Casting for Zobra The Greek had problems with the casting the role of Mme. Hortense. UA insisted on a star, and writer/producer Michael Cacoyannis and star Anthony Quinn thought of Simone Signoret, the great French actress. They went to Paris and pitched her the part. Initially hesitant, Signoret finally agreed, and a few weeks later she was in Crete shooting her first scene. It went disastrously.
As Quinn later wrote in his memoir One Man Tango, the scene called for "Madame Hortense...to prattle on in an expository way about the great admirals who used to be her lovers, but Simone was not ridiculous enough, not pathetic enough in her portrayal. Michael kept after her, trying to get it right. We started shooting at eight o'clock in the evening, and by midnight, when we broke for lunch, the scene had not moved anywhere. As the night wore on, Simone became even more unsure of herself, and for the first time I became concerned...I did not think to worry for the picture itself - Simone would be fine, eventually - but we could not afford to waste a whole night's shooting.
"Then, during a pause between takes, I looked over and saw Simone, on the floor, crying. 'Forgive me,' Simone said, up from her weeping, 'but I can't. I can't do this part. I should never have taken it.'" When pressed why, Signoret finally explained it was because "Hortense is an old woman, and I've got a young husband. I cannot let him see me like this."
Signoret was on a flight back to Paris the next day. Quinn started calling every possible actress he could think of for the part, including Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Southern and Tallulah Bankhead. All loved the script but could not be ready in Crete quickly enough. (The production was losing money every day of the delay.) Finally Cacoyannis thought of an actress named Lila Kedrova, whom he claimed would be perfect. Trouble was, no one else had ever heard of her and United Artists was totally uninterested. As Quinn wrote, "we traded one problem for another." Quinn put in a call to Darryl F. Zanuck at Twentieth Century-Fox, hoping to convince him to take over the budget - which now totaled $750,000. The outcome was one of those only-in-old-Hollywood stories which would never happen in the business today. After listening to Quinn explain the situation, Zanuck asked, "'You believe in it, Tony?'
"'I think it could be the best picture I've ever done. It's a story about life, and how to live.'
"'I don't know why,' Zanuck said, 'but I believe you. When do you want the money?'
"'It'll be there.'
"And it was," Quinn wrote. "He never even asked to see a script. He just sent his son-law over with the money, and we were back in business.'"
The rest was history. Kedrova was indeed perfect and wound up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.