Gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016):
THE WEST WING
Welcome to the presidency of Josiah Bartlet. During the
seven season run of Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning series, we see the fictional two-
term administration take a rollercoaster ride through crises (a major
assassination attempt and an attempt to kidnap the president’s daughter),
scandal (is the president concealing something important from everyone?),
disaster (a major nuclear accident in California), numerous triumphs and many
other matters, some of global import, some, such as the president falling off a
bike in public, more trivial.
In truth though, this is not just the story of a president but of the talented team behind him. In what may prove to be career-best role, onetime Brat Packer Rob Lowe excels in the first four seasons as razor-sharp speechwriter Sam Seaborn with Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney, Richard Schiff, John Spencer (the last of whom sadly died just as the final season was coming to an end) leading a stellar cast who make up the president’s White House west wing team.
Occasionally, things may get a little too bit earnest. Is
everyone in US politics really so well-intentioned and decent as they are here?
It’s actually something of a relief when Bartlet’s vice president John Hoynes
(Tim Matheson) turns out to a scheming, malevolent toad.
Ultimately, however, for all of its high powered “walk and
talk” conversations and highly-charged content, The West Wing was just as popular
amongst those with little or no interest in current affairs at all as it was
amongst battle-hardened political junkies.
Ten years after it finished, The West Wing, often funny,
sometimes moving, has scarcely dated at all. If you’ve never seen it before,
now is the perfect time to catch up with an all-time classic.
Box out: All The
President’s Men (and Women)…
Three of Bartlet’s
best and brightest…
Josh Lyman (Bradley
Idealistic, witty and argumentative, communications deputy
Josh is devoted to Bartlet, having previously backed his opponent John Hoynes
who is now the Veep. Badly wounded in
the attempt on the President’s life.
CJ Cregg (Alison
In a career-defining role, Janney is perfect as the sharp,
sassy and on the ball press secretary CJ. And just as Josh secretly yearns for
his assistant Donna, CJ loves beardy journo, Danny.
Josiah “Jed” Bartlett
POTUS himself, the president is sort of an older wiser less
promiscuous version of JFK (a role Sheen once played memorably on TV). Jed is
ably supported by his First Lady Abby (Stockard Channing).
HOUSE OF CARDS
If The West Wing offers an optimistic view of the American
political scene, House Of Cards represents its dark underbelly. In that
respect, perhaps it is ideal viewing for the era of Hillary Clinton and Donald
For make no mistake, from a fairly early stage, it is clear
that the main character Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is a very bad man
indeed. We know because of how he speaks. We know because of the thigs he does.
And finally, we know because he tells us so himself, confiding in us his every
passing evil thought and deed.
It is this Shakespearian device which sees Underwood sharing
his thoughts with the audience – sometimes just in the form of a wry smile to
the audience (of course, always unseen by whoever Frank is talking to and
presumably screwing over at the time) – which makes us feel complicit in his
crimes. It was an appealing device when Ian Richardson (like Spacey, a
Shakespearian actor) played the equivalent role of an upper class English Tory
politician in the original version of House of Cards, 26 years ago. It works
just as well now.
We watch Underwood climbing the greasy pole rising from
party whip (being snubbed by being passed over for his promised position of Secretary
of State) rising to Vice President and beyond. We watch him lie, cheat, have
affairs and commit murder but we’re basically rooting for him. We want him to
For yes, Frank Underwood is a very bad man. But some of us
do like bad guys. The problems begin when too many of us start electing them
into positions of power.
Box out: Axis of
Three of the main
players in this game of thrones…
Frank Underwood (Kevin
US Democratic Party politician. Likes include: cooked
breakfasts, the South, exercise, sex with young female reporters, murder,
blackmail, gradually accumulating political power over a period of time,
breaking the Fourth Wall.
A million miles away from her breakthrough role as the
Princess Bride, Wright is brilliant as Frank’s wife and partner in crime, a
character every bit as ruthlessly ambitious as her husband.
Doug Stamper (Michael
Not to be confused with Thumper (the rabbit in Bambi), as
the Underwood’s chief accomplice, Stamper’s sense of loyalty is the one thing
that never seems in doubt. Or is it?
Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) is back, this time as US president in the third season of hit US TV drama House Of Cards. Scheming and manipulative, Underwood is definitely a bad sort. But which other fictional presidents, candidates and politicians both good and evil have graced our screens in the last fifty years or so? Here are some of the most memorable ones…
Senator John Iselin (James Gregory) in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
A buffoonish take on the malevolent Senator Joe McCarthy, Iselin is a drunken idiot leading an anti-communist witch hunt effectively inspired by his scheming wife (Angela Lansbury).
William Russell (Henry Fonda) in The Best Man (1964)
Gore Vidal’s screenplay essentially replays the 1960 Kennedy vs. Nixon contest. There are a few odd twists, however. Unlike the Democrat JFK and the Republican Nixon, both candidates are competing within the same party for the nomination. And here it is Cliff Robertson’s Nixon type who has the glamorous wife not Henry Fonda’s JFK.
President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) in Seven Days In May (1964)
Lyman’s liberal president is ahead of his time by about a decade in seeking détente but unfortunately provokes an attempted right wing military coup by Burt Lancaster’s General Scott in the process. Can Kirk Douglas save the day?
President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)
“You can’t fight in here: this is the War Room!” One of three characters played by Peter Sellers in the film, resembles twice defeated 1950s Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.
Unnamed President (Henry Fonda) in Fail Safe (1964)
Oops. After the US blows up a Soviet city by mistake, the US agrees to sacrifice New York to appease the Russians. Henry Fonda plays the president (Richard Dreyfuss reprised the role in the 2000 live TV version) and soon finds his decision will take on a tragic personal dimension.
Bill McKay (Robert Redford) in The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford’s candidate sacrifices so much in his campaign for the Senate that he doesn’t know what to do once he’s won. Quite a tame film by modern standards.
Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) in Taxi Driver (1976)
Bland presidential candidate who narrowly escapes assassination by Travis Bickle. This unfortunately probably partly inspired the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981.
President Richard Monckton (Jason Robards) in Washington: Behind Closed Doors (TV: 1977)
Basically it’s Richard Nixon, although Robards stops short of actually impersonating him.
President Barbara Adams (Loretta Swit) Whoops Apocalypse (1988)
The first woman president tries and fails to prevent Peter Cook’s mad British Prime Minister from starting World War III in this largely unfunny British satire.
Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) (1992)
Director/star Tim Robbins plays the country western singer turned right wing 1990 Senate candidate in this winning mockumentary. His defeated liberal opponent is played by Gore Vidal.
Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1995)
A professional presidential lookalike Dave stands in for the nasty US president temporarily. When the president has a stroke during a sex act, however, the job becomes more permanent.
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)
One of many Nineties “like Clinton but a bit better” liberal dream presidents, Shepherd is a widower leaving him free to woo lobbyist (played by Annette Bening) much to nasty Republican opponent Richard Dreyfuss’s glee.
President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)
Hurrah! Bill Pullman’s heroic US president saves the world from alien invasion.
President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)
Hurrah! Jack Nicholson’s over the top US president fails to save the world from alien invasion.
President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) Air Force One (1997)
There have been two presidents Harrison and one Ford, so why not President Harrison Ford? In a slightly bizarre premise, the president ends up machine gunning lots of terrorists who have invaded his plane while female Veep Glenn Close rules the roost on the ground. A spoof called Vatican One in which an ex-martial arts champion becomes Pope was sadly never made.
President Beck (Morgan Freeman) in Deep Impact (1998)
It may be the end of the world as we know it but President Beck feels fine.
Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998)
You remember Bill Clinton? Basically, it’s supposed to be him.
Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Warren Beatty) in Bulworth (1998)
Beatty’s Senator basically has a crisis and arranges his own assassination. After snogging Halle Berry, however, he soon regrets this decision.
President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (TV: 1999-2006)
Perhaps the most fully realised fictional US president, Bartlet is a hugely intellectual New England academic who serves two terms as president in the long running series, surviving MS, scandal, government shutdowns, assassination attempts, the kidnapping of his daughter and numerous political reversals along the way. Sheen had played JFK in a memorable mini -series nearly twenty years before and is no less brilliant in this.
