Home Television Drama Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth

1 9 7 7 (UK)

Nicknamed “The Most Expensive Story Ever Told”, Jesus of Nazareth cost around £9 million to make and was screened on ITV on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in 1977.

Lord Lew Grade said at the time; “I think it’s the best thing I will ever do”. Most critics thought so too.

Lord Grade raised the money to make the drama by flying to Detroit to see the head of General Motors and asking for £3 million. Asked when, Lord Grade replied, “yesterday will be fine”. He got it.

But when the businessmen heard that producer Franco Zeffirelli would be portraying Jesus as a man not myth and would show him as ‘gentle, fragile and simple’ they feared a backlash from America’s Bible Belt and demanded that the name of General Motors be removed from the credits. Happily, Procter & Gamble stepped in as the principal backers.

jesusofnazareth_005There were problems, too, with casting. Robert Powell had been chosen for the title role, but the first schoolboy to play the young Christ was dropped – Mr Zeffirelli hadn’t been satisfied.

The older stars were easier to sign and included Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Peter Ustinov, Rod Steiger and James Mason. But there was some nervousness about the actress for the Virgin Mary. In the end Olivia Hussey – who’d earlier been Franco Zeffirelli’s Juliet – was picked, despite being nine years younger than her ‘son’.

Tunisia became Palestine and building a full-scale model of Herod’s temple ran up a bill of £250,000. It was worth it.

Robert Powell was roped by his arms to a wooden crosspiece and hauled five times to the top of a twenty-foot cross before the cameraman had the perfect take. As the crosspiece swung out of control the actor cried out in panic. He said later, “I didn’t have to fake the torment”.

In America, one third of all television sets were tuned in to Jesus of Nazareth and in Britain at least half the population were reckoned to have watched it. Worldwide, 140 million people were thought to have seen it – a number that increased to 500 million after reshowings in the 1980s.

Jesus Christ
Robert Powell
Mary Magdalene
Anne Bancroft
Judas Iscariot
Ian McShane
Herod Antipas
Christopher Plummer
Herod the Great
Peter Ustinov
Caiaphas 
Anthony Quinn
Pontius Pilate
Rod Steiger
Simon Peter
James Farentino
John the Baptist
Michael York
Simeon
Ralph Richardson
Andrew 
Tony Vogel
James 
Jonathan Muller
Herodias 
Valentina Cortese
Virgin Mary
Olivia Hussey
Joseph of Arimathea
James Mason
Melchior
Donald Pleasence
John the Evangelist
John Duttine
James II
Sergio Nicolai
Nicodemus 
Laurence Olivier
Bartholomew 
John Eastham
Balthazar 
James Earl Jones
Barabbas
Stacy Keach
Centurion 
Ernest Borgnine
Zerah 
Ian Holm
Amos 
Ian Bannen
Matthew
Keith Washington