The Struggles of King Kong ’76

1976's King Kong remake was fraught with problems. We look back at its legal battle and the struggle to build a 40-foot robot ape...

“No one cry when Jaws die,” Italian super-producer Dino De Laurentiis famously told Time magazine in 1976. “But when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Kong. Even film buffs who love the first Kong gonna love ours…”

To some, it might have sounded like a fool’s errand: take a much-loved classic, 1933’s King Kong, and remake it for a modern, more cynical age. Yet De Laurentiis, the producer of films as varied as La Strada, Serpico, and Death Wish, believed that audiences were ready for a larger-than-life, visual feast. A version of Kong retold with top-of-the-line actors and cutting-edge special effects.

The new King Kong would be a multi-million dollar production comparable to De Laurentiis’ hugely expensive War and Peace. De Laurentiis rejected the notion of using the kind of pioneering stop motion work Willis O’Brien had used in the original King Kong. Instead, he wanted to build a full-sized, mechanical Kong that would make the great white in Jaws look like a minnow.

Watch King Kong on Amazon Prime

The result was one of the most expensive and difficult productions of the era, with cost-overruns, technical problems and a very public legal battle with a rival studio. But De Laurentiis, who died in 2010, was as much a gambler as an avid lover of film.

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As one associate told Time, “Dino is never happier than in a King Kong situation where the stakes are enormous, where he can win or lose everything…”

The Legal Battle for Kong

Accounts differ as to how two of Hollywood’s biggest studios hit on the idea of remaking King Kong at the same time. One story goes that Michael Eisner, the future Disney boss who was then a vice president at ABC, saw the original King Kong on television in December 1974, and idly floated the idea of remaking King Kong to Sid Sheinberg, the president of MCA/Universal. According to a 1976 piece published in New York Magazine, Sheinberg in turn mentioned the idea to his friend Barry Diller, who happened to be the president of Paramount Pictures.

Initially unaware of what the other was doing, Sheinberg and Diller began putting the wheels in motion for a King Kong remake at their respective studios; Diller hired Dino De Laurentiis to revive the great ape on behalf of Paramount, while Sheinberg hired TV producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr.

This, at any rate, was the version of the story put forward by Michael Eisner. De Laurentiis always insisted that he’d come up with the idea of making King Konghimself, having noted the poster for the original film on his daughter’s bedroom wall. Wherever the seed came from, representatives from both Universal and Paramount next attempted to gain the King Kong rights from its present owners, RKO-General. Exactly what happened next became the subject of a bitter and expensive legal battle.

The tussle centred around the precise events of the April 15, 1975. Daniel O’Shea, a semi-retired attorney for RKO-General, had arranged meetings with a legal representative from Universal and Dino De Laurentiis, there on behalf of Paramount. Both wanted to make offers for the rights to King Kong; again, neither party knew that a rival studio was in negotiation.

De Laurentiis offered $200,000 plus three percent of the remake’s gross profits in return for the rights to Kong; a sum far higher than the reported $150,000 RKO-General were looking for. The meeting went well, an agreement was made, and that appeared to be that: Paramount had secured the rights to one of the most famous monsters in movie history.

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But wait: Universal attorney Arnold Shane insisted that he’d had an equally positive meeting with O’Shea that same day in April. While no papers were formally signed, Shane claimed that O’Shea had verbally accepted Universal’s offer of $200,000 plus five percent of the remake’s net profits for Kong. O’Shea would later deny that any verbal agreement took place, yet for some reason, Shane left that meeting convinced that the Kong rights now belonged to Universal.

It was in early May 1975, after Paramount had signed the legal documents with RKO-General, that it first heard about Universal’s plans to make its own King Kongmovie. By this point, Paramount had already set the release date for its remake: December 1976 – just in time for Christmas. In camp Universal, a screenwriter (Bo Goldman, then riding high on his script for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and a director (Joseph Sargent of The Taking Of Pelham, One, Two, Three fame) had already been hired. The project even had a name: The Legend of King Kong.

