Heaven only knows whether Jared Goff will lead the Los Angeles Rams to a historic victory in Super Bowl LIII this Sunday, but kickoff can’t get here quick enough for Hollywood legend Warren Beatty. “The phone keeps ringing,” Beatty said. “What’s been going on, well, it’s kind of ridiculous.”
The reason the phone keeps ringing? Heaven Can Wait, the 1978 celestial comedy hit that Beatty memorably produced, co-directed, co-wrote and starred in. Beatty portrays Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton, who dies before his destined time but, with some angelic assistance, returns to win the Super Bowl inhabiting the body of the team’s unflappable back-up, Tom Jarrett, who wears No. 16.
Goff is also known for playing without panic, he wears No. 16 and his first name sounds a lot like Jarrett — which may sound like skimpy stuff when it comes to cosmic coincidences, but it’s good enough to merit attention during the saturation days of pre-Super Bowl media coverage. That’s kept the phone ringing in recent days and even led to a lengthy Wall Street Journal feature that reads like a “distant replay” of Beatty’s gridiron hit.
Deadline had called Beatty back in September to persuade him to participate in a 40th anniversary feature on Heaven Can Wait that incorporated the return and resurgence of the Rams in Southern California. Beatty was gracious but hinted he wasn’t sure there was much to say about a movie that may now be remembered more for its charisma than its cinematic achievements.
A few days ago, Beatty called back to say that the Rams playoffs success had brought the matter back up in a big way. The new interest in the old topic had Beatty fretting that he had made a lapse in etiquette by granting interviews recently. “You asked first and I didn’t do it then but now, well, this stuff it’s all taken me a bit off guard…”
In a way the curious interest in a movie that dates back to the Carter Administration may be a testament to the Southern California football frustrations of the Rams. This is the 51st season the franchise has played in Southern California (1946-1994 and 2016-2018) and only one of the other 50 ended with an NFL championship. That was in 1951 when the Rams beat the Cleveland Browns. True, the team also won a championship in its first Midwest home (the Cleveland Rams won the 1945 title) and another in their second Midwest home (the St. Louis Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000), their West Coast drought is coming up on 70 years.
It may have been fantasy football, but Beatty is still the only quarterback the world has ever seen win a Super Bowl in a Los Angeles Rams uniform. (The Super Bowl games began in 1967, although the hyperbolic name came came a few years later.) This isn’t the first time Heaven Can Wait has lined up with real-world football subplots.
The movie depicted Beatty leading the Rams against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and, about a year and a half after its release, the Los Angeles Rams made their one and only Super Bowl appearance against those same Steelers. There were plenty of reasons to think life was imitating art, too. Like the film, Super Bowl XIV was played in Southern California (but at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena) and featured a handsome Rams quarterback with flowing hair (in Vince Ferragamo) who had started the year as a back-up. Eerily, the real-life Rams reached the Super Bowl following the offseason death of their team owner (Carroll Rosenbloom) which mirrored elements of a key Heaven Can Wait subplot.
The similarities ended at the scoreboard, however. The Steelers flipped the script with a 31-19 victory thanks to a fourth-quarter performance by the Steel Curtain defense that rewrote the hometown heroics of the film’s third act.
Heaven Can Wait grossed $82 million in domestic release and, after adjusting to account for inflation, those disco-era dollars translate to a modern-day haul of $315 million. In that ranking it would be No. 1 all-time among all of Hollywood’s football films. Beatty chuckled when he heard the somewhat pumped-up accolade. “Inflation adjusted? So there would be no Deflate-gate?”
The movie also piled up nine Oscar nominations, three of them for acting: Beatty for best actor, Dyan Cannon for best supporting actress and Jack Warden for best supporting actor. (The same trio had already made Shampoo. Warden became somewhat of a specialist in football fare, winning an Emmy for Brian’s Song and finishing his career with The Replacements.) Beatty was also nominated for directing (with Buck Henry), writing (with Elaine May), and producing. In the end the crowd-pleasing comedy settled for one trophy on Oscars night for art direction (an honor shared by Paul Sylbert, Edwin O’Donovan, and George Gaines)
Like its plot, Heaven Can Wait was a project that went in unexpected directions with a substitute star. The film was planned as a loose remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and, like that film, its central character was going to be a professional boxer who ends up at the Pearly Gates before his destined time. Beatty’s plan was to build the movie around heavyweight legend Muhammad Ali.
“Ali was a very good friend of mine, a close friend, and I wanted to get him on film and I thought it would have been very good,” Beatty recalled. “But Ali didn’t want to give up fighting at that point. I really wanted him to and he was, you know, he was making huge amounts of money every time he went out there. I didn’t feel good about it and I took this idea to him. He wanted to do it but the complexities of it were such that, as a friend I thought it better to just go ahead and make the movie myself. I told him, ‘Ali if you’re not going to quit I’m going to just change the movie to a football story and go out and do it myself.’ So that’s how that happened.”
Beatty had played football in high school in Virginia and had been offered college scholarships but went a different direction. “I played both ways, center and linebacker, but you know I kind of envisioned myself more as a quarterback.” He finally got the chance when the Heaven Can Wait production set up shop at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to film its in-game sequences during halftime of an NFL preseason game. Beatty had a Canadian Football League veteran on hand as a stunt double but ended up handling the passing and running duties all on his own.
“I couldn’t resist doing the plays once we started, I thought for directorial reasons it would be better to get my other guy to do some of the plays so I could get a look over the whole thing but then I did one and they went well, so I did another, and that went well and then I just stayed in and did all of them. It was fun. The fans in the stands were so confused: ‘Who are these two teams? Why are they running around and playing a game?’ “
The frenetic effort was a big switch-up for Beatty as a filmmaker and didn’t allow much room for error. Reshoots weren’t an option — not that the winded leading man was seeking any by the end.
“We had to do it fast.” Beatty said. “We only had the halftime period. There were these specific plays we had to get. The last one was a play where I run 80 yards for a touchdown and then the team picks me up on their shoulders and carries me off the field. So we did that and I remember Julie Christie yelling up to me, ‘I bet you won’t be asking to do multiple takes on that one!’ She was right. After that we went into the stands to film a scene with James Mason and me and it wasn’t easy. We just kept laughing. We weren’t supposed to be laughing. But the whole thing was just so fun we couldn’t stop laughing.”