President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)
Perhaps the most laidback president ever, there’s more than a hint of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski about Bridges’ Democratic incumbent in this West Wingy style drama. He even likes bowling.
President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) 24 (TV: 2001-2007)
Before there was “No Drama” Obama there was “Even Calmer” David Palmer. A black US president, Palmer’s presence on the series ended before Obama’s first presidential campaign got going.
President Mackenzie Allen (Geena Davis) in Commander In Chief (TV 2005)
Taller than Bartlet, Geena Davis is easily the best thing in this short lived drama about the first woman president. Like most fictional women presidents, Allen comes to power as a result of her predecessor’s death, rather than being elected herself.
Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) in The Ides of March (2011)
Anti-big business, anti-car, handsome and charismatic Morris seems to be the perfect presidential candidate for the Democrats in this drama. But lo and behold: campaign aide Ryan Gosling soon uncovers skeletons in his closet.
The full magnitude of the scale of shock at the news of President Kennedy‘s assassination half a century ago cannot be fully appreciated today. Perhaps only by comparison with more recent traumas such as the September 11th attacks in 2001 or Princess Diana’s death in 1997 can we today find any suitable frame of reference.
But the impact of the shooting was huge. The effects on the Kennedy family, the US and the world in general have continued to resonate throughout ensuing fifty years…
President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as his successor. Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald is himself shot dead by night club owner Jack Ruby on live TV two days later. The Warren Commission is set up to investigate the assassination.
Bobby Kennedy, the late president’s brother, resigns as Attorney General. He and President Johnson have long hated each other. Bobby is elected Senator for New York.
Ted Kennedy, already a Senator for Massachusetts since 1962, is involved in a serious plane crash. He suffers a broken back and punctured lung. Two others on board including the pilot are killed.
President Johnson passes a wealth of legislation including the Civil Rights Act. Johnson wins the 1964 presidential election handsomely with Hubert Humphrey as his running mate (both Humphrey and Johnson fought Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in 1960 and lost).
History will never know for sure whether Kennedy had he lived, would have passed as much legislation as Johnson, been re-elected in 1964 or escalated the Vietnam War to the same disastrous extent.
The Warren Commission (which includes future Republican president, Gerald Ford amongst its members) rules that Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. Over time, most Americans grow to disbelieve this verdict.
Malcolm X, black civil rights leader, is assassinated.
President Johnson dramatically escalates the Vietnam conflict.
Jack Ruby, Lee Harvey Oswald’s killer, dies in prison.
Another traumatic year for the US and the Kennedys.
Martin Luther King, black civil rights leader, is assassinated prompting widespread race riots.
President Johnson shocks the world by pulling out of the presidential race following serious setbacks in Vietnam and a strong primary challenge from the anti-war Senator Eugene McCarthy. Senator Bobby Kennedy has already entered the race by this point.
A bitter Kennedy-McCarthy primary battle ensues (McCarthy fans see Kennedy as jumping on the anti-war bandwagon). Kennedy eventually emerges triumphant at the California Primary in June. With Richard Nixon emerging as the new Republican candidate, the stage seems set for another Kennedy vs. Nixon contest as in 1960. But moments after his California victory speech, Bobby is himself shot and killed on live TV. The assassin is Sirhan Sirhan, a young man who objects to the Senator’s support for Israel (a position shared by most US politicians). Sirhan remains in jail today. Kennedy leaves behind a pregnant wife, eleven children and a Democratic Party in disarray.
At a deadlocked convention, some Democrats move to draft 36-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy as the candidate but the last Kennedy son is at this point fearful of assassination himself. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is eventually chosen as nominee but loses narrowly to JFK’s defeated 1960 opponent, Republican Richard Nixon in the November general election.
Jacqueline Kennedy horrifies many by marrying Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis.
The Apollo 11 mission fulfils JFK’s 1961 pledge to land an American on the moon and return him to Earth by the end of the decade.
That very same weekend Senator Ted Kennedy – already seen as the most likely Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 – appears to crash his car at Chappaquiddick, leading to the death of a young girl Mary Jo Kopechne. The scandal and Kennedy’s unsatisfactory explanation for his behaviour (he claimed to have “repeatedly dove” to rescue her), the suspicion that he was having an affair with her or that he may have been drink driving, casts a shadow over the rest of his career. His judgement is certainly questionable, calling his lawyer immediately after the crash before calling the emergency services. He is not jailed and is re-elected to the Senate many times. But he will never become president.