Needless to say, neither studio was pleased when they discovered the existence of the other’s Kong project. Lawyers were scrambled, and Universal fired first. According to Ray Morton’s bookKing Kong: The History of a Movie Icon, Universal sought $25 million in damages from both De Laurentiis and RKO-General. Universal insisted that it had obtained a verbal agreement with RKO-General, and besides, the studio said, the publication of the King Kong story in a 1930s novelization meant that the material was now in the public domain.

Equally embittered, De Laurentiis counter-sued for $90 million in damages for “copyright infringement,” and decided that, far from putting King Kong on hold until the legal wranglings were over, he’d rush the film into production. Later in 1975, De Laurentiis had adverts published with the petulant headline, “There Still is Only One King Kong.”

Another advert cheekily billed King Kong as “The Most Exciting Original Motion Picture Event of All Time.”

The Climb Down

As it became clear that De Laurentiis wasn’t going to back down in the fight over Kong, and with legal costs mounting, Universal was left with a difficult decision: whether or not to spend $10 million on a rival movie and face a potential loss at the box office. There were some attempts to forge a deal between the studios in January 1976, where the pair would collaborate over one King Kong movie and share its profits, but these fell apart when De Laurentiis refused Universal’s terms (Universal wanted to use its own script and retain control of merchandising rights).

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The cold war between Universal and Paramount finally ended on the Jan. 28 when it was announced that De Laurentiis had agreed to pay a certain percentage of his Kong’s profits if Universal cancelled The Legend of King Kong. In what at the time seemed like an effort to save face, Universal nevertheless maintained that it would make its own King Kong movie at an unspecified future time:

“Our agreement permits Mr. De Laurentiis to make the best possible film,” read Sid Sheinberg’s statement, “and permits Universal to select the best possible approaches to its King Kong venture. Universal intends to produce and release a King Kong film under optimum production and distribution conditions, subsequent to the De Laurentiis film release.”

With Universal’s rival production out of the way, it might have appeared as though De Laurentiis’ worst problems were over. But the rush to get King Kong moving had taken its toll on the production; by starting before it was ready, the movie risked burning through millions of dollars. As it was, King Kong was already an ambitious film by 1970s standards; De Laurentiis had earmarked a then-high $16 million for it. As part of that $16 million budget, De Laurentiis had his mind set on building something the world had never seen before: a full-scale, 40-foot high animatronic Kong.

The $1.7 Million Ape

During King Kongs hasty pre-production, De Laurentiis assembled an eclectic cast and crew. Jessica Lange, a former model with no prior acting experience, was brought in as Dwan, Kong’s hapless love interest.

In the updated version of the story written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (he wrote De Laurentiis’ Three Days Of The Condor), Dwan’s found floating on a life raft by the crew of a ship belonging to the Petrox Oil Company. At the behest of greedy company executive Fred Wilson (Charles Grodin), an expedition has been mounted to search a previously undiscovered island for possible oil reserves. Stowing away on board is Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges), a palaeontologist curious about what natural wonders the island might hold. What they find are terrified natives who live in the shadow of the towering Kong…

Directing King Kong fell to John Guillermin, a seasoned British director who’d just helmed the biggest film of 1974, the $14 million disaster thriller, The Towering Inferno. If Guillermin could handle the colossal egos on that production, De Laurentiis reasoned, he could surely direct a 40-foot-tall monster.

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Actually creating that beast fell to a team of technicians and artists led by Carlo Rambaldi, the ingenious Italian effects designer who would later work on Alien and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Before King Kong, he’d worked on such Italian classics as Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and Dario Argento’s Deep Red. Rambaldi’s assignment on King Kong – to create a moving, mechanical prop as tall as a three-story building – was unlike anything he nor anyone else had attempted before. He would later compare building Kong to “the United States space program” during the race to the moon.

As well as the mechanical Kong, Rambaldi had to devise separate mechanical hands with working fingers, which could be used to scoop up Dwan in close-ups, and a man-sized ape suit for long shots. For the ape suit, Rambaldi collaborated with Rick Baker, the 25-year-old make-up effects artist who’d recently scored a major credit as an assistant to Dick Smith on The Exorcist. Trade papers reported thatKing Kongs producers were auditioning actors who could play Kong in those ape-suit long-shots; ultimately, Baker himself wound up taking on the role, because, he later said, “They couldn’t find anyone else stupid enough to wear the suit.”

