By Jon Land

Did you know that the great Angela Lansbury wasn’t the first choice to play Jessica Fletcher? It was Jean Stapleton, who famously played Edith Bunker in All in the Family. Imagine that! I can’t picture anyone else in the role of Jessica. Angela Lansbury’s visage graces the covers of all the MURDER, SHE WROTE books and I see her whenever I picture Jessica. The two of them are so entwined as to be inseparable. Which led me to wonder what other pop culture surprises might follow those same three words, Did you know . . .

DID YOU KNOW, for example, that the original choice to play Harry Callahan in the modern cop classic Dirty Harry wasn’t Clint Eastwood; it was Frank Sinatra! Upon reading the script, though, Old Blue Eyes wanted no part of such a violent film. The studio turned to Eastwood who ordered a major rewrite by the era’s top screenwriter John Milius. And Milius’ polish added virtually all of the film’s signature lines including, “Do you feel lucky? Well do you, punk?” And a star was born.

Speaking of Frank Sinatra, DID YOU KNOW that he was also offered the role of John McClane in Die Hard. Not because the studio actually wanted him, but because they had no choice. See, Sinatra had purchased the rights to The Detective, a Roderick Thorpe novel which he produced as a film and played the hero Joe Leland. Well, as it turns out Die Hard was actually written by Thorpe under the title Nothing Lasts Forever as a sequel to The Detective. Because it also featured Joe Leland and Sinatra technically owned the rights to the character, he had to be offered the role. Sinatra, of course, declined, setting the stage for another star to be born in Bruce Willis.

But DID YOU KNOW that Willis wasn’t the first choice for John McClane? Far from it, in fact. Kurt Russell was reportedly the studio’s pick, but he passed. So did Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Burt Reynolds and Richard Gere—all stars at the time who couldn’t imagine how an action movie set entirely inside a building could possibly succeed. Well, not only did it succeed, it redefined the action film forever and established an entirely new form in the process. How many times, after all, have you heard a film described as “Die Hard in a blank?”

DID YOU KNOW that Paramount wanted no part of Al Pacino as Michael in The Godfather? Not only that, execs were so determined to fire him that director Francis Ford Coppola shot the famed restaurant scene out of sequence to prove Pacino was a star in the making. Case closed! Who was the studio’s original first choice to play Michael? In a 2004 interview with Movieline, Jack Nicholson said he turned down the role. “Back then I believed that Indians should play Indians and Italians should play Italians,” Nicholson said in the interview. “There were a lot of actors who could have played Michael, myself included, but Al Pacino was Michael Corleone. I can’t think of a better compliment to pay him.”

DID YOU KNOW Paramount wanted no part of Marlon Brando either. The first name they raised to play Vito Corleone was John Marley who was coming off Love Story which had been the #1 movie of 1970. Marley, of course, went on to play film producer Jack Woltz and became famous for finding a horse’s head in his bed.

Speaking of hit films, there are few with more tumultuous shooting timelines than Jaws. During all that downtime brought on by lousy weather and a broken mechanical shark, Steven Spielberg pondered why the shark hunter played by Robert Shaw hates sharks so much. It wasn’t in the book and neither author Peter Benchley or screenwriter Carl Gottlieb had a clue. So Spielberg called back the great John Milius (just as Clint Eastwood had for Dirty Harry) who’d already written the famed fingernails on the blackboard Quint intro. But DID YOU KNOW that when Milius couldn’t nail the scene, none other than Robert Shaw stepped forward and asked for a chance? The scene was scheduled to shoot on the Orca set the next day and Shaw promised to come in with pages. Only he showed up drunk instead, having memorized the lines. Knowing he couldn’t use the footage, Spielberg only pretended to roll the cameras as Shaw launched into the now famous Indianapolis monologue. The crew listened, utterly mesmerized, and then the next day Shaw came in sober enough to nail the scene in one take! All without ever putting the words on paper.

And, speaking of Jaws, DID YOU KNOW that to the day he died Roy Scheider claimed he ad-libbed the signature line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” Although no one else has ever definitively corroborated that, watching the scene today it does appear the line caught Robert Shaw by surprise. But plenty of his fellow actors have corroborated John Belushi’s assertion that was indeed a real bottle of Jack Daniels he chugged for a scene in Animal House.

Similarly, Matthew McConaughey became famous for the first line he ever uttered on film: “All right, all right, all right,” in Richard Linkletter’s Dazed and Confused. But DID YOU KNOW he almost never got to deliver it? Reading for his first film role ever, McConaughey killed his audition, but Linkletter told him he was too good looking to play Wooderson, the town’s perpetually adolescent Lothario. So he came in to his callback with a white t-shirt and a comb over. McConaughey got the role but his father died just before filming was scheduled to start and Linkletter hated the notion of recasting the role. So he held it open as long as he could and, low and behold, McConaughey returned to the set just in time. Linkletter was shooting the drive-in scene at the time and was so happy to see McConaughey back, he added him to the scene with instructions to ad-lib his lines, including “Love them redheads,” another of his most iconic ones.

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