Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau’s Hilarious Mutual Loathing on ‘Hello Dolly’ Set

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Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau’s Hilarious Mutual Loathing on ‘Hello Dolly’ Set

Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau’s Hilarious Mutual Loathing on ‘Hello Dolly’ Set

When you think about the 1960s, certain things immediately spring to mind, from the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement to the explosion of the counterculture. Musically, it was a decade that saw the British invasion, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and the arrival of the singer-songwriter in artists such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

But what you may not realize is that the 1960s was also the heyday of Broadway musicals being adapted for the big screen, and in magnificently big-budget fashion. The film adaptations of West Side Story, Music Man, The Sound of Music, Oliver!, Funny Girl, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, and Bye-Bye Birdie followed a tradition of stage to screen established in the 1950s with hits like South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, and Oklahoma. The songs, the sets, the costumes! Sometimes film critics sniffed at the films’ corniness, but nobody seemed to care.

So in 1964, when Hello, Dolly!, the story of an 1890s matchmaker named Dolly Levi finding love with a man she’s supposed to match, became the toast of Broadway, it was obvious that the next move would be turning it into a film.

These 1960s musicals were beloved by both audiences and award shows–they made a ton of money and racked up a whole lot of Oscars

The heads of Twentieth-Century Fox, the studio which had enjoyed a tremendous success with The Sound of Music, went after the film rights for Hello, Dolly! They made a deal with producer David Merrick, who stipulated that the movie could not be released while the play was still running on Broadway. To direct the film, Fox hired Gene Kelly, the singer-dancer legend who had transitioned into directing and had a success with A Guide for the Married Man in 1967, starring Walter Matthau. While Gene Kelly was a household name for his smiling role in Singin’ in the Rain, he had a few sharp edges. Kelly had taken a meeting with the producers of The Sound of Music and turned it down with the memorable words “Find someone else to direct this s-.”

Unsurprisingly, Kelly cast Matthau as the male lead of Hello, Dolly! The part of Horace Vandergelder, a “half-millionaire” widower known for his grumpiness, seemed perfect for Matthau, who is perhaps most famous today for playing the sarcastic slob Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple.

Among the actresses considered for Dolly Levi were Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, and Shirley MacLaine

The debate over which actresses best transition from stage to screen has always been a lively one. Julie Andrews was rejected in favor of Audrey Hepburn for My Fair Lady but Andrews kept the lead role in Sound of Music, for example. West Side Story producers cast not a stage actress but film ingenue Natalie Wood as e to Hello, Dolly!, everyone was in agreement about the title role. Carol Channing, who created the iconic character of Dolly Levi for Hello, Dolly!, was magnificent–and she would have to go.

Channing was sugar daddy meet 43 years old and a stage star when Hello, Dolly! premiered on Broadway, just the right age for the part. She not only won a Tony but became a national sensation with her brassy warmth and her “huge eyes and monumental smile.” At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, she sang, “Hello Lyndon” to President Lyndon Johnson.

But Channing didn’t have a lot of film experience, and there were concerns that her looks–once described by People magazine as “megawattage Kewpie doll”–wouldn’t translate well on the big screen. Julie Andrews reportedly turned it down.