Conman, gambler and showman Michael Todd – the mad genius behind 1956's Around the World in 80 Days

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Quintessential English gentleman: David Niven with Cantinflas in Around the World in 80 Days - Alamy
Quintessential English gentleman: David Niven with Cantinflas in Around the World in 80 Days - Alamy

Ever since Jules Verne first published his seminal adventure novel Around The World in Eighty Days in 1872, its dynamic narrative, revolving around the gentleman-adventurer Phileas Fogg accepting a wager to circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, has seen it been adapted for film and television several times.

These have included versions with Pierce Brosnan and Steve Coogan as Fogg, as well as Eric Idle and, of all unlikely people, Jackie Chan in the role of his valet Passepartout.

This Christmas, a new version is being broadcast on BBC One, with David Tennant in the lead, Ibrahim Koma as a more dynamic and less servile Passepartout and Babylon Berlin’s Leonie Benesch in the newly created role of journalist Abigail Fix. Hopefully it is a thrilling slice of festive fun, and not a stodgy serving of Christmas turkey.

However, it is unlikely to eclipse what remains the definitive screen version of the story, directed by Michael Anderson and starring David Niven as Fogg and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as Passepartout. Yet the most significant name in its production was not that of Anderson, Niven or Cantinflas, or even Verne. Instead, it was that of its producer Michael Todd. He was an impresario on a PT Barnum-scale, whose extravagances and hubris made Fogg’s voyages seem relatively small beer.

It was not for nothing that his name was front and centre in the publicity, and the film was even referred to as Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. Like a character from Verne’s fiction, Todd produced the film whilst on the run from a small army of creditors, disgruntled business partners and mobsters. That it was completed at all was little short of a miracle; its glorious success vindicated the considerable efforts that the entrepreneur devoted to its creation.

Todd’s biographer Art Cohn wrote of him in grandiose terms that “Mike Todd, a bold adventurer fighting middle age as if he were going to beat it, is a 20th-century Renaissance man.” He was born Avrom Goldbogen, the youngest of nine children, in Minneapolis in 1909. Dropping out of high school young, he developed an entrepreneurial bent, and had already made and lost a fortune by the age of 21: the cause of his decline was building up a business that soundproofed studio stages, anticipating the coming of talking pictures, which then went bust in the Great Depression. He quipped “I was a boy wonder – that was before I was a boy failure.”

The joke was typical of the producer in its chutzpah, ambition and potential for success, but it was also quintessentially Todd in the loose financial arrangements hinted at. As Cohn pithily described it, “At 18, he was president of a $2,000,000-a-year construction company. A year later he had a credit balance of $820,000. At 20 he was broke, unable to pay his rent, existing on his wife’s dole of a dollar a day.”

His extraordinary energy soon saw him transfer his talents to Broadway, and by the time he was 37 he had four plays running there simultaneously, and was earning $20,000 a week. Yet the following year he was bankrupt with debts of over a million dollars, which he toasted from a 30-acre estate at Irvington-on-the-Hudson. He was chased out of Chicago by gangsters, separated acrimoniously from both his first and second wives and gloried in his own vulgarity. Todd once remarked to a subordinate “Educate me, and we’ll both be out of work.”

Yet in 1955, having successfully launched the Todd-AO post-production company, he decided that he should produce a motion picture that would redefine epic ambition. And what better subject to match his own hubris and world-vaunting determination than the saga of another adventurer and dreamer who tried to beat impossible odds at any cost?

Producer Mike Todd with his Around the World In 80 Days star David Niven - Getty
Producer Mike Todd with his Around the World In 80 Days star David Niven - Getty

The idea for an adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days had occurred to another of cinema’s great visionaries, Orson Welles, but a 1946 stage version that he wrote and appeared in, Around the World, was a disaster. Welles had asked Todd to produce it but pithily remarked that "when it became apparent that, among other things, he was in no position to provide finances, I was forced to take over the responsibility of this myself."

It lost over $300,000, and seemed to suggest that the story was box office poison. But Todd was intrigued by the potential for a film on a grand scale and, in 1954, he bought back the film rights from the British producer Alexander Korda, who was delighted to relinquish them: he called the project "too tough to make and too expensive". Korda had not bargained with the impresario’s impresario, a man of whom it was said “he’ll move mountains if necessary. If it’s not necessary, he’ll build a mountain so he can move it.”

