The actor/singer was touring America with The Who's Tommy when Jewison decided to check out the star onstage, but Neeley was recovering from a matinee concussion and had to sit out the show on the night the director was in the audience.

He recalls, "I was OK to come back for the evening performance but the company doctor forbid me, and that's the show that Norman Jewison came to see, as my audition - and I wasn't in it! It's a good thing he didn't cast my understudy, who was very good!

"The next day I explained to his agent what happened and asked if I could buy him lunch or dinner; and if nothing else to apologise. At the time, playing Tommy, I was trying to look as young as possible and I was very clean cut. So I called an actor friend and said, 'Can you come over and make me look like Jesus?' He did a beard and long hair and I go to meet Norman for lunch.

"The first thing he says is, 'Why are you wearing that awful beard and moustache?' I told him I wanted him to visualise me as Jesus in the role. He said, 'I don't need to see anything but your eyes'.

"Norman let me know he'd already cast all his principles in the film. He had made his decision on who he was going to use for Jesus but it hadn't been confirmed. I don't know to this day who he considered."

Neeley was so desperate to land the role he urged the director to reconsider, and offered to pay for his own screen test to persuade Jewison to cast him instead.

The star explains, "I had never been in a movie before, so I told him I would pay for the screen test and he said, 'Have you any idea how much a screen test costs?' I said, 'Sir, I don't even know what a screen test is!' But I told him I knew the role from performing it on stage... We had a very endearing conversation and he tells me to this day the fact that we got on well and talked easily was part of the reason he cast me."

Neeley, his castmates and Jewison will reunite at a special screening of the film in New York on Monday night (27Apr15).