Movies often require their actors to be put in situations that may scare them. Salma Hayek was reluctant to sign up for “From Dusk Till Dawn” because of her fear of snakes. Even a gentle film like “We Bought a Zoo” made Scarlett Johansson confront her fear of birds (a fear I absolutely share and don’t understand how everyone can just go around pretending that birds are not monsters).
Claustrophobia, acrophobia, arachnophobia… there are so many things that an actor might be afraid of on set. Sometimes the filmmakers just like making their cast jump out of their skins on camera for fun, as seen on the gag reel for “Scream 4.”
No one is exempt from having a fear, not even a big screen legend who made a career playing tough guy after tough guy. Hollywood’s Humphrey Bogart, while he was on the other side of 50, got the willies shooting a scene for “The African Queen” where he had to be covered with leeches.
While most everyone else working on “The African Queen” was worried about dysentery (Bogart and director John Huston were the only two who didn’t get it, thanks to drinking alcohol instead of water), the thing that made the star of “Casablanca” most uncomfortable is now a classic movie moment.
In the film, Bogart’s gruff, alcoholic Charlie Allnut is on a journey down the Ulanga River with his missionary wife Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) to blow up a German torpedo boat during World War I. At one point, he needs to get into a particularly swampy portion of the river to pull the titular “The African Queen” boat along by rope. Once back aboard the boat, we see his entire torso covered with leeches, and Rose needs to get them off.
Bogart wanted to use rubber leeches instead of live ones, but John Huston wanted to stoke the real fear and panic inside of his actor and brought in a leech breeder.According to “Embracing Chaos: Making The African Queen,” a featurette found on the film’s Blu-ray, Humphrey Bogart ultimately got what he wanted and did not truly have to face his fear of leeches.
John Huston’s tactic of simply bringing real leeches on set gave Bogart the proper fear to channel into his performance, and the actor was covered with only rubber leeches when it came time to shoot. There is one close-up of an actual leech on a body in the movie, but it was not Bogart’s body in the shot.
Not only did Bogart avoid the leeches, but he also walked home with an Oscar in-hand for this performance. But if Bogart’s son is to be believed, perhaps the actor did end up encountering some real leeches while filming. After all, it’s not out of the ordinary to encounter at least a few blood suckers in Hollywood.