Like the ancient Rome it recreated, “Gladiator” has spawned its own stories and legends in the two decades since its release.
During production, the $100 million roll-of-the-dice from DreamWorks faced more challenges than even Russell Crowe’s Maximus did in the Colosseum. The swords-and-sandals epic had an ever-evolving script, a legendary actor (Oliver Reed) who died before filming wrapped and a main star who apparently wasn’t shy about walking off set ― though he may beg to differ.
“The movie is so much greater than the sum of its parts,” producer Douglas Wick told HuffPost in a recent interview. “There were so many obstacles on this movie, and in retrospect, every time we came to one it got solved in a constructive way. It became an opportunity.”
The gamble resulted in a worldwide box office success and five Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture and the Best Actor award for Crowe.
Twenty years on, “Gladiator” continues to find an audience, getting a brand-new 4K Blu-ray Steelbook release and renewed talks of a sequel.
In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, Wick opened up about some famous and infamous “Gladiator” stories: Was Mel Gibson once offered the role of Maximus? Was a wild sequel actually close to happening? Did someone on set call Joaquin Phoenix a “fat hamster”? Finally, these rumors get the ultimate thumbs up or thumbs down.
Despite what the internet says, Mel Gibson was not offered a role, though another famous actor was considered.
A longstanding rumor, which even showed up in The New York Times, claims that Mel Gibson was the original choice for Maximus, with the actor declining the opportunity. Though the story has been around since the movie’s original release in 2000, Wick was quick to shoot it down.
“We never went to Mel Gibson. He was certainly brought up and everyone felt that to see Mel Gibson in a leather skirt would just be distracting,” Wick said.
Other casting rumors say Jennifer Lopez and Jude Law auditioned for roles. If Lopez was discussed, Wick said, “It was never serious.” Though, apparently, Law was in the running for Commodus, the role that went to Phoenix.
“Jude Law was actively discussed for Commodus, and Commodus in real life was a tall, athletic, blond man with obviously a very twisted interior life,” the producer said. However, director Ridley Scott, who Wick calls the secret to the movie’s success, had a “strong instinct” about Phoenix, believing he was “the best vessel to dramatize Commodus’ tortured self.”
Was the wild god-fighting sequel close to happening? Nope. But are you not entertained?
A “Gladiator” story that belongs atop Mount Olympus is that of a wild sequel script that was never made.
Crowe, apparently wanting to return in a sequel despite his character’s death, turned to Australian musician Nick Cave for a script. Cave later opened up about the sequel that never happened on Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast, saying Maximus would’ve been brought back to life by the gods and sent to kill a Christ-like figure and his followers. He’d also wind up seemingly time-traveling through all the most famous wars in history, as one does.
Wick, who worked with Cave on “Lawless,” confirmed that he was well aware of the sequel script.
“Of course, yeah. It was something that Russell felt strongly about,” said the producer. “It was ambitious to pull off.”
But, it was “not close” to happening, Wick added.
“I think we all have so much respect for the privilege of being part of a really great movie and also getting a little bit lucky, that we’ll only do a sequel if we get something on paper that really feels worthy of the venture,” he said.
Besides the Cave script, there have been two other attempts at a sequel.
“The second one we’re still in the middle of,” Wick said. Though he recalled another wild sequel pitch shortly after the original movie’s release.
“The day after the movie came out and was clearly going to have a great life, Russell Crowe’s agent called me and said, ‘I’ve got an idea. How about we start the sequel, and they just carried Maximus on a stretcher, his body, out of the Coliseum, and they get around the corner, and they all high five.’ Maximus gets off the stretcher and they say, ‘It worked! They believed he was dead.’”
Did Oliver Reed challenge Russell Crowe to a fight? Maybe.
Crowe has been open about how he and Reed did not necessarily get along. But did the two have their own real-life gladiatorial battle?
“I’ve heard that rumor and I’ll never know if it’s really true,” Wick said about the pair fighting, adding: “They’re both combative, but they also like to burst bubbles.”
Wick also opened up about the tragedy of Reed’s death, which occurred before production of “Gladiator” finished. Scott had to work his way around the storyline by using other footage.
“We hadn’t redeemed his character yet,” Wick said. “In addition to a good writing idea, but mostly because of Ridley’s craft, we were able to take close-ups from earlier scenes and repurpose them with Oliver Reed talking through a prison door, and then killing a body double so we could see him free Maximus and pay off his character.”
Did a producer call Joaquin Phoenix a “fat hamster”? Let’s go to the tape.
If you look up “Gladiator” trivia online, you might come across a story about Phoenix having been called a “fat hamster” on set.
Wick said he’d heard about the story, but said we’d have to go to Scott to find out for sure. So we did. Sort of.
In audio commentary from the movie, the director can be heard recalling the situation, saying he noticed Phoenix had been gaining weight and mentioned it to a producer. The producer didn’t relay the info in the most sensitive way, simply telling Phoenix he was fat, which caused the actor to approach Scott.
“The next day, he walks up to me, Commodus, Joaquin, in his full regalia and armor, and he says, ‘I hear I look like a little fat hamster.’ He then didn’t eat any food for weeks,” Scott said.
Yes, there was a reason for the dog, doggone it!
“Gladiator” begins by establishing Maximus as an accomplished Roman general securing the kingdom for Marcus Aurelius with the help of his army and, of course, man’s best friend.
“The first preview, you learn about the people’s attachment to dogs,” Wick said. “A lot of people said, ‘What happened to the dog?’”
After that initial battle, the dog’s fate is left hanging for the rest of the movie. Wick explained it had to do with major changes to the script. Apparently, the pup was initially being set up for a paws-itively major moment.
Wick said that in a different ending that made it far into pre-production, Maximus escaped from Rome and came back with his army to take down Commodus. And there was a moment when he makes it back to the army looking “bedraggled.”
“They look up and see some guy who looks like a homeless guy, and the wolf of Rome, which was established in the opening ― the mascot of the army ― comes running over to Maximus and everyone says, ‘Wait a minute, the dog recognizes this guy. Who is he? Oh, that must be Maximus, the great general,’” Wick said. “There were cool moments that were taken out, and that’s why the dog is so well established in the beginning.”
In the end, the mutt didn’t make it past the ruff cut.