Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey were teenagers when they made the movie. In a new legal case, the English actors, now in their 70s, claim director Franco Zeffirelli encouraged them to do nude scenes despite previous assurances that they would not have to.
Paramount has not yet publicly responded to the claim.
The two actors are seeking damages of more than $500m (£417m), based on the suffering they say they have experienced and the revenue brought in by the film since its release.
They claim Zeffirelli, who died in 2019, initially told them they would wear flesh-coloured underwear in the bedroom scene.
But on the morning of the shoot, they allege the director told them they would wear only body make-up while assuring them the camera would be positioned to not show nudity.
In the final film, Whiting’s bare buttocks and Hussey’s bare breasts were briefly shown during the scene. Zeffirelli told them they must act in the nude “or the picture would fail” and their careers would be hurt, the pair claim in the lawsuit. The actors “believed they had no choice but to act in the nude in body makeup as demanded”.
Whiting was then aged 16 and is now 72, while Hussey was 15 when the film was shot and is now 71.
The pair are suing Paramount for sexual abuse, sexual harassment and fraud.
The lawsuit accuses the Hollywood studio of sexually exploiting the two young actors and distributing nude images of adolescent children. The court filing says Whiting and Hussey have suffered emotional damage and mental anguish for decades as a result of the way they were treated.
The film was a massive success at the time and has been shown to generations of students studying the Shakespeare play since. It was nominated for four Oscars, including best director and best picture, and won two – for cinematography and costume design.
The lawsuit was filed on Friday in Santa Monica Superior Court under a California law that has temporarily suspended the statute of limitations – which means action cannot normally be taken once a certain time has elapsed – for child sex abuse.
The suspension has led to a host of new lawsuits and the revival of many others that were previously dismissed.
“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” said Tony Marinozzi, a business manager for the two actors.
“They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead so that he would not violate the trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”
Solomon Green, a lawyer for the pair, added: “Nude images of minors are unlawful and shouldn’t be exhibited.
“These were very young, naive children in the 60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them.
“All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”
In a 2018 interview with the trade publication Variety, Hussey defended the nude scene.
“Nobody my age had done that before,” she said, adding that Zeffirelli shot it tastefully. “It was needed for the film.”
In a separate interview with Fox News, also conducted in 2018, she said the scene was “taboo” in the US, but that nudity was common in European films at the time.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” she said. “And Leonard wasn’t shy at all! In the middle of shooting, I just completely forgot I didn’t have clothes on.”