Box Office Bomb: Although it did well at the box office, 20th Century Fox only got half of the $57 million in profits, the rest of it going to movie theaters. The film had a budget of $44 million that nearly put the studio out of business.
After Joan Collins bowed out of the lead role in 1958, Elizabeth Taylor sarcastically offered to take it for a million dollars - and to her surprise, Fox agreed. The weekly costs that were included in Taylor's fee ballooned out of control when she became gravely ill with pneumonia during initial shooting at Pinewood Studios in England in 1960, putting a halt to filming for many months, and leading her to be paid over $2 million before any usable footage had been shot. Taylor's illness and the resulting delays led to the resignation of the original director (Rouben Mamoulian) and the actors cast as Caesar (Peter Finch) and Antony (Stephen Boyd).
Even leaving aside Taylor's extended sick leave, few things went as planned during the abortive Pinewood shoot. The producers had frequent clashes with the studio's labour unions, the film crew did not realise until after settling on Pinewood as the venue for indoor filming that there were fewer available soundstages than anticipated and the ceilings were too low to accommodate the sets as originally planned, and the outdoor sets deteriorated rapidly in the cold, wet English weather. The footage shot at Pinewood ended up being discarded as the filming moved to Cinecittà Studios in Rome so the English weather would not impair Taylor's recovery. (The sets were still used by the producers of the Carry On films in 1964's Carry On Cleo.)
Production in Italy was just as problematic. The costumes and sets had to be completely re-designed and re-built, leading to a shortage of lumber and other building materials throughout Italy. Millions of dollars' worth of props and other equipment were stolen by studio employees, while a group of female extras went on strike as a result of being constantly groped by lecherous male extras. Two construction workers building the Alexandria set were killed by an unexploded World War II land mine. The constant delays and reshoots in filming the epic-scale scene of Cleopatra's entrance on a barge into Rome (started in October 1961, finished the following March) required the recasting of Cleopatra's son as the original child actor had grown significantly taller during the delay.
When Joseph L. Mankiewicz was brought on board to direct at Taylor's insistence, the film was already nearly a year behind schedule, $5 million over budget, and had not a single frame of usable footage to show for it. The script was only half completed, and Mankiewicz had to write the rest as filming went along, shooting the script as new scenes were written and editing the resulting footage later rather than editing the script first and then shooting the resulting scenes. The catastrophic budget overruns meant the climactic Battle of Actium sequence had to be re-written to take place almost entirely off camera. So great was the strain of writing and directing that Mankiewicz required injections to both get through each day and sleep at night.
To complicate matters, the film marked the beginning of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's tempestuous relationship and eventual marriage (and subsequent divorce, re-marriage, and re-divorce); as both were already married, the resulting scandal and moral outrage added bad publicity to the already toxic combination of massive delays and cost inflation. However, the affair created enough fascination with the public that Fox decided to assemble a publicity campaign that focused almost entirely on Taylor and Burton, with scant attention at best devoted to Rex Harrison as Caesar.note Harrison arguably got the last laugh when he became the only one of the film's three stars to receive an Oscar nomination for his performance.
Things didn't improve during post production. Mankiewicz initially planned to assemble two three-hour films, Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra, but Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck believed that the public interest in seeing Taylor and Burton on screen together might fade if the second film were released later, while interest in the first film (in which Burton would only appear in a few scenes) would be minimal, so he ordered the films edited into a single four-hour film - requiring more reshoots to smooth over the changes. Mankiewicz was eventually fired during editing, but had to be re-hired when it became obvious that he was the only person who could make sense of the raw footage.note Some of the cut footage has been recovered in recent years; the film's fans continue to harbour hope that all of the cut footage may someday be restored and the film released as Mankiewicz originally intended.
The film finally staggered into cinemas in June 1963, with a final production cost of $44 million (over $300 million adjusted for inflation) - money Fox knew it had little chance of recovering. Despite lukewarm reviews from critics and audiences, the film had the highest box office take of 1963 and was nominated for ten Oscars (including Best Picture), winning four, but it would not break even until ABC paid $5 million for two television screenings in 1966 (at the time, a record fee for film broadcasting rights). The already financially troubled 20th Century Fox almost went bankrupt, selling parts of its studio lot and needing the successes of films such as The Longest Daynote in which Roddy McDowall (who played Octavian in Cleopatra) requested, and received, a small role to alleviate boredom during the endless delays to Cleopatra in 1962 and The Sound of Music in 1965 to offset their losses. Cleopatra also killed interest in the sword and sandal epic genre for nearly a generation, and was a key factor in the disintegration of the old "studio system", as studios passed responsibility for production costs to independent production companies instead of handling said costs themselves.