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The ‘Spartacus’ duel: UA, Yul Brynner and the rival ‘Gladiators’

Stanley Kubrick's classic was almost derailed by a competing project

Studios today face off over dueling superheroes and Snow White projects, but in the late 1950s, Kirk Douglas and United Artists were at swords point over competing “Spartacus” projects.

In fact, the Douglas epic directed by Stanley Kubrick nearly didn’t get made.

Douglas’s production company, Bryna, held the rights to Howard Fast’s novel “Spartacus,” but United Artists had its own Spartacus project planned, with Yul Brynner to star, and had trademarked several titles, including “The Gladiators” and “Spartacus.”

UA upped the ante with a full-page ad in Variety for “The Gladiators” in Feb. 1958. Douglas thought it was a bluff, but in his book “I Am Spartacus!” he recounts telling his agent Lew Wasserman, “That damned Variety ad makes it seem like ‘The Gladiators’ is in the can. Nobody wants to risk a fight.”

Wasserman suggested Douglas try Universal.

Douglas was skeptical that the money-losing studio of “Francis the Talking Mule” would or could make the picture. What he didn’t know was that Wasserman and MCA were moving to buy the lot, and eventually the studio.

Within hours, U had called Douglas. It gave him four weeks to deliver a script. When a draft by Fast proved unusable, Douglas needed a scribe who could give the studio a good script in just a fortnight.

He turned to the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, known as the best and fastest scripter around.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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