Todd hired the New Yorker writer SJ Perelman to adapt the screenplay, telling him that “the circulation of the New Yorker is 350,000. I want this picture to be seen by over a hundred million.” As director, he chose the young Englishman Michael Anderson, who was best known for his films The Dam Busters and the Orwell adaptation Nineteen Eighty-Four. Anderson was professional, talented, cheap and malleable; there was no doubt that Todd, not him, would be the auteur of this picture.

Casting was crucial. David Niven was the quintessential English gentleman actor of his day, and Todd telephoned him and summoned him to a meeting. Niven later wrote in his memoir The Moon’s A Balloon that “I had never met Todd but I had heard a hundred stories about the legendary master showman, gambler, promoter or con man – everyone saw him from a different angle.”

Their conversation was brief. Todd, smoking “a cigar of grotesque proportions”, asked Niven if he’d heard of Verne and Around the World in 80 Days. When the actor replied “I was weaned on it”, Todd said “I’ve never made a picture before but I’m gonna make this one. How’d you like to play Phileas Fogg?” An overjoyed Niven exclaimed “I’d do it for nothing!” Todd replied “You gotta deal”, and disappeared into a swimming pool.

David Niven and Shirley MacLaine in Around the World In 80 Days - Alamy
David Niven and Shirley MacLaine in Around the World In 80 Days - Alamy

The casting of Cantinflas was equally crucial. Rather than the sidekick and foil of the novel, Todd envisaged him as a co-lead, and, crucially, the appearance of the hugely popular comedian would lead to box office success among America’s Mexican and Hispanic communities. Todd said of him that “Cantinflas is the greatest living performer. Not only is he a magnificent actor and comedian, he’s a noted bullfighter, musician, acrobat and can ride anything from a camel to a comet…he is essentially a pantomimist and will give the part true pathos.”

When informed that Cantinflas, by his own estimation the wealthiest actor in the world, had no interest in making an American picture or acting as a foil to another star, Todd flew to Mexico to convince him to accept the part. As Cantiflas said, “Mr Todd assured me that the film would be done properly, and that I could portray Passepartout as a Latin. So, to my audience in Latin America, I’ll still be Cantinflas.” Long before Hollywood had become aware of ideas of diversity and racially appropriate casting, Todd was ahead of the game – albeit for business, rather than ethical, reasons.

After hiring the veteran character actor, and notoriously heavy drinker, Robert Newton as the antagonist Inspector Fix and the then-ingenue Shirley MacLaine as the female lead Princess Aouda, Todd hit upon the idea of filling the supporting cast with internationally famous celebrities, many of whom appeared for a matter of a few seconds. Everyone from John Gielgud and Buster Keaton to Marlene Dietrich and John Mills popped up in tiny roles.

As Todd said, “there have been many pictures loaded with big names, but the story has always been built around the stars. My idea was to have each star fit the part of the story. Our story was about four people who go travelling. When you go travelling you meet a lot of people. It’s that simple.” He then justified his method of recruiting superstars. “Say you want a guy to pound a piano in a honky-tonk. Who do you pick? Sinatra, naturally. Not because he’s Sinatra but because when he sits down at that piano, with a bowler on his head and garters on his sleeves, he’s for real.”

Cantinflas, David Niven, Marlene Deitrich and Frank Sinatra in Around the World in 80 Days - Alamy
Cantinflas, David Niven, Marlene Deitrich and Frank Sinatra in Around the World in 80 Days - Alamy

As one of Todd’s associates put it, in order to acquire a star-studded cast, “Mike never stopped talking. He sweet-talked the women and fast-talked the men and conned them all into believing only a real top name could afford to take alphabetical billing.” As Noel Coward, one of the many star names recruited, commented “Todd bullied me over an inferior lunch and I gave in just for the devil of it.’ He even recruited the legendary Spanish bullfighter Louis Dominguin for a cameo, and, after Dominguin agreed, Todd said “We forgot to mention money.’ “How much do you need?” was the bullfighter’s response.

The answer, it transpired, was a vast amount. From an original budget of $3 million, the cost soon soared to double that. After originally agreeing to co-finance the picture with Columbia Pictures, Todd fell out with the notoriously combative studio head Harry Cohn, who said “What the hell do you know about making pictures? You never made one in your life. We make the pictures. You stick to your girlie-girlie shows.” An unabashed Todd instead vowed that he would self-produce the film if it killed him. As Niven commented, “until the picture was finished, I lived in an atmosphere of pure fantasy. Nobody knows where Todd raised the necessary seven million dollars [sic] and he certainly didn’t raise it all at once because several times production ground to a halt while strange, swarthy gentlemen arrived from Chicago from urgent consultations.” Unsurprisingly, Niven remarked ‘For weeks on end we went unpaid.”

