Hollywood Flashback: The Biggest Stars Battled a 'Towering Inferno' in 1974

Twentieth Century Film Corp./Photofest
From left: McQueen (who played a San Francisco battalion fire chief), Dunaway (Newman’s fiance) and Newman (the architect of the blazing building) in 'The Towering Inferno.'

Decades before Dwayne Johnson took on a fire in the world's tallest building with July 13 release 'Skyscraper,' the top stars of the day — including Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain and, yep, O.J. Simpson — fought their own blaze in the sky: "The set was like a perpetual A-list party."

A fire in the world's tallest building is a common plot point between 1974's The Towering Inferno and Universal's July 13 release Skyscraper. Where they radically differ is that Inferno was packed with every big star producer Irwin Allen could sign; Skyscraper is content with Dwayne Johnson.

Allen had successfully gone the same route with 1972's Poseidon Adventure (a cruise ship overturns with Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters getting soaked), but in Inferno, he upped the ante with a bigger production and more luminous stars. The 20th Century Fox-Warner Bros. film (the joint effort was a Hollywood first) used 57 sets on eight of Fox's largest soundstages. Fox had domestic release; Warners got foreign. Stars in danger of being scorched included Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, Fred Astaire (the role brought him his sole Oscar nomination) and, in an early film appearance, O.J. Simpson.

"The way Irwin got all the stars is he paid them a lot of money," says co-star Richard Chamberlain, 84, who played the evil cost-cutting electrical contractor. "The set was like a perpetual A-list party. I've never seen so many glittery people in one place."

Adds co-star Susan Blakely, "McQueen and Newman each got $1 million, the most any actor had ever been paid. Steve said he did the movie to pay for his kids' college."

The investment in star power paid off. The $14 million production ($71 million today) grossed $116 million domestically ($600 million now) and Inferno finished a close second behind Blazing Saddles as the year's top-grossing film. This despite less than stellar reviews: THR called it "more ordeal than entertainment. It overwhelms the spectator like a bully playing on the fears of a society trapped in its own burning affluence."

However, co-star Dabney Coleman, 86, suggests it was precisely this "fear factor" that made the film — which won Oscars for cinematography, editing and original song — a success. "It's easy to put yourself in the position of being trapped at that height with a fire," says the actor, who played a deputy fire chief. "I'd put it right up there with Jaws in terms of scaring the audience."

This story first appeared in the July 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.