Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Beverly Hills Cop was written for Sylvester Stallone.
In Warren Littlefield’s recent oral history of NBC’s string of successes in the 1990s, Will and Grace star Eric McCormack had an amusing story about auditioning for the role of Ross on Friends and seemingly just missing out on the role to David Schwimmer. “I went out for Schwimmer’s role on Friends. Years later I told [famed TV director and Will and Grace producer James] Burrows the story, and he said, “Honey, you were wasting your time. They wrote the part for Schwimmer.” As it turned out, the creators of Friends had worked with Schwimmer on an earlier TV project and they had written the role with him in mind (as a result, Schwimmer was the last actor to sign, as he and his agents knew that they wanted him for the role, giving them a great deal of leverage in negotiations). Roles in films and television series are frequently written with a specific actor in mind, although they do not always have the happy ending that the Friends creators had with Schwimmer. I have written in the past about how Burt Reynolds turned down the role in Terms of Endearment that writer/director James L. Brooks had created for the film (adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel) specifically for Reynolds, who Brooks had worked with in the past (click here to find out what film masterpiece Reynolds chose to do instead). Reynolds got to watch as Jack Nicholson won an Academy Award with the role. Reader Kyle wrote in to ask if this was the case with Beverly Hills Cop.
Is it true that the smash hit film starring Eddie Murphy was originally written for Sylvester Stallone?
Simply put, no, the lead role in Beverly Hills Cop was not, in fact, written with Sylvester Stallone in mind. In fact, when it was written, Stallone had not yet even become a major movie star! However, in the film’s complex production history, Stallone did, indeed, eventually become attached to the project as the film’s lead, and as you might imagine, the film would have been much different with Stallone as the lead instead of Murphy.
The story of the film that eventually became Beverly Hills Cop began in 1977, when Stallone’s Rocky had just recently put the young writer/actor/director on to the map. According to Michael Eisner, he had recently begun work at Paramount Pictures and his boss Barry Diller had given him a brand-new 1976 Mercedes convertible. The very first day Eisner drove the car, he was pulled over by a cop. After he received his speeding ticket, Eisner began to think about how odd it must be to be a cop in Beverly Hills, dealing with the rich and famous of the area. Eisner suggested to young Paramount executive Don Simpson that there might be a film in the idea somewhere. The late Simpson always denied Eisner’s story, though, and said that it was he, Simpson, who came up with the idea on his own (heck, I believe Simpson’s former assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg, also has claimed that he was the one who came up with the idea). Whoever came up with the initial idea, the end result saw Simpson calling in screenwriter Danilo Bach in 1977 to pitch him on an idea for a screenplay about a cop from East Los Angeles who transferred to Beverly Hills. Bach did some work on the idea but did not really have much of an angle on the project. Only a few years later would Bach come to Simpson and Paramount with a strong take on the idea (I believe it was 1981, but I can’t seem to get a precise date for when Bach made his pitch). The film was called Beverly Drive and was now about a cop from Pittsburgh named Elly Axel who comes to Beverly Hills to investigate the death of a friend. Axel suspects a seemingly respectable Beverly Hills businessman was behind his friend’s death. While in Beverly Hills, Axel is forced to work with a by-the-book lieutenant named Bogamil. As you can see, that film is roughly exactly what Beverly Hills Cop turned out to be. However, Bach’s script was more of a straight action film. Simpson had Bach tried to re-tune the script but eventually Simpson brought in other writers.
After his breakout success with 1983’s Flashdance (alongside his production partner, Jerry Bruckheimer), Simpson needed a new project. He saw the Beverly Hills film being their next big film. He brought in Daniel Petrie Jr. to re-write the script. Petrie decided to take a more humorous approach to the project, figuring that the whole “fish out of water” angle would be funny. Paramount loved his changes and the project seemed like it was really going to happen. By now, the lead character’s name was flipped to Axel Elly and he was now from Detroit (which is Bruckheimer’s hometown). The first actor to become attached to the project was Mickey Rourke, who Simpson signed to a $400,000 holding contract (which means that Rourke agreed to hold off on taking other roles for the length of the contract). Rourke wanted them to make some notable changes to the script and eventually when his holding contract ran out, he left the project (not necessarily because of the changes or lack thereof, but it also could have been an issue of him just getting tired of waiting).
Here was where Sylvester Stallone came into play. Stallone was signed to play the lead role. Stallone, though, decided to give the film a dramatic re-write and make it much more of a straight action film. When asked about it in an interview a few years back, Stallone remarked:
When I read the script for Beverly Hills Cop, I thought they’d sent it to the wrong house. Somehow, me trying to comically terrorize Beverly Hills is not the stuff that great yuk-festivals are made from. So I re-wrote the script to suit what I do best, and by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN on the beaches of Normandy. Believe it or not, the finale was me in a stolen Lamborghini playing chicken with an oncoming freight train being driven by the ultra-slimy bad guy. Needless to say, they dropkicked me and my script out of the office, and the rest is history.
One of Paramount’s primary concerns with Stallone’s changes was that he was also making it into a much bigger budget film than they had initially intended. Screenwriter Daniel Petrie recently recalled:
He was going to play the lead but he re-wrote the script and made it more of an action movie again. That had the natural effect of raising the budget to a level that was higher than Paramount wanted to spend on the picture. Paramount asked Stallone if he was willing to do my script or alternatively he could take the stuff I had written for him and all of the stuff that he had written and make another movie out of it, so long as it wasn’t about a cop who came from out of town to Beverly Hills. By that time, the movie was so different that he was able to do that and he was extremely gracious about it and took that suggestion. He used almost all of his material and incorporated it into his film Cobra (1986). Actually, Stallone had renamed our lead character Axel Cobretti in his Beverly Hills Cop script.
Stallone’s 1986 cop film, Cobra, did, indeed, have a budget that was more than 50% higher than Beverly Hills Cop ($15 million for Beverly Hills Cop and $25 million for Cobra). It also made roughly half as much money as Beverly Hills Cop at the box office. It is unclear to me exactly how much of Cobra appeared in Stallone’s script for Beverly Hills Cop. I tend to think that it might be a bit of an exaggeration to say that Stallone just took all of his ideas for Beverly Hills Cop and turned them into Cobra. I think it is more likely that he got the idea to do a cop action film from Beverly Hills Cop and then that just spring-boarded him into what he did with Cobra (along with, of course, the name of the lead character, which turned out to be Marion Cobretti).
Anyhow, with roughly a month left before filming began, Eddie Murphy was signed to play the lead role, now named Axel Foley, and the rest is film history!
The legend is…
STATUS: Technically False With a Lot of Truth Behind It
Thanks to Kyle for the suggestion! Thanks to Money Into Light for the Daniel Petrie quote, thanks to Ain’t It Cool News for the Stallone quote and thanks to Nick Alaway’s great web site 80’s Movies Rewind for some helpful information!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.