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Kelly's Heroes: Cast List Of This 1970 Film, With Behind-The-Scenes Stories And More

Entertainment | May 23, 2020

Kelly's Heroes poster art by Jack Davis. Source: impawards.com

The 1970 film Kelly’s Heroes, with a cast list of Clint Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, and Telly Savalas, tells the story of World War II soldiers who go AWOL to pull a heist. Perhaps, a film based on the true events of one of the world’s greatest robberies can only play out in complete absurdity. Even the idea of stealing Nazi gold worth $2.5 billion would be turned down on the basis of implausibility. However, that theft was actually recorded as the “biggest” robbery in the Guinness Book of Records in the ‘60s.

The Movie Had Nothing To Do With 'Hogan's Heroes'

A star studded line up for the ages. (blog.elmc.co)

Originally, the movie was titled “The Warriors,” then “Kelly’s Warriors” before finally settling on Kelly's Heroes. Eastwood wasn’t happy with the title changes or the 20 or so minutes cut out of the movie by MGM. His beef with the name Kelly’s Heroes was its similarity to that of the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. He worried people would assume it was a big-screen version of the TV show. The cuts removed some of the much-needed female energy, the disillusionment of war, and camaraderie among soldiers.

At one point in the film, Don Rickles makes a phone call to "Hogan in Intelligence," a nod to the TV show.

Why Was 'Kelly's Heroes' Filmed In Yugoslavia?

The former Yugoslavia just so happened to have a premium supply of tanks. (moviestvnetwork)

The former Yugoslavia wasn’t exactly known as a hotbed for cinema, so why did Kelly’s Heroes end up filming there? Mainly, because Yugoslavia still owned a supply of Sherman tanks in the 1970s and that made logistics much easier. The other reason, which is slightly difficult to wrap your head around today was, “Earnings from previous showings of movies there could not be taken out of the country, but could be used to fund the production.” In other words, the production company or studio had a stack of Yugoslav dinars earned at Yugoslav box offices that they couldn't touch -- in a socialist dictatorship, the rules of business can get a little funny -- might as well make a movie with it. 

Clint Eastwood As Kelly

Source: IMDB

Clint Eastwood was a huge star at the time, having made the jump from TV acting (on the series Rawhide) to westerns, notably the spaghetti westerns he made with Italian director Sergio Leone. 

Clint Eastwood only did the movie because his good friend and favorite director Don Siegel, with whom he'd made Coogan's Bluff (1968) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), signed on to do it. Unfortunately, Siegel ran overtime on the latter project and was replaced. Eastwood had already signed on and hadn’t yet earned the juice to just quit the project. 

During the filming Clint Eastwood passed along the crazy news that Donald Sutherland’s wife had been arrested. The reason? For attempting to buy hand grenades for the Black Panthers from an FBI agent, using a personal check. According to Sutherland, when Eastwood got the part of the personal check, he laughed so hard he fell to his knees. Of course, Eastwood commiserated with Sutherland’s wife problem as they enjoyed the Yugoslavian countryside. 

Donald Sutherland As Oddball

Sutherland just couldn't catch a break during Kelly's Heroes. (thevintagenews)

Insanely, that wasn’t even the only calamity to befall Sutherland during the filming. The iconic actor also became so ill that his wife was telegrammed to come to Yugoslavia immediately. But she was warned that her husband would likely already be dead upon her arrival. Sutherland told of the illness from his perspective:

“I got sick in the middle of shooting. I came to Yugoslavia for a day’s filming and I was out for six weeks. They took me to hospital — I had spinal meningitis. They didn’t have the antibiotics, so I went into a coma, and they told me that for a few seconds I died. I saw the blue tunnel, and I started going down it. I saw the white light. I dug my feet in, I didn’t want to go — but it was incredibly tempting. You just go, ‘Aw s**t, man, why not?”

Don Rickles As Crapgame

Source: twitter.com/donrickles

Comedian Don Rickles, best known for his insults, played Crapgame. In addition to movie acting, Rickles had found success in the showrooms of Las Vegas, and was a quasi-Rat Packer thanks to his friendship with Frank Sinatra. He wasn't exactly cut from the same cloth as some of the more serious actors on set. "Clint [Eastwood]'s idea of a good time is sitting on a pickup truck watching his dog bark," Rickles once said.

During one scene with explosives, Rickles caught a little shrapnel in his leg. Eastwood reportedly quipped "Better get Shecky Greene into costume," referring to another Vegas-style funnyman.

Telly Savalas As Big Joe

Source: IMDB

Savalas served in World War II (as did Rickles) and was awarded a purple heart. He worked in entertainment as a producer and host, but didn't consider acting until his mid 30s. He was nearly 40 when he got his first movie role, in Mad Dog Coll (1961). For his performance in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), he received the Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations for Best Supporting Actor. Savalas didn't go fully bald until he shaved his head for The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), in which he played Pontius Pilate. As a big, menacing bald guy, Savalas got a lot of interesting roles, highlights including the psychotic Maggot in The Dirty Dozen (1968) and the villain Blofeld in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967). After Kelly's Heroes, Savalas would go on to tae the role for which he's best remembered, as the titular TV detective on Kojak (1973-78).

Savalas wasn't producers' first choice to play Big Joe in Kelly's Heroes -- but George Kennedy turned the part down.

Tags: Cast Lists From Popular Movies | Clint Eastwood | Don Rickles | Donald Sutherland | Kellys Heroes | Movies In The 1970s | Telly Savalas

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Kellar Ellsworth

Writer

Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!