Hollywood Flashback: Original 'Dolittle' Bombed So Hard, It Nearly Sank Fox in 1967

Twentieth Century-Fox/Photofest
Rex Harrison as Dr. John Dolittle chats up a seal in 1967's 'Doctor Dolittle.'

From an attempted sabotage by a Ralph Fiennes relative to racist commentary by Rex Harrison, the film felt doomed before even making its unsuccessful way to the box office.

In all the Dr. Dolittle movies, based on Hugh Lofting's books, the doctor can talk to animals. However, he doesn't always connect with audiences.

Universal surely hopes its version, Dolittle, out Jan. 17, has a connection more like the 1998 Eddie Murphy comedy hit Dr. Dolittle than the 1967 Rex Harrison musical bomb Doctor Dolittle. That version almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox. What went wrong? Everything.

The film cost three times its original $6 million budget. There was tension on the set as Harrison referred to co-star Anthony Newley as a "Jewish comic" and a "Cockney Jew." Newley in turn called the star "Rex 'George Rockwell' Harrison" after the American Nazi Party's then leader. Roughly 1,300 animals were used during filming, but quarantine laws meant the essential U.S.-trained ones weren't allowed into the U.K. One of the giraffes Harrison rode died. The quaint Wiltshire location in southwest England turned out to average 15 rainy days per month. And famed British explorer Ranulph Fiennes (a third cousin of Ralph Fiennes) was so upset over the production's construction of a 20-foot dam to enlarge a lake that he tried, but failed, to blow it up using military explosives.

But the real bombing came with the release. To break even, the film needed to make $31 million at the box office ($238 million today), but brought in only $16 million ($123 million now). The merchandising was an even bigger flop. More than 300 products — from pet food to Mattel talking dolls — were created, yet $200 million worth went unsold.

The debacle pretty much ended Harrison's film career. And, together with the flop of Warner Bros.' Camelot, Doctor Dolittle helped kill off the family musical as a genre.

Despite terrible reviews in every publication except THR, Fox ran ads in almost every U.S. publication quoting London's Daily Mail as saying the film offered "sheer sunny happiness."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.