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The opening scene of the 1966 flick Grand Prix featured actor James Garner in one of the most memorable movie moments of all time.
The green flag drops amid a deafening roar of Formula One machinery. A blur of drivers in their tube-shaped metal envelopes begin their full-scale assault on the streets of Monte Carlo. Split-screen images projected onto the oversized curved Cinerama screen provides an
all-too-real sense of riding along with the drivers as they frantically jockey for position. Suddenly, in a split-second, two cars collide and you're watching, wide-eyed, as one car violently catapults off course - straight into Monaco's yacht-filled harbour. Fortunately, the hero Pete
Aron, played in his usual easy-going style by James Garner, escapes his metal coffin, gasping for air as a trio of scuba divers swims to his aid.
Pure Hollywood fantasy? Well, not exactly. What Grand Prix director John Frankenheimer chose for his movie's opening sequence happened to real-life driver Alberto Ascari at that very spot 11 years earlier while he was leading the event.
For Garner, working on Grand Prix became an example of life imitating art. As a result of the movie he would become hooked on racing and remain actively involved in the sport for many years after this ground-breaking movie was in the can.
Garner's interest in fast cars goes back to his pre-acting days. Born James Scott Bumgarner in 1928, the Norman, Okla., native was driving hot rods around town as a teenager. But this carpet layer's son couldn't afford his own wheels, so he was usually piloting one of his
buddies' modified jalopies.
Following minor stage and small-screen roles, Garner's first of many breaks came in 1957 when he starred in the TV western series, Maverick. After four successful years, he moved to the big screen, where he played the leading man in a number of fluffy romantic comedies
before landing a major role in The Great Escape. This real-life movie vaulted the suave and debonair Garner into bona fide superstar status.
Grand Prix director Frankenheimer actually wanted Steve McQueen for lead roll as Pete Aron, but the deal fell through after a rocky interview that Frankenheimer was unable to attend.
Garner, who badly wanted the part, was picked.
Before shooting began, Garner took lessons from Bob Bondurant, a successful Grand Prix and sports car driver who would eventually begin his own high-performance driving school. Garner followed that with a session at the Jim Russell Driving School in England where he was
joined by some of the other principal actors. The Russell experience taught him plenty, including the fact that the lanky six-foot-three actor was too big to comfortably fit inside the cockpit of a Grand Prix race car. Garner immediately went on a diet, managing to lose nearly 10 kilograms. Even then, he had to drive with the seat removed from the car so his head would be lower than the roll bar.
Frankenheimer's $8-million epic began shooting in late May 1966. The director employed many well-known Formula One stars as background actors, including Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Jochen Rindt, Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren.Some of these drivers were also hired to drive camera vehicles that would chase the mostly fake Grand Prix race cars specially constructed by Jim Russell for the movie.
During production, Garner's skill behind the wheel impressed many of the racers involved in the project. Grand Prix opened in late 1966 to rave reviews. Not only was the film exciting to watch on the giant screen, its special effects and camera techniques created specifically for the movie were technical breakthroughs that are still in use today.
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