Father Joseph P. Kennedy dies aged 81 (he has been unable to speak since as stroke during his son’s presidency. He has seen two of his sons assassinated, another killed in the war, a daughter lobotomised and another killed in a plane crash.
George Wallace, pro-segregation Governor of Alabama and an old rival of the Kennedys, is shot and badly wounded by student Arthur Bremner. Bremner’s disturbed diary inspires the film Taxi Driver which itself inspires John Hinckley to shoot President Reagan in a bid to “impress” actress Jodie Foster in 1981.
Ted Kennedy threatens to run for president when last minute polls suggest he could win the nomination. But he chooses not to. Senator George McGovern gets the Democratic Party nomination instead.
Sargent Shriver, Eunice Kennedy’s husband, is picked as Senator George McGovern’s running mate after his first choice, Thomas Eagleton is forced out by revelations about his medical history.
McGovern and Shriver are defeated heavily by President Nixon who wins 49 out of 50 states.
Lyndon Johnson dies (had he ran in 1968 and ran again, his presidency would have ended just two days earlier). Unusually, as Hoover, Truman and Eisenhower all died within the last decade, there are no former US presidents alive for a period between January 1973 and August 1974.
The tenth anniversary of the JFK assassination. The US is mired in Vietnam and Watergate.
Alan J. Pakula’s film The Parallax View starring Warren Beatty focuses on assassination conspiracy theories.
President Nixon resigns over the Watergate Scandal. Gerald Ford succeeds him.
President Ford narrowly escapes two assassination attempts within the space of a fortnight. Both the assailants are women. “Squeaky” Fromme (a member of the Manson “family”) draws a gun on Ford when he attempts to shake her hand in the crowd. Sara Jane Moore fires a gun at Ford but a bystander knocked her arm causing her to miss. Both women were freed only after Ford’s death over thirty years’ later.
Aristotle Onassis dies. Although only in her forties, Jackie Onassis does not remarry again.
The film Taxi Driver featuring a fictional assassination attempt on a presidential candidate is released. As mentioned, this inspires John Hinckley Junior to shoot President Reagan in 1981.
Democrat Jimmy Carter narrowly beats President Gerald Ford for the White House.
Maria Shriver, Sargent and Eunice’s daughter meets Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is already an aspiring film actor and Republican supporter.
The William Richert film Winter Kills centres on a fictional Kennedy-esque family cursed by assassinations.
Senator Ted Kennedy mounts his one and only bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He mounts an effective challenge and delivers a memorable speech to the Democratic Convention but is beaten by President Carter who goes on to lose to Ronald Reagan in November. Kennedy is harmed by the ghosts of Chappaquiddick. In retrospect, he also seems foolish to have run in a year where he would have to unseat a sitting incumbent Democratic president (the only election in which this was the case between 1968 and 1996).
Ex-Beatle John Lennon is shot dead in New York.
President Reagan is shot and wounded by John Hinckley Junior. Hinckley is ruled not guilty as he is insane. Reagan’s press secretary Jim Brady is badly wounded in the shooting. Secretary of State Al Haig declares on TV in the hours after the shooting that after Reagan and Vice President Bush, he is in control. This is constitutionally incorrect (he was third in line after both the Vice President and the Speaker of the House) and the “I’m in charge” gaffe reassures no one on an alarming day. Reagan makes a full recovery and eventually dies in 2004, long after the end of his presidency.
This seems to break the supposed “curse” which has seen every president elected in a year ending in zero since 1840 die in office (1840: Harrison, 1860: Lincoln, 1880: Garfield, 1900, McKinley, 1920: Harding, 1940: FDR, 1960: JFK).
Martin Sheen stars as JFK in the acclaimed TV series, Kennedy.
David Kennedy, Bobby’s fourth son, dies of a drug overdose, aged 28.
Mara Shriver marries Arnold Schwarzenegger, by now a huge film star. He is Republican Governor of California from 2003 until 2011. She remains a Democrat. Their marriage ends in 2011.
