Gregory Peck was upset by the extremely negative reactions to his performance. He later said, "I felt, Laurence Olivier felt, friends of mine like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon felt, that I was good in this part. Some critics seem unwilling to accept actors when they break what they think is the mold or the image."
Publicity for this movie stated that this was the first villainous role of Gregory Peck's career. Peck felt that his portrayal of Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele was the only completely unsympathetic role he ever performed. However, Peck's characters in Duel in the Sun (1946), Moby Dick (1956), and The Bravados (1958) have often been described as villains.
Laurence Olivier received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role in this movie, playing a Jewish man who hunts Josef Mengele and other Nazi war criminals. His most recent Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role prior to this, was for Marathon Man (1976), in which he played Dr. Christian Szell, a Nazi war criminal based on Dr. Josef Mengele. For this film, Olivier received his tenth and final Academy Award nomination, making him the most nominated actor up to that point. His record was later surpassed by Jack Nicholson, with twelve nominations.
For his role as a notorious Nazi, Gregory Peck had his famous "widow's peak" hairline shaved off, his eyebrows cropped, put on a little Hitler mustache, dyed his hair with black shoe polish, and then had added white face paint make-up. Publicity for this movie stated that Peck bore an uncanny resemblance to photographs of the real Dr. Josef Mengele, which had, at the time, been recently smuggled out of South America.
James Mason reportedly was not interested in the script for this movie, until he found out that his friends "Greg" and "Larry" were already signed-up. "Greg", of course, was Gregory Peck, and "Larry" was Laurence Olivier.
Producer Lew Grade and Director Franklin J. Schaffner clashed bitterly over the amount of on-screen blood used in the film, as Grade was eager to get a PG rating, and it would also be easier to sell it for television distribution around the world.
Austria's The Kölnbrein Dam doubled for the Swedish dam where an assassination sequence occurs. The dam was under construction at the time of principal photography, and was then not as yet a functioning dam.
When Ezra Leiberman (Laurence Olivier) first visits the first home on the list and gets welcomed at the door by the adopted boy, the camera moves to the mirror in the hallway which shows multiple reflections of the same child. The multiple images echo the appearance of the same child actor, who goes on to play each of the adopted boys.
In a promotional interview with Roger Ebert, James Mason explained that he'd hoped to get either Olivier's or Peck's role, and was disappointed to be offered neither, but then was contacted about the subsidiary role of Seibert: "They'd found that when Dr. Mengele was in Paraguay, he had no one to talk to. So they fleshed out the other Nazi, and he fell into my lap. It was convenient, it was acceptable, I could even make sense of the character, and besides, it was four weeks work in Portugal, where I'd never been before."
Franklin J. Schaffner previously directed Patton (1970) which won several Academy Awards including the Oscar for Best Picture. This was the only other movie related to World War II that Schaffner directed.
In the scene in which it is discovered that they are recording Mengele's instructions to the Nazi criminals, and the search for the transmitter begins, while they are reviewing the entire room, an autographed photo of Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón, along with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, can be seen on a table.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, but failed to win any statuettes. Ironically, it was Laurence Olivier playing the Nazi hunter, and not Gregory Peck in the meatier lead role, who was nominated for Best Actor.
The story combines two genres that were popular in the 1970s: the conspiracy thriller involving escaped Nazi war criminals (The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Formula (1980), Goldengirl (1979)) and the horror and science fiction movie involving dangerous children altered by supernatural or scientific means (The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976), which also starred Gregory Peck, and The Brood (1979)). The "evil child" genre arguably started with Rosemary's Baby (1968), which was also written by Ira Levin.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
The film ends in February 1979, shortly after the death of Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). When the film was made, the real Mengele was still alive in São Paulo, Brazil. In a bizarre coincidence, the film accurately predicted the month of the real Mengele's death. He died on February 7, 1979 at the age of 67, only four months after the film was released. Mengele drowned after suffering a stroke while swimming at a coastal resort in Bertioga, Brazil. Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the real-life inspiration for Ezra Lieberman ( Laurence Olivier), continued to hunt Mengele for several years afterwards, not knowing he was dead. In 1985, German authorities located several friends of Mengele in Brazil, who led them to Mengele's grave, where he had been buried under the name "Wolfgang Gerhard." The body was exhumed and was positively identified as Mengele's by forensic pathologists. This identification was later confirmed by DNA testing in 1992.