends with MacRae and his wife, especially after she had starred with him in Oklahoma! With a handful of Ephrom’s change, Jones went to the payphone on the dock and called. Thankfully, she got through.
“I said, ‘Gordon, would you like to play Billy Bigelow?’ And, he said, ‘Give me a week. I have to lose ten pounds!’”
Had Sinatra stayed with the production, he would have learned that in the end it didn’t actually have to be shot twice, as a conversion process was available to make CinemaScope 55 into CinemaScope.
However, some theorized that Sinatra actually quit for an entirely different reason – fear. After all, singing Rodgers and Hammerstein music was no small feat. However, in Jones mind, this wasn’t the case. After all, he had already pre-recorded the songs, and while his voice wasn’t like that of an opera singer, his crooning capabilities were still powerful.
“I never saw a man as eager to play a role as he was, and Frank was not that kind of enthusiast to go on like that. And that’s all had he did in pre-production.” Jones said, “I saw Frank many times after this, and I tried to get him into a conversation about it. He never, ever would discuss it with me.”
It wasn’t until years later that she finally found out the real reason – Ava Gardner.
“His wife at the time, Ava Gardner, was shooting Mogambo with Clark Gable in Africa. She called Frank and said, ‘Unless you get your fanny down here, I'm having an affair with Gable.’”
While Jones did think Sinatra was “perfectly cast” for the part, given his Bigelow-esque personality, she was once again delighted to work with MacRae.
“When I heard Gordon sing it, I fell apart. He sang that score so beautifully. He was wonderful in it.”