Kennedy-esque Democratic contender, Gary Hart is forced out of the presidential race after a sex scandal.
Future Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Al Gore evoke Kennedy strongly in their presidential bids as does the eventual nominee Massachusetts Governor, Michael Dukakis.
Senator Dan Quayle unwisely compares himself to JFK in the vice presidential debate:
Quayle: I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.
Judy Woodruff: Senator [Bentsen]?
Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.
Bentsen wins the debate although Bush and Quayle win the election.
William Kennedy Smith, Senator Edward Kennedy’s nephew is acquitted after a high profile rape trial. Although he is acquitted, the family’s image is further tarnished by the scandal.
Oliver Stone’s hugely controversial film JFK is released. It centres less on the President himself but on conspiracy theories surrounding his death.
Democrat Governor Bill Clinton is elected to the presidency. His campaign makes great play of various superficial similarities between the candidate and JFK. Clinton’s “New Covenant” echoes Kennedy’s “New Frontier” (though proves less resonant). Clinton is also similarly youthful (46), has a slight physical resemblance to JFK and actually met the assassinated president when the 35th president visited his high school when Clinton was 16.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novella Black Water is published. It is clearly inspired by the Chappaquiddick Incident.
John Connally, the former Governor of Texas wounded in the 1963 assassination dies, aged 76. In the years since, he has defected to the Republicans and ran for president himself in 1980, being beaten for the party nomination by Ronald Reagan.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the former President, dies aged 64.
Special effects technology enables JFK to appear as a character in the film, Forrest Gump.
Patrick Kennedy, a son of Ted Kennedy, is elected to the House of Representatives.
Rose Kennedy dies aged 104. She is the mother of Jack, Bobby and Ted.
The novel Idlewild by British writer Mark Lawson imagines President Kennedy surviving into old age. Idlewild in New York was renamed JFK Airport following the 1963 assassination.
Michael Kennedy, another of Bobby’s children, dies in a skiing accident. He is 39.
The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour Hersh is published.
John F. Kennedy Junior, the only son of the assassinated president, dies in a plane crash, alongside his wife and sister-in-law. He is 39.
Thirteen Days, a film about the Cuban Missile Crisis is released. Kevin Costner stars as he did in JFK (although does not play JFK in either case). Bruce Greenwood is JFK and Steven Culp, RFK (The 13 days referred to in the title are October 14th-28th 1962).
Another JFK , Senator John (Forbes) Kerry wins the Democratic presidential nomination. He is also from Massachusetts and is the first Roman Catholic to be nominated since John F. Kennedy himself. However, he ultimately lacks the Kennedy magic and is beaten in the November election by President George W. Bush. The Bush political dynasty has thus far produced two US presidents.
The Manchurian Candidate centring on political assassinations is remade, starring Denzel Washington.
The film Bobby, directed by Emilio Estevez and based around the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination is released. Estevez is the son of Martin Sheen who played JFK in 1983.
Barack Obama is the first African American to be elected US president. Some see this as a fitting tribute to the career of Senator Ted Kennedy, who has by now been diagnosed with a fatal brain condition. Obama is also the first president born during Kennedy’s presidency and the first serving US senator to win the presidency since JFK himself in 1960.
Ted Kennedy dies, age 77. Although his career was marred by the Chappaquiddick Incident in 1969, he enjoyed a long and successful career as “the lion of the Senate”. He is the third longest continuously serving Senator in US history.
Four out of five of Joe and Rose’s remaining daughters die during this decade (Rose, Kathleen, Eunice and Patricia).
TV series The Kennedys starring Greg Kinnear as JFK and Katie Holmes as Jackie. It is less well received than the series, The Kennedys, thirty years before.
Jean Ann Kennedy, former US ambassador to Ireland is the only remaining daughter of Joe and Rose Kennedy left. She is 90.
Few greater changes can occur on a movie’s production than the leading man being replaced at the last minute.
But what if history had played out differently? Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones now, but it almost happened.
HARRISON FORD Vs TOM SELLECK
The role: Adventurer/archaeologist Indiana Jones in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The first choice: Tom Selleck, star of TV’s Magnum PI.
