It’s difficult to overestimate the legacy Warren Beatty built during his prime in 2023. But if he had his way back in 1978, his directorial debut would have been very different, starring none other than Muhammad Ali. Heaven Can Wait is an adaptation of Harry Segall’s play of the same name (which was remade in 2001 with Chris Rock as its lead), but aside from the title, many changes were made to this fantasy sports drama. Nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Warren Beatty’s rise to fame with his star power appears to have paid off, but it’s always fun to think about ‘what if,’ particularly when that ‘what if’ involves one of the greatest sports figures of all time.
Heaven Can Wait Story
Heaven Can Wait was co-helmed by Buck Henry and follows Joe Pendleton, a health-obsessed backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who is plucked to Heaven a little too soon when an eager guardian angel chooses to spare him the suffering from an oncoming car crash, not realizing that he would have actually missed the cars. Mr. Jordan and the guardian angel in question set out in search of Joe another body to inhabit in an effort to fix their wrong. Joe wants a sports body but must settle with that of a billionaire Leo Farnsworth, who was just killed by his spouse Julia (Dyan Cannon) and secretary Tony (Charles Grodin). There’s so much going on! Between Joe’s determination to lead the Rams to the Super Bowl, even in his new body and his spouse and secretary’s increasingly bizarre attempts to murder him, it’s amazing that the script remains as low-key as it does, but with the criminally underrated Elaine May on board as a co-writer, anything is possible!
Why did Muhammad Ali turn down a role in ‘Heaven Can Wait’?
To completely understand the production process of Heaven Can Wait, it is necessary to look at the changes made from the theatrical source material, which was also adapted into the 1941 movie Here Comes Mr. Jordan, which won the Academy Award for Best Story and Screenplay.
The original play and film both follow a boxer by the same name and a similar story, prompting Beatty to cast his good friend Muhammed Ali in the role. The two apparently had a close relationship and enjoyed going out to lunch to see who more people would recognize in a nice game between two icons from their respective fields. Due to his boxing duties, Ali refused the role, leading Beatty to change his main role into a football character and play him himself.