Memories Of ‘The Poseidon Adventures’

Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, , Red Buttons, Carol Lynley, Pamela Sue Martin, and Eric Shea in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE. ©20th Century Fox.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD-In 1937, writer Paul Gallico took a voyage on the Queen Mary. Hit by a violent storm, the ocean liner, whose builders erroneously thought it too large to capsize, almost overturned. The problem was finally overcome when stabilizers were installed.

More than thirty years later, Gallico wrote a book based on his potentially disastrous cruise entitled The Poseidon Adventure, about an ocean liner’s final voyage from New York to Greece.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve the SS Poseidon is hit by a tidal wave and capsizes. Hundreds are killed in the initial roll, but many survive as the liner lies upside down in the ocean. As the water floods in, the only escape is to go up to the engine room. Unorthodox Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman) persuades a small group of survivors to follow him. They include an older couple, Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters,) the ship’s singer Nonnie Parry (Carol Lynley,) James Martin (Red Buttons,) a timid and lonely haberdasher and Acres (Roddy McDowall,) one of the ship’s stewards.

In 1969, Producer Irwin Allen read the proofs of Gallico’s novel in one sitting and the next day paid $225,000 for the movie rights. He brought in British director Ronald Neame to helm the picture. For its time, the movie grossed an unprecedented $162 million.

In 1997, I spoke with director Ronald Neame and actors Red Buttons and Carol Lynley about their experience on “The Poseidon Adventure.” Unfortunately, all three have passed on now. Here are their memories.


Judy Sloane: Ronald, how did you become involved with the movie?

Ronald Neame: Gordon Stulberg, who was the President of 20th Century Fox, phoned me in a panic. He said, ‘Ronnie, I desperately need your help. We have a film in preparation and all the sets are built, but the director can’t get on with the producer and has left, the script is really dreadful and I don’t know whether I should scrap it or not.’ Stirling Silliphant was brought in to do a new screenplay.


Judy Sloane: Red, how did you get onboard with the project?

Red Buttons:  I had done “The Big Circus” and “Five Weeks in a Balloon” with Irwin. He called me and said, ‘I have a hell of a role for you.’ But in the first script my character raped the girl in the picture. It was changed because with Irwin Allen you couldn’t do that kind of stuff.  I had a conflict because my good friend, Ross Hunter, wanted me to play the dancer in “Lost Horizon” and so I had to make a choice. Naturally I went with “The Poseidon Adventure.”


Judy Sloane: Ronald, with so many Oscar winning actors on this movie, how hard was it for you to handle them?

Ronald Neame: Each of them would blow their top and start screaming about once every nine days. But that was one a day for me! But they did have to go through a miserable time.  It doesn’t  matter how tricky they are, actors and actresses are special.


Judy Sloane: When you began shooting the movie, what was your biggest problem?

Ronald Neame: That for the first 20 minutes of the film nothing happens and you just get introduced to all the people. I thought, ‘How am I going to hold an audience?’ So I made the suggestion that we put on the front of the picture a title that said: ‘At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the SS Poseidon, en route from New York to Athens, met with a disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors.’ It was howled down in the beginning, but it made all the difference because now when you were introduced to all those people, you knew that most of them were going to die, and they immediately became more interesting.


Judy Sloane: Was turning the sets upside down a problem?

Ronald Neame: I gave myself a mental picture of what would really happen and then I got together with Bill Creber (the movie’s production designer) and worked out how we could actually put it on the screen. Of course, it’s full of tricks, but I really believe that minute and a half, the sequence where the liner turns over, is what made the picture the big success it was.


Judy Sloane: Carol, what was it like working in the capsized sets?

Carol Lynley: They took all of the actors through the upside down sets for about a week before we actually filmed on them because it makes you sick to your stomach. It’s an inner ear equilibrium. It takes acclimation. The upside down environment is normal if you’re in it all day long. That’s why it was so believable, because we felt comfortable with it.


Judy Sloane: Did the actors do their own stunts in the movie?

Ronald Neame: I was always agreeable to use doubles if they didn’t feel that they wanted to do it, but I warned them, ‘It means that we will not see your face, and what a pity because it would be nice to keep close on you. So whatever you can do, I’ll be glad.’

In the script Gene Hackman is about to dive into the water and Shelley Winters’ character says, ‘Please let me do this. I can swim. I can be underwater for longer than you.’ About four days before we were going to film this sequence, Gene came to me and said, ‘Ronnie, this is quite stupid. I would never let that woman dive in and just stand there and watch her do it. Why don’t I refuse her, dive in and get caught and she comes and rescues me?’ I said, ‘That’s brilliant.’ I broke the news to Shelley, and she said, ‘The only reason I’m on this film is because of this sequence and you’re not going to take it away from me; that’s it, I’m going,’ and she left … but came back and shot that scene.

Red Buttons: Do you know why Shelley Winters died in “The Poseidon Adventure?” She tried to talk underwater!


Judy Sloane: Carol, which scene was the most harrowing to shoot for you?

Carol Lynley: The engine room was ten stories high. I was okay until we got to that fire escape where Gene takes a dive and we all start trekking up. Gene’s brother was a stunt guy on it, and he got me up to a certain point and then I just couldn’t do it. I’d freeze.


Judy Sloane: Red, did you ever get hurt doing the stunts?

Red Buttons: The last day of shooting I ripped my whole leg up. It was coming out of the ship in the last scene, when we were all being rescued. I just tore right through my costume, from the knee to the ankle, having gone through the whole film without an accident! They rushed me to the hospital, fixed it up, and I went back and reshot the scene again completely bandaged.


Judy Sloane: I read that Gene Hackman wanted to do his own death scene in the movie, falling from the top of the engine room into the flaming waters. Is that true?

Ronald Neame: Yes. I remember saying, ‘Gene, we can’t afford it. Even if you only hurt yourself slightly, you’re off for a couple of days and we can’t do that.’ So the drop in the water was done in two-cuts. I let Gene do the first half of the shot, and he dropped onto a net. Then the camera was put up, looking down on the water and we used a double to do the second part of the drop. Of course, when the two shots are cut together, it’s very clearly Gene Hackman because it’s all over in a flash.


Judy Sloane: Ronald, why do you feel the move has had such longevity?

Ronald Neame: At the time it was shown in 1973, the audience that was most impressed with it were aged between 10 and 16. Recently, I was teaching at UCLA, and there was one postgraduate who said, ‘You destroyed my parents’ summer holiday.’ I said, ‘How did I do that?’ And he said, ‘I was 5 and we were going on a cruise. I saw “The Poseidon Adventure” and I wouldn’t go on the boat.

NOTE: My parents, being lifelong friends with both Roddy McDowall and Jack Albertson, enabled me to visit “The Poseidon Adventure” set many times while they were filming at 20th Century Fox. My most vivid memory of those visits was standing next to Gene Hackman when stuntman Paul Stader, doubling for him during his death scene, plunged into the flaming water. Hackman looked at me and said, ‘Was that a great death, or what?!’


Portions of this article were first published in Film Review Magazine