Accounts vary as to whose idea it was to even attempt to make what was essentially a 40-foot tall robot covered in Argentinean horsehair. Some suggested it was Rambaldi, who quixotically said he could build a Kong capable of actually walking around full-sized sets. Others seemed to think it was De Laurentiis’ idea – screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. being among them.

“I realize now King Kong was probably a doomed venture,” Semple said in a 1980 interview with Starlog magazine. “But that’s also the fun of working with Dino. No studio could possibly do what he did. For example, millions of dollars were wasted in constructing a 40-foot tall mechanical ape. That was Dino’s grandiose dream, but it was technically impossible to execute…”

Nevertheless, the attempt was made. Glen Robinson, who’d worked on the special mechanical effects on such films as Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Hindenburg, oversaw the construction of Kong and the amalgam of aluminium, latex, horse tails and hydraulics. All told, the mechanical Kong would cost around $1.7 million to build, with some putting the price as high as $2 million. The separate mechanical hands and the suit worn by Rick Baker added a further $400,000; a static, full-sized styrofoam Kong, featured in just one scene, cost another $300,000. The construction of two versions of sets for certain key sequences – full-size for close-ups, at a smaller scale for Baker’s suit – added hundreds of thousands more.

At one point, it was reported that costs were further run up when two full-scale right hands were accidentally constructed during the rush to production. It’s a claim refuted by Bruce Bahrenburg’s book, The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis’ King Kong, but one backed up by actor Charles Grodin.

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In his autobigoraphy, Grodin wrote, “In the rush to begin production, two huge right hands were made by mistake, and the picture had to be delayed because neither worked…”

Talk to the Hand

On this latter point, both Grodin and Bahrenburg agree: getting the hand to work was fraught with problems. Bahrenburg records the moment when, on May 10, stunt actress Sunny Woods clambered into the hand for a trial run of a scene where Dwan’s lifted into the air by Kong. As a team of four operators worked the jacks which controlled the hand, the fingers closed around Woods and picked her up off the ground. All seemed to be going well until, approximately 10-feet off the ground, the hand suddenly snapped at the wrist, leaving Woods dangling precariously in mid-air.

Woods escaped dazed and largely uninjured, but had the less experienced Lange been in the hand at the time, the incident could have been far worse. Even so, the movie proved to be a trial by fire for Lange, who had to endure repeated takes with the heavy, potentially dangerous mechanical hand.

“All of Kong’s big hand moves were under the control of several tense Italian technicians frantically pushing and pulling a lot of levers this way and that,” Grodin recalls. “Once, Kong cracked her on the head with a huge finger bigger than all of Jessica when he just meant to fool around with her dress a little.”

Further: “Jessica emerged from 10 months of shooting significantly bruised from Kong, who, squeezing too hard on occasion, caused her to cry out for help.”

If the mechanical hand was temperamental, the full-size Kong was downright noncompliant. Envisioned as a beast so sophisticated that could walk, move its arms and even waggle its ears, it was instead stiff and unconvincing. Intended to do much of the heavy lifting – both literally and figuratively – and a key part of King Kong‘s pre-release publicity, the mechanical ape was barely used. Instead, far more weight was placed on Baker in his ape suit which, thanks to a system of interchangeable masks and complex mechanics, could bring at least a modicum of expressiveness to Kong.

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Trouble On-Set

Even in the handful of scenes where the full-sized Kong was used, it still caused problems. In August 1976, with the release date looming, one of the climactic sequences was filmed in which Kong is shown off at a noisy stadium in New York. It’s the pivotal moment where Kong escapes and goes on his ill-fated rampage, a tantrum which eventually concludes at the top of the World Trade Center.

By this point in the production, Guillermin had lost about a stone in weight and could, according to Grodin, “Be seen gazing off vacantly at some distant, unseen point in space…”

In front of a crowd of hundreds of unpaid extras, with cameras rolling, the mechanical Kong was grandly unveiled. Among the extras were heads of Paramount, watching expectantly.

