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‘Romeo & Juliet’ at 50: Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting on Viewers’ Big Question

Did they, or didn’t they?

Any baby boomer who saw Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuous “Romeo & Juliet,” which opened in U.S. theaters Oct. 8, 1968, has wondered if stars Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting actually fell in love during the production.

Their performances as Shakespeare’s star-crossed ill-fated lovers were so passionate, audiences naturally thought they were acting out their own feelings.

“I had never been with anyone before we shot the film,” noted Hussey, author with her son Alexander Martin of the new memoir, “The Girl on the Balcony: Olivia Hussey Finds Life After ‘Romeo & Juliet.”’

“But Leonard and I held hands, kissed,” Hussey, 67, explained during a recent interview at a Studio City bistro. “I guess we sort of saw each other as boyfriend and girlfriend — but young. It wasn’t the way it might be today. A 15-year-old girl today is a lot more promiscuous than we were.”

Whiting, 68, recalled the first time he was paired off by Zeffirelli with Hussey at the initial auditions for the film in 1967. “It was in a basement studio,” he noted over the phone from his home in London.

“I just saw her. They say you can’t believe in love at first sight, but you can because I thought she was just absolutely scrummy, like a really big cream cake.”

Because they were both young and nervous “about certain things,” said Whiting, “it’s only obvious that we grabbed hold of each other to say ‘Well, if we’re drowning, I’ve got a friend here.”’

Whiting maintains you have to be a very good actor to “act anything. But what you can’t act is love and desire. What’s why when people go and see the movie, they’re quite charmed because they can actually see they fancied each other — if you know what I mean.”

“Romeo & Juliet” struck a chord with audiences when it opened during the 1960s youthquake.

“I think one of the major reasons this film was such a success is because you have two young actors at the center of it,” said TCM and Filmstruck host Alicia Malone. “Olivia Hussey was 15 and Leonard Whiting was 17. They were very much close to the ages of the actual Romeo and Juliet. I think it brought the young audiences into the cinema to see Shakespeare when they may not have beforehand. It feels very fresh, very authentic. Also, with Zeffirelli shooting on location [in Italy] adds another layer of authenticity.”

Prior to the Zeffirelli’s adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy, the best-known version was MGM’s lavish production starring 34-year-old Norma Shearer and 43-year-old Leslie Howard as the supposedly young star-crossed lovers. John Barrymore, then 54, played Mercutio. You could practically hear Howard’s joint creak as he climbed Juliet’s balcony.

Much more believable was the 1954 British version starring Laurence Harvey, then in his late 20s, and a 20-year-old newcomer named Susan Shantell who never made another movie.

But the Zefferelli film, noted Malone, captured the zeitgeist of the late 1960s. “The story is very much a counter-culture story,” said Malone. “It [paralleled] what was happening at the time. It’s about love and about not doing what people tell you to do. It’s a story about two teenagers going against the establishment. I think it really spoke to audiences at the time. But it’s amazing when you watch it now. It’s hard to believe that 50 years [have passed].”

Much like audiences who couldn’t get enough of Kate and Leo in 1997’s “Titanic,” moviegoers kept returning to see “Romeo & Juliet.” Henry Mancini’s instrumental recording of Nino Rota’s “Love Theme,” aka “A Time for Us,” became a No. 1 pop hit in 1969.

“Romeo & Juliet” earned four Oscar nominations including best film and director and won for Pasqualino De Santis’ lush cinematography and Danilo Donati’s exquisite costumes.

“It didn’t appear that these actors were wearing costumes that didn’t suit them,” said Malone. “It seemed to fit with their bodies and the way they moved. It was all very natural and beautiful. The colors were amazing.”

The film also had its share of controversy, because of Hussey and Whiting’s nude love scene. Though nudity was commonplace in European films, the scene was frowned upon by some in U.S. at the time.

“Nobody my age had done that before,” said Hussey, who turned 16 during filming. She added that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.”

Both were already working actors when they were cast.

“Everyone thinks they were so young they probably didn’t realize what they were doing,” said Hussey. “But we were very aware. We both came from drama schools and when you work, you take your work very seriously.”

Before production began, the two worked very hard practicing proper Shakespearean English — Whiting had a strong Cockney accent and Hussey, who was born in Argentina, spoke with a lilt.

“We started with a dialogue coach two or three hours a day,” Hussey said. “But when shooting was about to begin, we were doing six hours a day on vocabulary because it was Shakespeare.”

Though she noted that Zeffirelli could be very temperamental, Hussey describes him as a “genius. He just brought things to life. That’s what I loved about Franco. He hired always the most perfect person to do the role, which ever role it was. And then he let that actor do what they felt.”

Whiting had never been to Italy before the production started. “To be young and go to Italy and to be chauffeur-driven everywhere and to be taken to the best restaurants. It was like learning to love. Italy for me is absolutely heaven because I remember it as if it was yesterday — all those golden days in the beautiful light.”

After the film was released, they both lived their lives in a fishbowl.

“It was difficult because I was painfully shy,” said Hussey, who suffers from agoraphobia.

“It was absolute madness,” added Whiting. “

Hussey didn’t work immediately after “Romeo & Juliet.”

“I think it was such an amazing experience,” she said. “I used to say to Franco, I don’t want to work with anyone but you. I can do anything for you because you understand me. I mean if I could have, I would have just worked with Franco.”

She did work with Zeffirelli in the acclaimed 1977 NBC miniseries “Jesus of Nazareth” and in such films as 1973’s “Lost Horizon” and 1978’s ‘Death on the Nile.”

“I’ve made a lot of rotten films over the years,” she said. “A lot of times, you do something for passion, but most of the time you are paying your bills, taking care of your kids, your life.”

The past few years, she’s been working on her autobiography with her son by her first marriage to the late Dean Paul Martin, Dean Martin’s son. Though far from a tell-all, Hussey does reveal some of the painful moments of her life. At 18, she was beaten and raped by her ex-boyfriend Christopher Jones (“Ryan’s Daughter”). She has battled stage four breast cancer and had to declare bankruptcy after her business manager and his wife swindled her.

After the success of “Romeo & Juliet,” she moved to Los Angeles, where she lived in the house where Sharon Tate had been murdered just a month before, and briefly dated Terry Melcher, who had previously lived the house.

But Hussey, who has three children and is now a grandmother, is a survivor. She’s been happily married for the past 27 years to third husband, rocker David Eisely, and their daughter is actress India Eisley who appears with Chris Pine in TNT’s 2019 limited series, “One Day She’ll Darken.”

And Hussey and Whiting, who is now also a grandfather, played Eisely’s parents in the 2015 British film “Social Suicide,” which was loosely based on “Romeo & Juliet.” The film played a few festivals.

Whiting, who turned towards art instead of acting, did write a screenplay and sent it to Hussey a few years ago. “It was a dark comedy about what would have happened if Romeo and Juliet had lived,” she noted. “I said, I’m sorry, I can’t do it.”

Hussey, who is on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, is very conscious of her fans.

She doesn’t want to do a role that would taint the image of the girl on the balcony.

“Because when I go to an event, I can always tell the way someone says hello to me if they’ve seen the film, liked it and made an effect on their life in some way. They say, I have to tell you this and I listen. I never go out in sweatpants because, undoubtedly, the one time I do somebody says, ‘excuse me.’ I want them to go home and be able to say ‘Guess who I saw today? She still looks lovely.’ It keeps their image alive.”

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