The replacement: Harrison Ford. Despite small parts in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, Ford was not actually a big star in 1981. Even his role as Han Solo in Star Wars had not in itself assured him widespread and enduring fame, any more than it did for his co-stars Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher.
The switch: After struggling to receive serious attention from the industry into his mid-thirties, Selleck landed the role of Magnum in 1980. Although a big success, contractually Selleck found himself unable to take the role of Indiana Jones which went to Ford instead. Annoyingly, a strike on the set of Magnum meant that Selleck could probably have performed both roles anyway.
The result: The film was a box office smash and an all time classic, winning an Oscar nomination for Best Film and spawning three sequels.
What happened to the new star?: Relatively late in life, Harrison Ford became one of the biggest movie stars of all time and for close to twenty years had a reputation for never being in a flop (although, in truth, the critically acclaimed Blade Runner and Mosquito Coast both failed commercially). In addition to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises he appeared in the highly regarded “grown-up” films Witness, Frantic, Working Girl, Regarding Henry and Presumed Innocent. Despite never winning an Oscar, he is one of the biggest Hollywood stars of all time.
And the first choice?: Selleck stayed in Magnum – a big success in its day – until it was cancelled in 1988 (the character was killed off). He appeared in one or two transparent attempts to emulate Indiana Jones such as High Road to China and Lassiter during the Eighties as well as Quigley Down Under. He played the King in Christopher Columbus The Discovery (for which he received a Razzle) but aside from Magnum is probably best known for his role alongside Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg in the comedy Three Men And A Baby and as Monica’s older lover Richard in Friends.
Conclusion: I’ve no desire to compound Tom Selleck’s misery on this subject but from what we’ve seen during his career, it’s hard to imagine he would have a) been as good as Indiana Jones as Harrison Ford was anyway or b) had the same career Ford subsequently enjoyed. Would Selleck have taken up a half-arsed role in Cowboys and Aliens? Would Selleck have married Calista Flockhart? Would Selleck’s second wife have written ET? We must assume not.
Crumbs of comfort: Tom Selleck is still a household name. And he has arguably demonstrated more of a flair for comedy than Ford has. And before we get too sympathetic: Selleck is a vocal supporter of the National Rifle Association.
The winner?: HARRISON FORD
MARTIN SHEEN Vs HARVEY KEITEL
The role: Captain Benjamin Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (1979).
The first choice: Harvey Keitel, then best known for his roles in the early Martin Scorsese films, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver.
The replacement: Martin Sheen, previously the troubled James Dean-alike Fifties hoodlum in Terence Malick’s Badlands.
The switch: Keitel was fired and replaced by Sheen early in the troubled production. Coppola felt Keitel struggled to play Willard as a “passive onlooker”.
The result: Keitel must initially felt like he’d had a narrow escape. Apocalypse Now was soon christened “Apocalypse When?” by critics as the production overran, the crew in the Philippines were hit by a bout of food poisoning, director Ford Coppola grew increasingly power-mad and co-star Marlon Brando arrived much fatter than expected and delayed production still further while he took time out to read the Joseph Conrad novella, Heart of Darkness upon which the film is loosely based. Although only in his late thirties, Sheen, then struggling with alcohol, also suffered a heart attack while filming. Despite these issues, the film was a critical and commercial success and is rivalled only by Platoon (starring Martin’s son Charlie Sheen) as the best ‘Nam film ever made.
What happened to the new star?: Despite quitting the booze and keeping busy, Sheen didn’t choose particularly great film roles during the next two decades. Indeed, the period saw him slightly eclipsed by his sons Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen. However, his role as President Josiah Bartlet in Aaron Sorkin’s long-running TV drama The West Wing put him back on the map. Now in old age he appeared recently in the new Spider Man film and generally plays small “elderly father” roles.
And the first choice? Keitel slipped into near obscurity in the Eighties before enjoying a comeback towards the end of that decade playing Judas in Scorsese’s controversial Last Temptation of Christ and securing an Oscar nod for a role in Warren Beatty gangster film, Bugsy. The Nineties were very good for Keitel with hard hitting acclaimed roles in Thelma and Louise, Jane Campion’s The Piano, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn and Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant and lighter roles (although again as a gangster/criminal type) in the likes of Sister Act. His profile has fallen in the 21st century though.