Yet Todd was unabashed. During production, he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Taylor, whose strict MGM contract meant that she was one of the few Hollywood stars not to appear in a cameo. She would become his third wife in February 1957. Niven described them as “radiant with happiness”, but the relationship was as tempestuous as many of Taylor’s other marriages, not least because of Todd’s heroically profligate tastes.

The finished film of Around The World in 80 Days boasted nearly 70,000 extras, including the entire population of Chinchon, Spain as extras in a bullfight sequence. However, all of this grandiosity came at a cost, and the film’s negative was impounded by the Los Angeles sheriff. It would not be released until Todd’s many creditors were satisfied. The producer therefore found himself in the unorthodox situation of conducting post-production, including editing and scoring the picture, under the supervision of a sheriff’s deputy, with the negative placed in a bank vault at the end of each day.

'Todd bonanza': Niven with Todd on set - 1956
'Todd bonanza': Niven with Todd on set - 1956

Nevertheless, Todd’s giddy run of luck saw him finish the film and premiere it at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on 17 October 1956. One producer who saw it beforehand remarked “Quite a movie, Mike”, to which Todd snapped “Bite your tongue when you call it a movie. It’s a show.”

Niven described the premiere as “a Todd bonanza”, full of caviar, champagne and gold-embossed programmes. This was typical sleight-of-hand on the producer’s part, as the cheques that he made out to cover the expenses bounced the day after the premiere. But, on the night, a “pale and tense” Todd was relieved that the film was received with applause, critical praise and adulation. His greatest gamble had succeeded. As Art Cohn wrote, “Mike’s taut shoulders eased against the back of the seat. His showman’s instinct saw his star rise with the bullet-shaped projectile into the firmament.”

Todd knew that the film’s vast financial success would now establish him as a reputable producer, the envy of the likes of Harry Cohn and other studio heads. It grossed many times its production budget, with a total box office of around $42 million, and won numerous awards, including Best Picture at the Oscars, thanks to some assiduous networking by Todd. The man who had once quipped “I’ve been broke many a time but I’ve never been poor” had finally come good. And it seemed likely that, in a film industry that was trying to combat the threat of television with increasingly lavish widescreen Technicolour epics, he would soon get another chance to make another enormous movie.

Tempestuous affair: Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd on Epsom Downs - AP
Tempestuous affair: Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Todd on Epsom Downs - AP

It was not to be. On 22 March 1958, Todd was on board the private plane that he had bought to celebrate Around The World in 80 Days’ box office success, bound for New York to accept an award for “Showman Of The Year”. Niven had attempted to persuade him to dine with him and his wife instead, but the producer, although reluctant to leave, intended to honour his commitment.

Named after his new wife, his plane The Liz saw Todd accompanied by his biographer Art Cohn, a pilot and co-pilot. Taylor was at home ill with a cold and her husband made light of her absence, saying to his friend Kirk Douglas, who he attempted to invite on the flight in Taylor’s stead to play gin rummy, that “It's a good, safe plane. I wouldn't let it crash. I'm taking along a picture of Elizabeth, and I wouldn't let anything happen to her.”

He was proved wrong. The Liz suffered engine failure and crashed at Grants, New Mexico, killing all its passengers. Todd could only be identified by his dental records. As his closest friend Eddie Fisher wrote: "There was a closed coffin, but I knew it was more for show than anything else. The plane had exploded on impact, and whatever remains were found couldn't be identified... The only items recovered from the wreckage were Mike's wedding ring and a pair of platinum cuff links I'd given him.”

So one of American entertainment’s most chequered, bizarre and eventful stories came to an end. Whether Todd was a genius, a fraud or a lunatic – or all three - his film of Around The World in 80 Days remains a high watermark in Hollywood, both as a star-studded piece of money-no-object entertainment and as a testament to one man’s sheer chutzpah and boundless ambition.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the David Tennant and Ibrahim Koma version, it is unlikely to be as faithful to its source material in its mad extravagance as Mike Todd’s peerless folie de grandeur remains.

Around the World in 80 Days is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from 26 December 2021

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