Awkwardly, a huge covering was lifted away to reveal the manacled Kong. Its eyes rolled. Its mouth opened and closed. The audience cheered appreciatively.

Then a voice cried out from the crowd: “Oh my God! He’s leaking!”

Sure enough, one of the many hydraulic pipes hidden inside Kong had ruptured, leaving fluid sluicing down the beast’s leg. “He just got excited seeing the girl!” someone said.

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For the sequences where Kong actually escapes, Rick Baker was brought out again in his air-cooled Kong suit while a mechanical leg was used for close-ups. Charles Grodin had his own potentially dangerous encounter with King Kong’s amalgam of hair and steel on his last night of filming.

For his dramatic final scene, Grodin was to run from Kong, trip, and then scream as a huge hairy foot descended on him from above. “John came over and assured me the leg would miss my by plenty,” Grodin later wrote.

The problem was, the leg’s tendency to malfunction didn’t exactly fill Grodin with confidence.

“One of the assistants soon came over to me and explained they were having trouble getting the leg to move, let alone do its thing. Two hours went by as the technicians continued to work frantically on the leg, their exclamations of Italian profanity piercing the night air.”

As night gave way to morning, the leg finally began to move, and Grodin got to record his action scene. The hairy foot came down – and missed him. Just.

“In spite of John’s assurances, we got some pretty good photographed fear out of me,” Grodin wrote. “I was through with the picture – and alive.”

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(Hilariously, test audiences hated that Grodin’s seedy oil baron made it through the movie in one-piece, so the scene was re-edited to make it look as though Kong really had squashed him.)

All told, the full-sized King Kong’s appearance in the movie amounted to around 15 seconds. Even Glen Robinson, who built it, admitted that it was only seen for “three or four long shots in the stadium sequence.” Rambaldi also added that the rush to get King Kong into theaters had caused a negative impact on the quality of the effects.

The overlooked party in the whole thing, however, was Rick Baker. The movie’s closing credits state that “Kong was built by Carlo Rambaldi, with some contributions by Rick Baker” – which hardly reflects the number of sequences Baker acted in. For his part, Baker was displeased with the way the effects turned out; he’d pressed for a beast that walked on all fours like a real ape.

“King Kong offered the one chance to do a really perfect gorilla suit,” Baker lamented. “With the money and the time, it could have been outstanding. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. There were compromises and forced deadlines. A once in a lifetime opportunity was lost.”

Beyond Kong

Never afraid of overstating things, De Laurentiis maintained that King Kong deserved an Oscar for his performance – which, funnily enough, is exactly what he got. It won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects (shared with Logan’s Run), along with nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound.

The critical reaction was more mixed, with many criticizing its dialogue and camp tone. Most agreed that King Kong failed to match the quality of the 1933 original. In terms of box office, King Kong was a hit, but hardly of the magnitude De Laurentiis might have hoped; on a final budget of $24 million, it made around $90 million. To put that in perspective, Jaws, released 18 months earlier, had made $470 million on a $9 million budget.

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When De Laurentiis set out to make King Kong, he’d predicted that audiences in the ’70s, reeling from the Vietnam War and a fuel crisis, were in dire need of some larger-than-life entertainment to escape from the horror of it all. Time would quickly prove De Laurentiis right; six months after King Kong‘s release, Star Warscame out, and suddenly, the producer’s giant ape movie looked like something from a bygone age.

Yet King Kong was, in a strange way, something of a pioneer in blockbuster terms. It was advertised a full-year before release, at a time when such a thing was virtually unknown – these days, early hype is pretty much a given. An estimated $10 million was spent on marketing – another uncommonly high amount for the era.

Gluttons for punishment, De Laurentiis and John Guillermin reteamed for a belated sequel, King Kong Lives, a decade later. A more modest affair than its predecessor, it flopped at the box office and was widely treated with bemusement by critics. This was, after all, a film where Kong’s given a mechanical heart and a wife.

As for Universal, it finally got to make its King Kong movie in 2005. Directed by Peter Jackson, it too cost a fortune – an extraordinary $207 million – but this time, its effects designers avoided the temptation to build a six-ton mechanical Kong.