Conclusion: Hmmmm. Sheen has starred in two classic films Badlands and Apocalypse Now and one great series The West Wing. Harvey Keitel has starred in two classic films, Mean Streets and Reservoir Dog and had notable support roles in three others Taxi Driver, Thelma and Louise and Pulp Fiction. Sheen is perhaps the slightly more famous of the two men, thanks partly to his sons. But oddly, as huge a deal as Apocalypse Now must have seemed at the time, in the long run, neither actor has been obviously more successful than the other. Both have kept busy, done some great stuff and both have done hell of a lot of stuff you’ll never see.
The winner?: A DRAW
MICHAEL J. FOX Vs ERIC STOLTZ
The role: Marty McFly in science-fiction rom com Back To The Future (1985).
The first choice: Eric Stoltz, then best known for his role alongside Cher in Mask (no, not the Jim Carrey one).
The replacement: Michael J. Fox then the star of US sitcom Family Ties. The ‘J’ incidentally, doesn’t stand for anything. Michael Fox’s middle name is Andrew but he reasoned Michael A Fox might sound silly or even a bit conceited.
The switch: Brutal. Filming had commenced when Eric Stoltz was fired for playing the role too much like it was a drama rather than as a comedy. Fox – unlike Tom Selleck on Magnum – was lucky to be able to work around his Family Ties schedule although endured a punishing timetable with many scenes being filmed early in the morning. Stoltz – who was physically similar to Fox although eight inches taller – remains in some shots used in the finished film.
The result: The film was a box office smash and is still much loved. There were two sequels, both big hits despite being slightly less good.
What happened to the new star?: Fox became a huge star overnight as the film coincided with the release of Teen Wolf, a film disliked by Fox personally but which nonetheless did well. Fox appeared in the BTTF sequels and the weighty Casualties of War but his star waned in the early Nineties, probably in part due to Fox struggling to come to terms with the private news of the diagnosis of his Parkinson’s disease in 1991. He enjoyed an impressive comeback in 1996 with his role as a youthful looking political adviser (based on Bill Clinton’s own George Stephanopoulos) which led in turn to a triumphant return to sitcom in Spin City. He announced his illness in 1998 and has become a vocal spokesman for the disease since, as well as voicing Stuart Little. He’s also enjoyed recurring 21st century TV roles in Boston Legal, The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And the first choice?: Poor Eric Stoltz must wish he could time travel and change history himself sometimes. But he did get to stab Uma Thurman through the heart in Pulp Fiction and directs Glee sometimes.
Conclusion: Although not cursed by the ill-health of Michael J. Fox, fame wise, sadly Stoltz isn’t even really a household name.
The winner? MICHAEL J FOX
JOHN TRAVOLTA Vs RICHARD GERE
The role: Several: the leads in Days of Heaven, An Officer and A Gentleman and American Gigolo
The first choice: John Travolta, already a huge star after Saturday Night Fever and Grease.
The replacement: Richard Gere, who ironically had starred in the original London stage production of Grease in 1973.
The switch: Travolta foolishly turned down all these roles. Gere took them all instead.
The result: All the films did well. Days of Heaven was more of a critical than commercial hit.
What happened to the new star?: Richard Gere became a star. He is still probably as much admired for these early roles as anything he has done since although enjoyed another massive hit with Pretty Woman in 1990. His career has had a few ups and downs over the years and may have been harmed slightly by his pro-Tibetan stance but he has never vanished from view. He returned to musicals for the Oscar winning Chicago in 2003, a role also turned down by John Travolta.
And the first choice?: Travolta’s career endured a dramatic fifteen year slump relieved only by the success of Amy Heckerling’s Look Who’s Talking in 1990. By 1994, however, with the Seventies becoming fashionable, turns in Pulp Fiction and Get Shorty suddenly made him very cool again and he returned to stardom. Occasionally, he’s made bad career choices since (the Scientology inspired Phenomenon and Battlefield Earth) and he’s not exactly “cool” anymore. However, he remains a star.
Conclusion: Gere to some extent owes his career to John Travolta’s early poor career choices. Yet as with Keitel and Sheen, the decades have evened the score somewhat.